University of Michigan
Volume 4, Issue 2, Winter 1997
Several months ago, Independence Square at the heart of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was bustling with activity. The former Soviet Central Asian republic was celebrating its fifth anniversary as an independent nation- state. Thousands gathered by invitation on this vast open plaza that only five years ago was still named after Lenin. The slogan written in Uzbek on the government building at one end of the square summed up the message of music, lights, speeches, and fireworks: Uzbekistan has the future of a great nation.
But after the government staged its expensive spectacle, Independence Square has become uncannily quiet and deserted. The symbol of national greatness is devoid of city life, barred by unfriendly barricades and policemen. The Uzbek state thereby demonstrates its total control of the society and its simultaneous aloofness from it.
Uzbekistan, as one of the postcommunist nation-states emerging in the final decade of the 20th century, presents an interesting case of nation-building at a time when nationhood is an increasingly troubled notion in the world. The increasing force of transnational currents are challenging the ideas of homogeneity and homeland within national borders.
But Uzbekistan, as a “late” arrival on the world scene of postcolonial nation-states, is basking in the self- delight of its independent nationhood. The Uzbek government has set out to build an essentially monoethnic territorial nation-state, its rhetoric about pluralism notwithstanding. I would like to show how Uzbekistan’s nation-building project in its present form will likely lead to trouble because of its monoethnic and territorial nature.
It is ironic that the same Communist leadership in Uzbekistan that reluctantly accepted the dissolution of the Soviet Union is now presenting itself as the champion of a restored Uzbek nation. President Islam Karimov, then head of the Soviet government in Uzbekistan, was glaringly silent during the August 1991 coup in Moscow, but quickly changed his posture when it became clear that the end of the Union was inevitable, and that recasting his authority around Uzbek nationalism was to his advantage. President Karimov’s spin on himself as a true nationalist seems to be uncritically accepted by most Uzbeks. Recent focus group interviews that our research group conducted of Uzbeks in Tashkent and in the Fergana Valley revealed strong support for the president’s ideas, his course of leadership, and the government system.
A key part of Karimov’s nation-building project is the rewriting of a national past freed of Russian/Soviet bias. Uzbeks are presented as an ancient civilization on par with the Silk Route trading partners of China, India, Persia, and Greece. Central Asian literary and scientific figures such as Beruni, Navai, and Ibn Sina are claimed as exclusively Uzbek. Streets and shops are renamed after these national heroes. Their statues are appearing in public spaces.
The central icon of the Uzbek nation-building campaign is the 15th century Turkic conqueror and ruler Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane. Timur’s majestic figure on a war horse occupies a square at the center of Tashkent, displacing the visage of Karl Marx. Posters of Timur are sold everywhere and seen everywhere. Scores of new books on Timur and Uzbek history, many of them not written by historians, have been published in recent years, and bookstores have all-Timur sections. The 560th anniversary of Timur was celebrated in October — another expensive, high-profile bash with concerts, new plays and opera on the Timur theme.
Embodying the Uzbek nation in the ruthless conqueror Timur troubles non-Uzbeks in and around Uzbekistan. So does the Uzbek state’s monoethnic vision of nation and patriotism. By exalting the Uzbek national subject, the state perilously excludes the non-Uzbek others living in the republic. The most obvious indicator of alienation is the mass emigration since the end of the Soviet Union of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews, who had lived in Uzbekistan for several generations. Their flight constitutes a brain drain of valuable skill for the development of Uzbekistan and results in less societal diversity. The question of whether to leave is a pressing concern for the Russians of Tashkent interviewed in our focus groups. Not only do they face the same uncertainties in the changing economy that everyone else does, but they are unsure of where the nationalistic trends of the Uzbek government leave them.
The Russian focus group participants expressed great distress and annoyance at the new language policy that made Uzbek the official language of the country. Despite efforts to teach Uzbek in the Russian schools, the fact remains that the adult Russian speakers in Uzbekistan will never learn it. I witnessed police arresting a Russian motorist for a traffic violation that apparently resulted from the driver disobeying a sign written in Uzbek. The Russian was pleading to the point of tears that he did not know the Uzbek language, but he was cited anyway.
