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Aug 29, 2016 | 21:15 GMT

9 mins read

A History of the Uzbeks: From the Silk Road to the Soviet Union

A view of the Register in Samarkand. Uzbekistan's clans are constantly jockeying for power, sometimes violently, in preparation for the succession.
Editor's Note

Longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov died Aug. 29 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Rumors of his worsening health were commonplace for years, leading to much speculation about who would eventually replace him in power. At 78 years old, Karimov ruled Uzbekistan even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like most other Central Asian states, he ruled with an iron fist, albeit with a veneer of democracy in later years. Who succeeds Karimov — and the way in which the transition of power occurs — will largely determine Uzbekistan's stability and its position in the region and the world.

In light of the emergent battle for succession now underway, we are republishing this three-part series on the clans of Uzbekistan and their role in the country's political and economic spheres, originally published Dec. 30, 2013. Part 1 examines the history of the clans and of Uzbekistan before and during the Soviet Union's rule over the country. Part 2 looks at the relationships and tensions among the clans in 2013 and how they affected the Uzbek political landscape. Part 3 examines outside players' interests in Uzbekistan and the potential exploitation of the clans' power struggle.

As Uzbek President Islam Karimov reaches his 25th year as leader of the Central Asian state, it is unclear who will succeed him. The country is rife with geographic and ethnic divisions dating from the 16th century that translated into political tensions among Uzbekistan's numerous clans. These tensions flourished even during the Soviet Union's rule in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is one of the most important countries in Central Asia. First, it holds the majority of the region's heartland, the Fergana Valley. This historically has made the Uzbek people one of the natural leaders in the region and a potential challenger to outside powers, such as Russia. Uzbekistan also has the largest population among the five Central Asian states — 30 million people and growing rapidly. The Uzbek corridor through Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand was the Silk Road for trade from Asia to the Middle East, South Asia and Europe starting in the first millennium B.C. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian state to border all the other Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — and Afghanistan to its south. Therefore, what happens in Uzbekistan can affect the wider region.



Uzbekistan holds the world's 18th largest natural gas reserves and is a major exporter of electricity produced from both natural gas and hydropower. The country also holds large mineral deposits, ranking the 10th largest in gold, 11th in uranium and 10th in copper. Agriculture based largely in the fertile Fergana Valley region makes up a quarter of the Uzbek gross domestic product, with cotton and wheat as primary exports. All of this has led Uzbekistan to be more self-sufficient than many of its neighbors, which rely on foreign help for energy and food. For example, Uzbekistan produces 85 percent of the wheat and 90 percent of the rice and barley they consume.

Uzbekistan historically has had an independent streak, being one of the states most resistant to control by the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. More recently, this tendency has flared up amid Russia's attempts to increase its influence in Central Asia again. Uzbekistan has rebuffed Russia's resurgence by pulling out of alliance structures (such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization) and increased hostilities with its more Russia-friendly neighbors, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Although Uzbekistan is a relatively strong country in the region, its people are inherently fractured along geographic, ethnic and intra-ethnic lines. These divisions are commonly referred to in the country as clans. Most Uzbeks see themselves as part of a clan before considering themselves part of a single nation.

As in every other country that runs on clan systems, the term clan can mean different things to each Uzbek. To the common worker or farmer, it can mean a geographic and cultural divide — for example, an Uzbek from Fergana is more conservative and religious than an Uzbek from Tashkent. To a businessman, a clan is the network (both in business and politics) within which one works and to which one is loyal, with other clans seen as competition. Among the elite, a clan has to do with personal and political affiliations. Thus, the elites are playing the clan system to their own personal and political benefit, while the lower classes may not consider the clans a means of political power, though the elites can use these lower classes in their political strategies.  

These clan divisions are a vulnerability that outside powers have exploited throughout history. With Uzbekistan currently on the cusp of a succession — as Karimov gets older — the clans are preparing for the country's next political phase. This opens the door for outside powers, such as Russia and China (and even some of the other Central Asian states) to take advantage of the clan divisions and try to shape Uzbekistan to their benefit.

History Of Uzbek Peoples And Clans

There is very little documentation of the early history of the peoples of Central Asia, as their culture was nomadic and maintained few written records. For centuries the region saw migrations and invasions and the mixing of ethnicities. Originally, Persian-speaking peoples populated Central Asia, and then waves of Turks, Mongols and ethnic tribes from Siberia migrated to and invaded the region, whose centralized location facilitated trade across Eurasia, the Middle East and South Asia.

Silk Road

Silk Road

In approximately the 15th century, a distinct ethnic group known as the Uzbeks emerged. It is generally believed the Uzbeks were a tribal group under the Mongol Golden Horde, taking their name from one of the Golden Horde's longest reigning khans, Sultan Mohammed Oz Beg (or Khan Uzbek). Part of this group ceased the traditional nomadic and warring life (for the most part) and settled in the current regions of Samarkand and the Fergana Valley, which are the oases of Central Asia. Over the next century, even the non-ethnic Uzbek residents of the region — those of Persian, Turkic and Mongol descent — began to call themselves Uzbeks.

