Why Is Tashkent Reluctant to Reconnect with Ethnic Uzbeks Abroad?

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Why Is Tashkent Reluctant to Reconnect with Ethnic Uzbeks Abroad?

Although there are millions of ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring countries, the Uzbek government does not seriously entertain the idea of building bonds with them. Why?

Why Is Tashkent Reluctant to Reconnect with Ethnic Uzbeks Abroad?
Credit: AXP Photography on Unsplash

Apart from 29 million Uzbeks living in Uzbekistan, there are almost 3 million ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and another 2 to 4 million ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan, making Uzbeks the most populous ethnic group in Central Asia.

Yet, Tashkent has never actively pursued kin-state politics.

Political scientist Dr. Myra A. Waterbury defines a kin-state as “a state that represents the majority nation of a transborder ethnic group whose members reside in neighboring territories.” Kin-minorities or national/external-minorities are groups that share a culture with the majority group that a kin-state represents. 

Kin-states usually try to establish close ties with their ethnic minorities abroad and this activism tends to target two groups. “Minorities by will” are made up of ethnic diasporas formed through migration and usually live far from their homeland, for example, Armenians or Turks in Germany. “Minorities by force” refers to transborder ethnic communities.

Sociologist Rogers Brubaker calls these minorities “accidental diaspora” as they accidentally became minority groups following the disintegration of the larger political entities in which they lived: the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires, for example, and later the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Those groups used to be part of “multinational political structures” and suddenly found themselves separated from the groups they feel they share a common culture and identity with. 

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Sources for the number of Uzbeks in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The dislocation and mass migration of populations in Central Asia and the Caucasus can be observed in two waves. The first wave occurred during the early period of Soviet occupation as people fled to neighboring countries such as Iran, China, Afghanistan, and Turkey. The majority of ethnic Uzbeks who now live in northern Afghanistan settled there in the 1920s and 1930s due to Central Asia’s “Basmachi” nationalist movement and the Soviet policies of collectivization.

The second wave came after the Soviet occupation, as the Bolsheviks implemented what historian Touraj Atabaki calls “engineered partition.” Before the so-called natsional’noe razmezhevanie (national delimitation) – the political and social re-organization of Soviet Central Asia which took place roughly in the 1924-1936 period – the Soviets categorized the Central Asian population into six nations: Kazakhs, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Karakalpaks. Under the engineered partition, Moscow intended to align these ethnic nationalities with newly formed “national-territorial entities.” This was intended not only to help Moscow to exert more effective command over the region, but also to weaken “potential nationalist resistance in the region by deviating from ethnic boundaries and creating substantial minority populations.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian republics were suddenly “catapulted” into independence. The ethnic groups of Central Asia, Uzbeks included, who previously enjoyed free movement around the Soviet Union found themselves scattered across international borders and formed different ethnic minority groups in neighboring states in which they were not part of the titular nations. By 1989, Kyrgyzstan had over 550,000 ethnic Uzbeks and most of them were living in the territory close to what became the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan had over 300,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in their territories each, while in Tajikistan, the number of ethnic Uzbeks was highest in the region after Uzbekistan itself – 1,197,000. 

As Uzbekistan developed its own nation-building process after gaining independence, the national identity was formed not based on ethnicity, but on territory, which eventually led to the cutting off of ties with co-ethnics across borders. The notion of O’zbekchilik (Uzbekness) pushed forward by the first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, meant being born in the territory of Uzbekistan and identifying with the territorial element of that belonging. Karimov’s politics did not care about ethnic Uzbeks who were born during the Soviet period and were living in neighboring countries, or any ethnic Uzbek not born in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic or later in independent Uzbekistan. Although O’zbekchilik welcomed anyone who embraced Uzbek culture, language, and traditions, in practice, it was only reserved for citizens of Uzbekistan.

Tashkent also thoroughly avoidedany request for direct relationship with the organizations of Uzbeks abroad,” as Matteo Fumagalli wrote in a 2007 article for Central Asian Survey. 

