Ethnic Composition

Uzbekistan Table of Contents

Population pressures have exacerbated ethnic tensions. In 1995 about 71 percent of Uzbekistan's population was Uzbek. The chief minority groups were Russians (slightly more than 8 percent), Tajiks (officially almost 5 percent, but believed to be much higher), Kazaks (about 4 percent), Tatars (about 2.5 percent), and Karakalpaks (slightly more than 2 percent). In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan was becoming increasingly homogeneous, as the outflow of Russians and other minorities continues to increase and as Uzbeks return from other parts of the former Soviet Union. According to unofficial data, between 1985 and 1991 the number of nonindigenous individuals in Uzbekistan declined from 2.4 to 1.6 million.

The increase in the indigenous population and the emigration of Europeans have increased the self-confidence and often the self-assertiveness of indigenous Uzbeks, as well as the sense of vulnerability among the Russians in Uzbekistan. The Russian population, as former "colonizers," was reluctant to learn the local language or to adapt to local control in the post-Soviet era. In early 1992, public opinion surveys suggested that most Russians in Uzbekistan felt more insecure and fearful than they had before Uzbek independence.

The irony of this ethnic situation is that many of these Central Asian ethnic groups in Uzbekistan were artificially created and delineated by Soviet fiat in the first place. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was little sense of an Uzbek nationhood as such; instead, life was organized around the tribe or clan (see Entering the Twentieth Century, this ch.). Until the twentieth century, the population of what is today Uzbekistan was ruled by the various khans who had conquered the region in the sixteenth century.

But Soviet rule, and the creation of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1924, ultimately created and solidified a new kind of Uzbek identity. At the same time, the Soviet policy of cutting across existing ethnic and linguistic lines in the region to create Uzbekistan and the other new republics also sowed tension and strife among the Central Asian groups that inhabited the region. In particular, the territory of Uzbekistan was drawn to include the two main Tajik cultural centers, Bukhoro and Samarqand, as well as parts of the Fergana Valley to which other ethnic groups could lay claim. This readjustment of ethnic politics caused animosity and territorial claims among Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and others through much of the Soviet era, but conflicts grew especially sharp after the collapse of central Soviet rule.

The stresses of the Soviet period were present among Uzbekistan's ethnic groups in economic, political, and social spheres. An outbreak of violence in the Fergana Valley between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in June 1989 claimed about 100 lives. That conflict was followed by similar outbreaks of violence in other parts of the Fergana Valley and elsewhere. The civil conflict in neighboring Tajikistan, which also involves ethnic hostilities, has been perceived in Uzbekistan (and presented by the Uzbekistani government) as an external threat that could provoke further ethnic conflict within Uzbekistan. Thousands of Uzbeks living in Tajikistan have fled the civil war there and migrated back to Uzbekistan, for example, just as tens of thousands of Russians and other Slavs have left Uzbekistan for northern Kazakstan or Russia. Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II, are migrating out of Uzbekistan to return to the Crimea.

Two ethnic schisms may play an important role in the future of Uzbekistan. The first is the potential interaction of the remaining Russians with the Uzbek majority. Historically, this relationship has been based on fear, colonial dominance, and a vast difference in values and norms between the two populations. The second schism is among the Central Asians themselves. The results of a 1993 public opinion survey suggest that even at a personal level, the various Central Asian and Muslim communities often display as much wariness and animosity toward each other as they do toward the Russians in their midst. When asked, for example, whom they would not like to have as a son- or daughter-in-law, the proportion of Uzbek respondents naming Kyrgyz and Kazaks as undesirable was about the same as the proportion that named Russians. (About 10 percent of the Uzbeks said they would like to have a Russian son- or daughter-in-law.) And the same patterns were evident when respondents were asked about preferred nationalities among their neighbors and colleagues at work. Reports described an official Uzbekistani government policy of discrimination against the Tajik minority.

More about the Population of Uzbekistan.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress