San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Political and Economic History of Uzbekistan

Synopsis of
Early History
The Coming
of Islam
The Coming of
the Turks
The Coming of
the Mongols
The Coming
of the Uzbeks
The Coming of
the Russians
The Era of
The Economy


Uzbekistan, the land of the Uzbeks, is a very significant but little known country. Its population of about 27 million makes it comparable to Iraq. It is also comparable to Iraq in terms of energy resources, but it is natural gas rather than petroleum that is Uzbekistan's energy resource. Uzbekistan is a major producer and exporter of cotton. Karakul wool is also an important product of Uzbekistan. It has deposits of the industrial metals zinc and copper, but also has substantial deposits of rare metals such as gold, tungsten and molybdenum.

Uzbekistan lies between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. In ancient times the Amu Darya was known as the Oxus River. About eighty percent of the land is sun-baked lowlands, particularly in its western portions. There are however salt marshes and sink holes in these lowlands.

The climate is dry and hot but in the winter time the temperature may fall to about 10° Fahrenheit. The waters of the rivers of Uzbekistan disappear into irrigated fields of such crops as cotton.

Synopsis of Uzbekistan History

In ancient times the river valleys in what is now Uzbekistan had settlements of people of Iranian cultural background such as the Sogdians. In the thirteenth century the Mongol leader Temudjin, Genghis Khan, put together an alliance of Mongol and Turkic tribes in north central Asia, known as the Golden Horde, which embarked upon a conquest of much of Asia. One of the leaders of that alliance was Uzbek, a man who accepted Sunni Islam as his religion. The Moslem branch of the Golden Horde became known as the Uzbeks. In the 15th century when the Golden Horde was no longer conquering new territory the Uzbeks were in control of an area between the lower Volga River and the Aral Sea. Subsequently they moved south into what is now Kazakhstan and finally into the territory now known as Uzbekistan where there was already a population of Iranian language and culture. The target was the Iranian cities of Buxoro (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand). The indigenous population was assimilated by the Uzbeks. The population was generally pastoral, raising sheep. The Uzbek language is Turkic with a strong Iranian influence.

Early History

In the first millennium before the Common Era nomads of Iranian language and culture migrated into the Central Asian region. After the nomads came agriculturalists to make use of the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya for irrigation. Thus were produced significant river valley civilizations. By about 500 BCE there were three states that dominated the region. Bactria included the city of Herat in what is now northwest Afghanistan. It extended into what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There was a Greek component to the Bactrian state as a result of Greek settlers coming from the western Persian Empire. Soghdia was another state of people speaking an Iranian language. Soghdia was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Tokharia was the third state in Central Asia of speakers of a language related to the Iranian family of languages.

The early Iranian settlers established the cities of Bukhoro (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand). When trade developed between the Chinese Empire in the east and the Roman Empire in the west these cities were strategically situated on the route that later became known as the Silk Road. As a result they became extremely prosperous. Their prosperity then led to the flowering there of art and culture.

The prophet (religious leader) Zoroaster lived in the region of what is now Uzbekistan. The religion he established became the dominant religion of Persia for about a millennium, until it was replaced with Islam.

The Coming of Islam

The armies of Islam swept like a fire over the Middle East and North Africa. The fearless warriors of Islam led by brilliant generals conquered Persia by the middle of the seventh century; only decades after the Prophet Mohammad promulgated the religion in Mecca and Medina. The disorganized states of Central Asia were no match for the onslaught. The armies of Islam met no force comparable to them until they confronted the army of the Chinese Empire in 750 at Talas River. Even in this case they were victorious, but the China could not be overrun.

The cities of Bukhoro and Samarqand were great prizes both for their commerce on the Silk Road and as intellectual centers. The Arab conquest only added to their prominences in commerce, science and the arts. Some of the most notable intellects of Islam came from the region. The Arabs called the region Mawarannahr. Mawarannahr became influential enough to contribute the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled the Islamic world for five centuries thereafter.

The Coming of the Turks

The Turks who in recent centuries have been identified with Anatolia were a nomadic people populating North Central Asia from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia. It was Turkish tribes that invaded the Roman Empires, east and west, in the fifth century who were known as the Huns. Their conquest was only stopped in France. The Huns power soon disappeared but there were other Turkish tribes that were on the move in Central Asia.

One Turkish tribe or confederation, the Ghazna, established a state that extended south of the Amu Darya into what is now Afghanistan, Iran and north India. Its reign was ended by other Turkish tribes bent upon conquests. These included the Qarakhans and the Seljuks. One Turkish leader from Khorezm, the region south of the Aral Sea, conquered Iran and the region of Mawarannahr. Prosperity prevailed under his and his son's regime under the coming of the Mongols.