Uzbek minorities abroad called for help several times. The most significant call came from Kyrgyzstan during the Osh inter-ethnic conflict which claimed the lives of 500 people in 2010. Tashkent briefly hosted ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan and then sent them back. As recently as in 2017, “Begayim,” a non-governmental literary fund of ethnic Uzbek youth in Kyrgyzstan, sent an open letter to Uzbekistan’s current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, reminding him of their ethnic ties. A year later, ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan also appealed to Tashkent. Tashkent ignored them. 

Fabrizio Vielmini noted in a 2021 article that because Uzbeks were alienated from the majority group, the Kyrgyz people, “a number of Kyrgystani Uzbeks radicalized adhering to extremist Islamism thus becoming target of recruitment for insurgencies abroad.” At the same time, both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, education in the Uzbek language is less and less available. Uzbeks in Tajikistan reportedly change the nationality of their newborns to “Tajik” and send their kids to Tajik language schools to provide better opportunities for them in the future.

Representation of Uzbek communities in Tajikistan is not great; ethnic Uzbeks held “only 7.6 percent of jobs in the civil service, far below their representation in the population” in 2014. In Turkmenistan, after the attempted assassination of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov, “ethnic Uzbeks were removed from high-ranking government positions, while all Uzbek-language schools were closed.”  

“New Uzbekistan” under Mirziyoyev has made efforts to connect with the Uzbek diaspora, but with a heavy focus on those who have been successful in pursuing better career and study opportunities abroad.

Abstaining from claiming ethnic kin abroad is not unique to Uzbekistan. Other Central Asian countries also refrain from intervening in each other’s business in this regard. One reason for this may be that Central Asian republics always view problems of other countries as contagious and fear spillover into their own territory. While conflicts may arise among Central Asian states, they usually revolve around border issues rather than kin-minority concerns.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan did launch programs to bring their kin-minorities back. The Kazakh government tried to brand its Oralman program as historic and fulfilling a moral obligation to Kazakhs who had left their motherland due to tumultuous events such as the famine in the early 1930s. At least a million ethnic Kazakhs from China, Uzbekistan and other places moved to Kazakhstan under the program. But the program’s aim was essentially to “gerrymander the demography” of the country. Kazakhstan was the only Central Asian country formerly occupied by the Soviet Union that had a minority as its titular nation. Kazakhs made up around 40 percent of the overall population in the early 1990s. It also addressed another problem – Kazakhstan has a large landmass and a relatively small population.

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has never experienced the loss of territory or population because of war, revolution, or famine. The borders of the Uzbek SSR were not drawn by the Uzbek government. It was Moscow who left ethnic Uzbeks on the other side of the border, so Tashkent feels no moral or historic responsibility toward transborder co-ethnics.

At the same time, unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan also has no demographic problem to solve. Uzbekistan is the most populous among the five Central Asian countries with 36 million people as of 2023. The titular nation, the Uzbeks, also make up the majority in the country. As per 2021 data, 84.4 percent (29 million) of Uzbekistan’s population are ethnically Uzbek. In the early 1990s and into the 2000s, in Samarkand and Bukhara regions where there are many Tajiks and in other ethnically Tajik cities, Tajiks reportedly chose to be identified as Uzbek in their passports. There is not much of a gender imbalance in Uzbekistan either – 18.1 million males versus 17.8 million females. These are some reasons why Tashkent does not look to bring Uzbeks abroad back to the country.

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Integration could also be an issue. If Uzbekistan, for example, allowed ethnic Uzbeks from Afghanistan to resettle in Uzbekistan, integration may be a challenge. Uzbeks in Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan are exposed to different ideologies; and while language patterns may be changing, many Uzbeks in Uzbekistan speak Russian and the same cannot necessarily be said of Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Similarly, ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, living in a country once called the “island of democracy,” are exposed to a more open society than the general public in Uzbekistan. Even Oralmans at times find it hard to integrate with locals in Kazakhstan.