Three distinct regions fell under Uzbek control: the Bukhara (including Samarkand province), Khiva (Khorezm province) and Kokand (Fergana province). Within these three regions were a number of Uzbek tribes: the Qungrat, Qarluq, Jalair, Barlas, Kipchak, Oghuz, Yuz, Laquay and Manghit. It was common during that period for marriages and loyalty to stay within the tribes.

These regions were formally restructured (along with the other provinces of Uzbekistan) when the Russians invaded and expanded control of Central Asia in the 19th century. The Russians called most of the region the Governorate-General of Turkestan or The Land of the Turks. Under Russian imperial rule, the Uzbek peoples were divided among three provinces: Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent (with many other Uzbek lands like Khiva beyond Russian control at first). These provinces were separated from each other, each with its own clan leader in charge, preventing the formation of a unified Uzbek culture or identity. 

Soviet Rule

This changed when the Soviets took over. Before the Soviet control of Central Asia, there was a brief period in 1918 when certain people from the various Uzbek provinces attempted to unite and create an independent Uzbek nation designed as a European-style democracy. However, this endeavor failed — not only because of Soviet incursion but also because the Uzbeks could not achieve unity.

The region that now makes up Uzbekistan was renamed the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1918 — excluding Bukhara and Khiva, which became their own People's Republics in 1920. In 1924, under the guidance of Josef Stalin, the region was divided into five Soviet Socialist Republics theoretically based on ethnic divisions — though Stalin made sure that the borders were drawn to mix populations further and maintain ethnic tension. The borders shifted depending on Moscow's whims. For example, the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic until 1929; part of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic — the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic — became part of the Uzbek republic in 1936; and pieces of the Mirzachul Steppe were moved into the Uzbek republic in 1956 and 1963. The legacy of constantly shifting borders is still evident in border disputes among the Central Asian states. 

Soviet Central Asia Pre- and Post-1924

Soviet Central Asia Pre- and Post-1924

French scholar Alexandre Bennigsen said in the 1980s that there were three levels of self-identity in Central Asia: clan, religious and national identity. With the last notion being a Soviet concoction, national identity is the weakest of the three levels inside each modern-day Central Asian country. With nearly 89 percent of Central Asia and 97 percent of Uzbekistan identifying as Muslim, religious identity is very important. However, there are dividing lines based on the degree of conservative Islam to which one subscribes. For example, eastern Central Asia is far more religiously conservative than the west. Such divisions play into clan identifications, which is critical to understanding the divisions among the Uzbeks.

The Soviets (like the Russian Empire) took advantage of these differences, because they knew that a unified Uzbek nation bristling at Soviet control could pose a threat. Tribal divisions based on geographic location began to formalize into seven clans, with three primary clans: Tashkent, Fergana and Samarkand. Moscow's goal was to keep the clans equally strong, without one becoming powerful enough to attempt to consolidate the Uzbek people. Exploiting the clan divisions was relatively easy, though Moscow had to ensure that the rivalries did not erupt into outright war between the clans because Moscow was not certain that it could contain such hostilities.

The Fergana and Samarkand clans were the most powerful during the imperial period, as Fergana has the bulk of the population and Samarkand is the cultural center of the region (including other states). The Soviets moved the capital from Samarkand to Tashkent in 1930 in order to bolster the Tashkent clan and better equalize the three clans' power.

Moscow constantly played the clans off one another and forced them to compete for Moscow's favor. This was seen in Moscow's rotation of the top position of power in Uzbekistan — the First Secretary of the Communist Party — among the three primary clans. When one Uzbek leader proved to be particularly loyal and a good manager of the other clans, he served longer than most, such as Sharof Rashidov, who led for 24 years. In turn, Rashidov used his loyalty to Moscow to his advantage, gaining a freer reign than many other secretaries.  

Soviet Uzbek Leaders

Soviet Uzbek Leaders

The divisions of power in the country remain today, even though a single leader — Karimov — has ruled Uzbekistan since his rise within the elite in 1983, taking the helm as party secretary in 1989 and then becoming president of Uzbekistan in 1991. Although Karimov has been in power for more than two decades, he has never been able to consolidate the country or its clans completely under his control. Instead, Karimov has been forced to continually balance the clans — sometimes with brutal force — while facing the frequent threat of coups and uprisings. Now at the age of 75, Karimov is in the last stage of his presidency, and each clan is jockeying for power, sometimes violently, in preparation for the succession.

A History of the Uzbeks: From the Silk Road to the Soviet Union
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