Fact File: Uzbekistan

Name Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi
Population 32,979,000 (2017 estimate)
Capital city Tashkent
Official language Uzbek (official), Russian, Tajik
Religions Islam (88%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 68.45 years
Population growth  1.7%
GDP  $67.22 billion (2016)
HDI  0.701 (105th)
Gini  0.45
President  Shavkat Mirziyoyev

History

Bordering the other four Central Asian “Stans”, Uzbekistan has a rich and colourful history of movement, conquest, and resistance. After Alexander The Great conquered the region in fourth century BC, Uzbekistan witnessed several distinct phases of external influence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth century AD and by the eight century Islam was introduced by the Arabs. Perhaps most famously the Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan, consumed the region in the thirteenth century. With the steppes united, trade, communication and even diseases spread massively in the following centuries. Uzbekistan’s major cities, such as Bukhara, reaped the benefit of reinvigorated East-West trade links.

The Mongols and the Silk Road put the country firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the leadership of Abdullah, the empire took in parts of Afghanistan and Persia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbekistani principalities at the mercy of the expanding Russian Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Uzbek fractured between Soviet supporters and the Basmachi, with the latter eventually succumbing to Stalinist policies. Collectivisation, industrialisation, and indigenisation were all pursued by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the twentieth century. Soviet industry shifted from vulnerable positions in Western Russia to Uzbekistan during WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass production of cotton led to several major ecological disasters. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, Uzbekistan eventually secured its independence in 1991, after several centuries of Russian rule.

Artwork on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Patrick Riggenberg.

Economy

Uzbekistan is currently witnessing a momentous period economic growth. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s economy is set to grow faster than any Central Asian or Eastern European nation between now and 2019. State investment in gas, gold and cotton production has created a booming export economy. The future fortunes of exports are largely tied to the performance the Chinese and Russian economies, and their general downturn has concerned Uzbekistani policy makers. Yet even with that considered, a strong small business sector has lifted large sections of the population out of poverty and into employment, a sign that the country’s economy is shifting toward a greater reliance on internal rather than external markets.

Food

The meal is a central pillar of Uzbek culture. Tandoor baked bread (tandir) holds a sacred place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and never thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is perhaps the most famous dish in the region—and across Central Asia. Often considered to be the oldest dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alexander the Great was served palov after capturing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, raisins, and entire bulbs of garlic, seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and cumin.

Pilaf (plov) is a popular dish throughout Uzbekistan and the Central Asia region. Photo Jarda Pulao.

Music

Music is omnipresent in Uzbek society. Whispers of the ancients can be heard in traditional recitals at funerals and commemorative ceremonies, distinct from European music in its monophonic texture. Uzbekistan boasts some incredibly influential musicians in the region. Ari Babakhanov is amongst the most famous. Known for his immense contribution to traditional Bukhara music, he also transcribed and noted down extensive amounts of Persian poetry and popular Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbekistan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most popular forms.

Customs

Close friends or family of the same sex greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expected to take a turn as toastmaster, praising the host for welcoming them into their home. Family and community is of immense value in Uzbekistan. Communities are governed by the mahallya, a self-governing unit of neighbours and families supporting one another. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and weddings involve the entire community; hundreds of guests are typically invited.

A ‘sweet plov’ salesaman at a Nowruz festival between 1865-1872

Politics

2016 witnessed the election of a new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. Prior to Mirziyoyev’s election, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply controversial who was consistently criticised by the international community for extensive human rights abuses in the country. For example, the United Nations has found torture to be institutionalised in the country. Press censorship remains a major issue and many western news outlets are not allowed to function in the country. However, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the government has taken steps to eradicate human trafficking and cultivation of opium for export purposes.

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