A more subtle exclusion by Uzbek nationalism involves the Tajiks of Uzbekistan. As speakers of an Indo-Iranian language, Tajiks might appear to be clearly distinguished from Uzbeks, whose language is Turkic. But Tajiks have more affinities with Uzbeks in “culture,” “race,” even language than an essentialist Uzbek nationalism would admit. Before the Soviet period, the sedentary population now differentiated as “Uzbek” and “Tajik” lived intermingled. The variations in material culture, “Mongoloid” or “Europoid” features, and Turkic or Iranian elements in language occurred as a continuous gradient rather than as categorical breaks. It was Soviet nationality policy that created “Uzbek” and “Tajik” as separate ethnicities, and this distinction has been essentialized and institutionalized by decades of Soviet bureaucratic mechanisms.
And so it is impossible to say how many Tajiks there are in Uzbekistan today, because the very notion of what a Tajik is versus what an Uzbek is, is inherently problematic. When our research group conducted focus groups with Tajik speakers in the city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, we found to our surprise that these “Tajiks” not only maintained an ambiguous identity between “Tajik” and “Uzbek,” but were not bothered in the least by the ambiguity. They know both languages fluently, speak Tajik at home, and are officially designated as “Uzbek” in their passports. One Bukharan craftsman summed it up this way: “Uzbeklar va Tojiklar, tilda boshka, dilda bir” (Uzbeks and Tajiks are different in language but one in heart.)
Although the Tajiks of Bukhara are currently at ease with their dual identities, as the Uzbek state continues to press its narrow vision of Uzbek citizenry, these Tajiks may feel increasingly disenfranchised in the new Uzbekistan and channel their identification more toward neighboring Tajikistan.
The other peril of Uzbek nationalism lies at its territorial boundaries. Republic borders were drawn in Central Asia as part of Soviet nationality policy to divide the population into supposed national homelands according to the Soviet-certified nationalities. No political entity with the current borders of Uzbekistan ever existed before the Soviet period, but the newly written histories of Uzbekistan implicitly project the idea of the present day territory as a coherent whole indefinitely backwards in time, thereby giving it a timeless legitimacy.
But the republic borders inherited from Soviet territorial adminstration are as problematic as the ethnic distinctions inherited from Soviet nationality policy. The political and economic viability of these borders are in greatest jeopardy in the Fergana Valley — a fertile, populous ecological zone peculiarly divided between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
When our research team took the road from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, into the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s most important agricultural and industrial region, we had to cross borders five times into and from Kyrygzstan and Tajikistan. These borders are heavily policed by all three republics because differential economic and political conditions in each encourage an illegal flow of refugees, migrants and consumer goods, not to mention a huge drug traffic. At a time when Europe is moving toward a unified market, economic growth is being stifled in Central Asia’s potentially most vigorous region when there are customs checks every ten kilometers on the main road.
The inter-republic borders in the Fergana Valley are also problematic because they cut off ethnic groups from their supposed homelands in the most densely populated region of Central Asia. Mostly Uzbeks live in the Tajikistan part of the valley, many Kyrgyz live in the Uzbekistan part, and Kyrgyzstan’s two major cities in the valley have majority Uzbek populations. Ethnic conflict over scarce water and arable land has already taken place in the valley, most notably in a bloody conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of Osh and Uzgen in 1990, and will probably recur in the future.
And so, the current Uzbek government has inherited more of a Soviet legacy than it may be ready to admit. It got stuck with a Soviet conception of Uzbek nationality even as it got stuck with Soviet borders of Uzbek territory, and it is vigorously building a nation on the basis of both. But as the specter of ethnic conflict lurks behind the present realities of economic hardship, what is needed is not only thinking beyond Soviet visions of nationhood, but, as some theorists are urging today, thinking ourselves beyond the nation entirely. That is, to view human communities in terms of meaningful solidarities of people not defined in terms of the ethnically-centered territorial nation-state, but in a way that does not necessarity threaten the vested powers of those states. Only if there is room for such postnational identities can the resident Russians,Tajiks, and other groups rightfully call independent Uzbekistan their home
Morgan Liu is a graduate student in anthropology who participated in the Ford Foundation training and research project, “Identity Formation and Social Issues in Estonia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.”