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Uzbekistan - Introduction

Uzbekistan is the worlds fifth largest cotton producer and second-largest cotton exporter. Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country and has the largest armed forces. There is no real internal opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has described the use of torture in Uzbekistan as 'systematic'. Although less developed economically than neighboring Kazakhstan, it has nonetheless managed to maintain economic growth and remain substantially better off than the other states in the region, all in a context of authoritarian political stability.

Uzbekistan covers a land area of 174,486 square miles (slightly larger than California). Its population is 25.8 million. Approximately 80% of the population is ethnic Uzbek, 5.5% Russian, 5% Tajik, 3% Kazakh, 2.5% Karakalpak, 1.5% Tatar, and others. Uzbeks are the most numerous Central Asian nationality- with 1.2 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Tajikistan, and a half-million in Kyrgystan. Uzbekistan's GDP is US$ 30.68 billion (CIA World Factbook, 2010), and GNI per head: US$1,100 (World Bank estimate for 2009). Uzbekistan's GDP in 2003 was $9.0 billion; per capita GDP is about $349.

Apart from Uzbekistan's strategic location in the context of Afghanistan, it is important to look at the nature of this society. First of all, Uzbekistan is overwhelmingly young, with more than half the population under the age of twenty-five. At twenty-eight million, Uzbekistan has nearly as many people as the rest of Central Asia together. Second, Uzbekistan has one of the strongest Islamic identities in Central Asia and rightly identifies itself as one of the cradles of Islamic learning and civilization. Finally, despite this Islamic identity, the country remains overwhelmingly secular in its outlook.

The benefits of Uzbekistan's strong macroeconomic performance are slow to be seen in the lives of Uzbekistani citizens. Although gross national income per capita is growing, the official inflation estimate of 6.5 percent contrasts with World Bank estimates that show the cost of living rising by 20 percent and more annually. Ranking among the five most corrupt countries in the world, Uzbekistan has a shadow economy that accounts for 20 percent of GDP by official estimates and by up to 45-50 percent of GDP in independent assessments. According to the World Bank, over a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line and is able to spend less than USD 1.1 per day. Nevertheless -- largely due to underemployment -- unemployment is a low 0.75 percent according to government figures and eight percent according to the International Labor Organization. As much as 9-18 percent of Uzbekistan's GDP comes in the form of remittances from workers who have migrated abroad, largely to Kazakhstan and Russia.

Islam Karimov is the president of Uzbekistan. Karimov has served in the Uzbek Communist Party throughout his political career. In 1989, he became First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. In 1990, the Uzbek Supreme Soviet elected him to the newly created post of President, and he also became a member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo. In December 1991, Karimov was popularly elected President with 86% of the vote against Erk Party candidate Mohammed Solikh.

Uzbek pride often gets the better of rationality and officials here will think nothing of cutting off their nose to spite their face. Karimov and every bureaucrat under him will go to any length not to be perceived as bending to outside pressure, even when doing so would advance the country's national interest.

Placing stability above all else, and fearing an Islamic revival, Karimov has limited real democratic development. Genuine opposition parties are not tolerated. The main dissident movements were Birlik ('Unity') which has not been allowed to register and Erk ('Will') which lost its official registration in 1993, although these movements are now largely inactive. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Uzbekistan was banned in 1990.

The rigidity of political control is mirrored in the tightly centralized planning of the economy. Economic reform has been painfully slow to materialize. A World Bank report in the summer of 2003 found economic growth and living standards to be amongst the lowest in the former Soviet Union. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development [EBRD) announced in April 2004 that it was slashing aid to Uzbekistan because of the country's failure to reform and its poor human rights record.

The violent events on 13 May 2005 in the Uzbek city of Andijan were closely linked to a trial of 23 popular local businessmen. These 23 businessmen had been arrested during the summer of 2004 and charged with extremism, fundamentalism and separatism. On the night of 12 May 2005, a group of armed men stormed a prison in Andizhan killing guards, taking hostages and releasing prisoners. They took more hostages in the administrative building in the main square and called civilians to support them. Civilians gathered and waited, expecting the President to appear. But according to credible eyewitness reports, Uzbek soldiers eventually fired on the demonstrators, killing hundreds, including women and children. The Uzbek authorities stated that this was a terrorist operation in which 187 had died, mostly terrorists, who were responsible for all civilian deaths.

The regions main terrorist organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), made armed raids into Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000 from bases in neighboring Tajikistan. IMU fighters have received training in Afghanistan (to where many were deported in 2001) and have received support from Osama Bin Laden's terrorist networks. IMU forces were significantly affected by coalition attacks on Afghanistan in late 2001, although unconfirmed reports put their estimated number at up to 5000. The IMU do not command significant political support in Uzbekistan. The radical Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir is active throughout Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. It has a radical and utopian agenda and its published materials often employ inflammatory language.

Uzbekistans Muslim population has a secular and moderate tradition, but this tradition is weak. There is a danger that growing poverty, unemployment, combined with restrictions on political and religious freedom and a search for meaning, could drive elements of the population towards extremism, and terrorism.

The tensions between the secular and the Islamic identities are in no way decided, despite the efforts of the government to emphasize the cultural aspects of Islam at the expense of the more openly spiritual ones. At the same time, the outlook of Uzbekistan's youth is far from clear, as the first truly post-Soviet generation comes of age and begins to seek its place in the economic, political and social realms of society. The managed economic transition in Uzbekistan may have brought relative stability and shelter from the storm of the global economic crisis, but it has not created nearly the number of jobs that this next generation will seek. Looking out several years, parts of Uzbekistan could continue to evolve along a more secular path, while in other elements of Uzbek society an Islamic identity could strengthen, particularly if fed the mix of a lack of opportunity and a search for the authentic roots of early Islam that has done so much to sweeten radicalism's call elsewhere in the Islamic world.



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