The Coming of the Mongols

The tribes of the Mongols lived nomadically in regions also populated by Turkish tribes. The Turkic and Mongol languages belong to the same family. The Mongol tribes populated the eastern territories and the Turkic tribes the western territories. The Mongol tribes were not of much significance until the man Temudjin arose. Temudjin was able to create a feudal confederation where only tribal loyalties existed before. As a result of his military and political brilliance he was able to conquer more territory than any other leader in history. Temudjin is usual known by his title of Great Lord (Genghis Khan). His army was known as the Golden Horde.

Temudjin was able to bring Turkish tribes into his Golden Horde, so much so that perhaps half of his army was Turkish rather than Mongol. The leadership was Mongol and they established the rule that leader of any Central Asian state had to be a lineal descendant of Temudjin. Temudjin fathered so many offspring than recent genetic studies have found that several percent of the male population of Asia are his descendants.

The Mongol conquest of Central Asia resulted in severe damage to the irrigation systems that took several generations to repair. But the conquest added to the share of the population of Central Asia that was Turkish.

Timur (Tamerlane)

After Temudjin's death in 1227 his empire was divided among his sons. Central Asia went to his second son Chaghatai and his dynasty lasted for several generations. But by the 1380's Mongol control was failing and various tribal leaders were vying for control of the khanate. The one that emerge as dominant was Timur. He is also known by the name Tamerlane, which means Timur the Lame. This was a term of derision given to him by his Persian enemies. Soviet archaeologists examining his skeleton in his tomb confirmed that Timur had a defective right leg and right arm but was tall for a Tatar and would have had a powerful physique.

Timur was born in 1336 near Samarqand (Samarkand) into a Turkicized tribe of Mongols who were Moslems. Timur grew when the political structure of the khanates of Central Asia was collapsing. He allied and deserted a number of alliances before emerging as the dominant leader about 1370. He was a political and military genius on par with Temudjin, the Genghis Khan. After ten years he had defeated his enemies in Central Asia and began his conquest of Iran. In 1383 he captured the city of Herat in what is now northwest Afghanistan but was then an integral part of the Persian Empire. By 1385 Timur had captured all of the eastern Persian Empire. During the next nine years, from 1386 to 1394, he captured what are now Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq, and Armenia. The leader of the Mongol khanate of Crimea, Tokhtamysh, who Timur has helped after Crimea had been invaded by the Russian, now was the leader of the Golden Horde. Tokhamysh now betrayed Timur and invaded his territories. In 1391 Timur's forces drove those of Tokhmatysh into the Russian steppes where Timur was victorious. In this campaign Timur invaded and captured Moscow. His forces occupied Moscow for about a year. His forces defeated the Lithuanians at a time when Lithuania controlled an empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. In 1398 he invaded Delhi in India on the justification that the Moslem ruler there was being too lenient with his Hindu subjects.

In 1399 Timur marched west to invade Syria to punish the rulers there for having taken some of his territories. By 1401 he had captured and sacked Aleppo and Damascus. In 1401 Timur captured Baghdad and massacred twenty thousand of its inhabitants, just as he had done in the other cities his forces captured. After returning to the vicinity of Samarqand (Samarkand), a city he embellished, he was preparing for an invasion of China. He however fell ill and died in 1405.

Timur's grandson Ulugh Beg became an astronomer and the tables he drew up were used as far away as England. Another descendent, Babur, gained control of Kabul and then went on to capture Delhi and establish what came to be known as the Moghul Empire.

Despite the conquests of Timur the economy of Samarqand (Samarkand) and its region was suffering a decline because the western European powers were gaining access to Far Eastern market by sea and trade along the Silk Road was declining.

The Coming of the Uzbeks

As mentioned previously, Uzbek was a subleader of the Golden Horde who was Moslem. All Moslems in the Golden Horde were then called Uzbek. The Uzbeks were simply Moslem Turkish tribes. They occupied various sites in Central Asia, such as what is now Kazakhstan, before around 1500 invading the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and the territory containing the fabled cities of Samarqand and Bukhoro.

A number of khanates were formed but ultimately there emerged just three Uzbek khanates. (Khan was the Mongol word for lord, as in Genghis Khan (Great Lord).) They were: 1. The Khanate of Khiva, south of the Aral Sea, 2. The Khanate of Bukhoro (Bukhara), southeast of the Aral Sea, 3. The Khanate of Kokand, east of the Aral Sea. These khanates were sometimes at war with each other and sometimes allied against outside invaders.

In addition to the wars among the Uzbek khanates there were wars with the Persian Empire and with invaders such as the Kazakhs and Mongols. And then there came new invaders, the Russians.

