By Paul Goble
Islam Karimov promoted Uzbek identity in ways that exacerbated relations with the Tajiks and other Central Asian nations, a division built into Central Asian politics by Stalin in the 1920s. His passing, some observers are suggesting may lead to a shift in Tashkent’s stance and thus a rapprochement between the two nations.
Because most people in Central Asia at the dawn of the Soviet era were multi-lingual and lived in what would now be described as ethnically mixed areas, Stalin insisted that those who lived in one republic who spoke its titular language identity as its nationals even if they also spoke another language and one that was the language of a titular people elsewhere.
Thus, many people who considered themselves Tajiks were forced to declare themselves to be Uzbeks and many who considered themselves to be Uzbeks were forced to declare themselves to be Tajiks, intensifying internal divides and opening the way, especially after 1991, for political leaders to play on this.
Stalin did what he did for two reasons. On the one hand, and this must not be forgotten, he wanted to show how solicitous Moscow was to divisions in Central Asia in order to win support for the USSR in the colonies of the British Empire who were in almost every case multi-ethnic with one group favored over others.
And on the other, the Soviet dictator was playing classical divide and rule politics, not because Central Asia was a threat in the 1920s – it constituted a very small percentage of the Soviet population at the time – but because Stalin invariably sought to play one group against another to enhance his own power.
A product of the Soviet system, Karimov continued in that tradition, promoting Uzbek national identity first within Uzbekistan and then among those with Uzbek ties in neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. That produced conflicts, and some analysts are now suggesting that the post-Karimov leadership in Tashkent will adopt a different approach.
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy, Arkady Dubnov, a Russian specialist on the CIS countries, points out that many of the clashes in Central Asia including in particular tensions between Uzbek and Tajik elites and between Uzbeks and Tajiks in general since the collapse of the Soviet Union had their roots in this approach (echo.msk.ru/programs/personalnovash/1831294-echo/).
It is not surprising that Karimov, a product of a Soviet home and then of a Soviet orphanage – he was among the so-called “detdomtsy” who played a major role in implementing Moscow’s policies in Central Asia – continued this approach even after the system that had given it birth died. But his successors have a different background.
One in particular, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the prime minister, might be expected to adopt a different approach. “Few know,” the Asia-Plus news agency points out, that he “is from the Tajik kishlak of Yakhtan” and that he has maintained close ties with villagers there ever since (news.tj/ru/news/centralasia/20160902/230368).
Yakhtan, a village of 3,000 people in Tajikistan, consists primarily of Uzbek speakers, the news agency says. Most don’t want to talk about Mirziyoyev out of fears that any such talk will attract the attention of the Tajik security services as it sometimes has in the past. Nonetheless, a few of them did share their memories.
According to them, the Uzbekistan prime minister wasn’t born there but was brought to the kishlak at the age of nine months. Among his ancestors, one villager says, were wealthy people who had gone to the Bukhara medressah before the revolution who were then subject to “de-kulakization” in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mirziyoyev’s father was a doctor specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. His mother died from that disease, and then his father remarried. His stepmother is still alive and lives in Uzbekistan, the villagers say. They divide on whether the family is Uzbek by nationality or Tajik.
Most say that Mirziyoyev is an Uzbek and doesn’t speak Tajik.” They aregue that “if he were a Tajik, he wouldn’t have achieved such high posts in Uzbekistan.” But others say that he is at least part Tajik, given his name and given what is known about his ancestors two and three generations back.
If Mirziyoyev succeeds Karimov, that complex background could lead him to become even more nationalistic than Karimov has been. But it could also as Dubnov suggests open the way for a better relationship between Uzbeks and Tajiks – and that could by itself change the future of Central Asia.