When Uzbekistan shows any interest in ethnic Uzbeks abroad, it is often for pragmatic reasons. For example, Karimov had interest in the Uzbek community in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Taliban under General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s command. During the early and mid-1990s, Karimov provided some support to Dostum, an Uzbek-Afghan warlord and politician. Dostum’s soldiers could even withdraw into Uzbekistan and “recuperate” after fights with the Taliban. Dostum’s family also lived in Tashkent by the early 2000s. Tashkent extended its support by providing free electricity to Mazar-e-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan, and one that was under the control of Dostum until the late 1990s. Reportedly, there was more aid offered by Uzbekistan than just electricity. “Tashkent saw Dostum as the guardian of the gates to Uzbekistan,” Bruce Pannier wrote in a 2016 article, but not because he was an ethnic Uzbek. Tashkent supported Dostum because he was a buffer between Uzbekistan and the Taliban. Tashkent’s current attempts to build an amicable relationship with the Taliban is also not because it is worried about 2 to 4 million ethnic Uzbeks there. Tashkent just wants a stable border.

Another reason for Uzbekistan not to get involved in kin-minority support and especially not to encourage ethnic-Uzbeks to resettle in Uzbekistan or to extend citizenship or residency to them, like Hungary has done for transborder Magyars, has to do with the state economy. Uzbekistan already has problems creating enough jobs inside Uzbekistan for its current citizens. Millions of Uzbekistanis migrate abroad for work, to Russia, Kazakhstan, South Korea and other parts of the world. Of course, Tashkent would not want another couple of million ethnic Uzbeks moving into the country and burdening the government even further. Currently, the official unemployment rate is at 8.9 percent. Unofficially, it is reported to be higher. The national poverty rate is at 14 percent while in some regions it is as high as 19 percent. The necessary integration programs also would cost. Tashkent simply does not need additional expenses.

As mentioned above, Mirziyoyev has been trying to connect with the successful diaspora in the West, because those individuals bring political and economic benefits. Ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring Central Asian countries cannot offer much. They are already marginalized in their own countries and far less educated and globally connected than the diaspora Tashkent is trying to reach out to.

One of the strongest imperatives, however, for Tashkent to avoid developing and employing kin-minority policies is that it might compromise Uzbekistan’s relationship with its neighbors. Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country and having good relationships with its neighbors is essential, especially for trade. It is difficult and expensive to trade via air-routes alone. Although Uzbekistan is self-sufficient in the production of goods and services, having access to the wider world presents more opportunities and a greater variety of goods and services. Playing a nationality card and offering help and support to Uzbek communities in neighboring countries might alter Uzbekistan’s amicable relationship with those states.

Central Asian countries are already “nervous” about Uzbeks and Uzbekistan. Uzbeks are the most populous ethnicity in the region and Uzbekistan commands the biggest military power in the region. Tashkent cannot commence large scale support programs for ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring countries without triggering security concerns in those adjacent states.

Given the above reasons, there’s no reason to assume the present government in Uzbekistan will actively seek to build a stronger relationship with transborder ethnic Uzbeks solely because of their shared culture and ethnicity any time soon. If a more nationalistic government came into power in the future, Tashkent’s position toward its kin-ethnics might change. But it is important to keep in mind that when regimes use nationalistic rhetoric to gain support, their promises are not always translated into consistent state policy. For example, neighboring Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon resorts to nationalistic rhetoric quite often and he is even called the “savior of all Tajiks in the world.” He talks a lot about the suffering of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan, but in reality, he has allowed very few Tajiks from Afghanistan to permanently move to Tajikistan.

Another incentive could be a popular demand from within Uzbekistan. If people in the country start advocating for moral and material support for ethnic Uzbeks abroad, the government may change course. Uzbeks in Uzbekistan are in touch with ethnic Uzbeks abroad on a family level if they have relatives in neighboring countries or on business or friendship level. This is especially true in the Ferghana Valley. But that’s it. Apart from familial ties, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan may become sympathetic toward ethnic Uzbeks in times of tumult, such as ethnic violence targeting such communities. In 2010, during the ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, there was overwhelming support from Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, whether they had a relative in Kyrgyzstan or not. Military commanders were reportedly even ready to go to Osh and protect ethnic Uzbeks. But Tashkent did not give such an order. Instances of public empathy remain unpredictable, and not all cases trigger such a strong response. There is not widespread sympathy toward the plight of ethnic Uzbeks residing along the southern border in Afghanistan, for example, at least not that we can openly observe.

This article is based on the author’s recent master’s thesis, available here. The author thanks Bruce Pannier, Dr. Edward Lemon, Temur Umarov, and other Central Asia studies scholars and journalists who participated in the research but asked to remain anonymous.