The Coming of the Russians

Russian merchants came into the region of the Kazakhs and Uzbeks because of the commercial opportunities. The Russian military became involved in the region because Russians in the border area were being captured and sold as slaves in the markets of Bukhoro. These captives included sailors from ships wrecked on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.

Russian military expeditions captured cities of Tashent in 1865, Bukhoro in 1865 and Samarqand in 1868. Russia established protectorate status for the Khanate of Bukhoro in 1868 and the Khanate of Khiva in 1873. The Uzbek Khanate of Kokand came under the control of the Russian Empire in 1876. The other two Uzbek khanates maintained their nominal independence as protectorates of the Russian Empire until about 1920.

The Russian government increased cotton production in the region. It wanted Russia to have a safe source of cotton. During the American Civil War it lost its supply of cotton from the southern United States and did not want to experience that devastating disruption of its economy again.

In 1924 under the control of the Soviet Union the area of Uzbekistan was deemed the Uzbek Soviet Social Republic. It continued under that designation until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan became an independent republic.

Panturkism, Jadidism and the Basmachis

The sons of wealthy merchants in the cities of Central Asia sought higher education after their training in their local madrasas (Islamic religious schools). Some went to universities in Istanbul but most went to universities in Russia. They were seeking to learn from Russia and modernizing Turkey the knowledge they needed to promote modernization and independence in the native lands. They became known as Jadidists.

The defeat of the Russian Empire in 1905 by the new Asian power of Japan raised hopes that Central Asia might someday gain its independence. A revolution in Russia after the defeat further raised hopes of change. But soon the Czar re-established authoritarianism.

The Russian Empire needed conscripts to fight in World War I. Initially the young men of the Central Asian territories were exempt from this conscription, but in 1916 their exemption was revoked. This led to riots in the cities of Central Asia.

When the Russians revolted in Petrograd and Moscow in the spring of 1917 their counterparts in Tashkent also revolted and set up a new government but one that excluded Moslems. Local leaders including Jadidists attempted to set up independent governments in Quqon in the Ferghana Valley but they were destroyed by the Russian authorities. This led to a guerilla war against the Bolsheviks by some Jadidists and other nationalists that lasted for more than ten years. These revolutionaries were called by the derogatory term Basmachis by the Russians in the region. The Basmachi revolt was finally crushed by Bolshevik military and the siren song of socialism.

Most of the Jadidists joined with the Bolsheviks and their programs for modernization such as literacy campaigns, land reform and the emancipation of women. In return Lenin and the other Bolsheviks set various People's Republics in the region and made some of the Jadidists the officials in those organizations. These official positions did not necessarily carry any real power. They were, in fact, quite vulnerable to the dictates of Moscow.

The Era of Stalinism

By the late 1930's Joseph Stalin had the entire group of Uzbeks who were leaders in the Communist Party and the government of the Uzbek Republic arrested and executed. Stalin did this with other ethnic minority groups in the Communist Party. Furthermore he moved entire populations about within the Soviet Union. He encouraged ethnic Russians to move into the republics of the Soviet Union. Ethnic groups found they were becoming a minority in their traditional homelands.

Ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks had found that revolution wasn't feasible. They also found that adherence to the Communist Party also was no guarantee of survival. Some political figures tried a more subtle approach.

The Uzbek Sharaf Rashidov was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan from 1959 to 1982. Rashidov appointed his relatives and close associates to high positions in the government and party. In this way he was able to assure himself of greater loyalty to himself than to the Party. He then proceeded to bribe high officials in the government and Party in Moscow to allow him to ignore the central government's demands such as for higher production of cotton.

When Rashidov died in 1982 his system unraveled. Investigators were brought in from Moscow to uncover the corruption in Uzbekistan. Rashidov was dead but the investigation led to the indictment of Leonid Breshnev's son-in-law.

At the time that the purges of the government and Party in Uzbekistan for corruption were being carried out there were serious outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence, such as between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in the Ferghana Valley. Moscow reacted to these by reducing the purges and appointing Islam Karimov as first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. Karimov was an Uzbek but not a member of Rashidov's organization and thus not an element of the corruption.

Islam Karimov


When Mikhail Gorbachev allowed more political freedom in the Soviet Union there developed a movement in Uzbekistan of political dissent called Birlik (Unity). Birlik called for diversification away from the cotton monoculture. There was sympathy for its program in the city but in the countryside the people still believed in communism.

While the Uzbekian Communist Party leadership wanted increased autonomy they did not necessarily want formal independence. Formal independence would mean the end of the subsidies they received from Russia. When the Communist Party hardliners attempted a coup d'état in August of 1991 the Uzbekistan the Party was initially hesitant in opposing it but on August 31, 1991 the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan declared Uzbekistan an independent country.

This move created a great deal of additional responsibility for the leadership, such as dealing with the multitude of foreign countries. There were opportunities such as foreign investment in Uzbekistan but dangers that something the government might do would alienate this foreign investment.


The estimated population of Uzbekistan as July 2011 was 28.1 million. The rough age and sex distribution was as follows.

The Population of Uzbekistan
by Age Category and Sex

The median age of the population of Uzbekistan is 25.7 years. For males it is 25.2 years and females 26.3 years. The life expectancy at birth is 69.48 years for males and 75.71 for females.

The birth rate is 17.43 births per thousand females and the infant mortality rate is 21.92 per thousand live births. The average number of lifetime births per woman is 1.89, notably low. The overall death rate is 5.29 deaths per thousand population.

The Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic distribution of the Uzbekistan Population

The Ethnic Distribution
of the Uzbekistan
Population (1996)

The Religious Distribution
of the Uzbekistan
Population (1996)
Eastern Orthodox9

The Distribution
of the Uzbekistan
Population by Principal
Language (1996)


There is within Uzbekistan in the west, an ethnic group called the Karakalpaks (literally "Black Hats"). Stalin deemed that they should have their own territory but that it exists as an autonomous unit of Uzbekistan. Karakalpak is primarily desert. The Karakalpaks constitute only 2.5 percent of the population of Uzbekistan and are minority even in Karakalpakstan.

As mentioned previously the Communist Party of the Soviet Union made Islam Karimov General Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, effectively the local rulerof of the Uzbekistan state within the Soviet Union in 1989. In the Soviet system there were two parallel systems of governance, the official government and the Communist Party. The real power was in the hands of the Communist Party. Until just before independence the official government was just a figure head. With independence the power transferred from the Communist Party to the official government. In December of 1991 he became the President of Uzbekistan through an election of dubious validity. He assumed office in March of 1992. Karimov thus held power in both systems of governance.

Karimov initially allowed some token political opposition but soon asserted absolute authority. In 1995 Karimov extended his presidency through a referendum of doubtful validity and continues in office to this day.

The Aral Sea and
Other Environmental Problems

The Aral Sea, the Sea of Islands, was once the fourth largest inland sea. In the 1960's the planning authorities in the Soviet Union effectively decided to trade the Aral Sea for cotton production. The Aral Sea lies in an arid area with a high rate of evaporation. The average annual precipitation of the area is only about four inches of water, far less than the rate of evaporation. The planners diverted the water of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya Rivers to irrigate cotton fields. The waters from those rivers balanced the net evaporation from the Aral Sea. By the 1980's the rivers had virtually dried up before reaching the Sea. Consequently the Sea lost 40 feet of its surface water reducing its total volume by half. This increased the concentration of salt making it unsuitable for drinking and killing off the fish. Winds picked up the dust and salt crystal making the air unhealthy for residents of the area, particulary in the area around the edge of the Sea. Cities that were once ports on the Sea became ghost towns.

The government of Uzbekistan in recent years has started to try to resurrect the Sea by cutting back the irrigation from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers.

The Economy

Uzbekistan is blessed with a warm climate and long growing season. There is also water for irrigation. This made Uzbekistan ideal for growing cotton. Agriculture in the 1990's accounted for about 40 percent of Uzbekistan output and cotton accounted for 40 percent of that output. Uzbekistan accounted for 61 percent of the total cotton production of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan during the 1990's was the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world and the third largest exporter of cotton.

Under the Soviet system most of the land was in collective and state farms and therefore it was easy for economic planners in Moscow to require Uzbekistan to provide as much cotton as possible to the Soviet economy. In 1990 the average farm had 24 thousand acres of land and a workforce of more than 1100. Under the Soviet system the members of the collective farms were allowed plots of up to about an acre to grow vegetables. These small plots collectively produced about one quarter of total farm output.

Uzbekistan historically produced a good deal of natural gas but under the Soviet system most of this gas was used in Uzbekistan. After independence in 1991 there have been efforts made to develop means of exporting the natural gas. This required the building of pipelines to the outside world. Under the Soviet system the transportation system of Uzbekistan was entirely oriented to trade with Russia.

Uzbekistan had oil fields but until 1994 their output was insufficient for Uzbekistan's needs. In 1994 a new major oil field was discovered in the Ferghana Valley that promised to vastly increase Uzbekistan's petroleum production.

Uzbekistan also has small deposits of coal which are used for thermal power generation and it has hydroelectric power sources.

(To be continued.)

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