Ethnic Uzbeks, who make up the largest minority in Tajikistan, complain they are often sidelined by Dushanbe. (Photo: EurasiaNet)
Ask one of the million-plus ethnic Uzbeks living in Tajikistan how bad life is and he’ll quickly admit: It could be worse. Looking across the border into Kyrgyzstan, many give thanks they have been spared the pogroms suffered by Uzbek communities there twice in the last generation. But Uzbeks in Tajikistan often feel that state policy works against them, and sometimes it seems that the best keeper of the peace among ordinary people has been the deplorable poverty common to them all.
“Uzbeks are consistently marginalized and denied access to economic and political resources,” said Alexander Sodiqov, an instructor at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe. One reason is that Tajik officials see the minority -- the country’s largest, at roughly 15 percent of the population -- as a potential fifth column. “The ruling elite is afraid that [neighboring] Uzbekistan might try to use the ethnic Uzbeks living in Tajikistan to try to influence political developments and security in Tajikistan,” Sodiqov said.
Although Sodiqov and other analysts have dismissed such fears as unrealistic, they persist – an unfortunate twist of geopolitical fate. Borders inherited from the Soviet Union left Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with significant minority populations of the others’ “titular nations” – the ethnic groups for which each country is named. In Tajikistan, the specter of irredentist claims seems all the scarier since most ethnic Uzbeks live near the 1,200-kilometer border with Uzbekistan.
Dushanbe has an uneasy relationship
with its larger and more powerful neighbor: Uzbekistan, a downstream country, needs water; Tajikistan, located upstream, needs electricity and sees damming a major river as its only recourse. Moreover, Tashkent refuses to guarantee Dushanbe a steady supply of gas. Tensions simmer.
Among ordinary people, ethnically tinged finger-pointing is restricted almost entirely to blaming governments, not each other. Though most people feel uncomfortable discussing ethnic relations on the record, Tajiks usually insist they have no problem with their neighbors, only with Uzbekistan’s leaders in Tashkent. It’s even common to hear Uzbeks in Tajikistan blame Tashkent for their economic isolation.
At the same time, Tajikistan’s Uzbeks complain they are purposely sidelined.
“We live peacefully with our Tajik brothers here, but we face discrimination from the government,” Otkir Nomanov, a 50-year-old ethnic Uzbek fruit seller, told EurasiaNet.org in the northern town of Istaravshan.
Asked about discrimination, a source at the Ministry of Interior, on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak with the media, said that “everyone is equal before the law regardless of ethnicity. […] More Uzbeks are arrested than Tajiks for extremist activities, but the government does not discriminate against them; they are traditionally more susceptible to radical Islam."
The police official’s view is widespread in government circles. Sukhrob Sharipov, director of the Center for Strategic Research, a think-tank linked to the president’s office, voiced that anxiety at a recent OSCE workshop on counter-radicalization. “Most Hizb-ut-Tahrir members come from Uzbek communities," he said, referring to a pan-Islamist group banned throughout Central Asia, though it has never been linked to any violence.
“My nephew is currently serving an eight-year sentence for being a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir,” said Nomanov, the fruit vendor. “Here, young Uzbeks have no prospects, nothing to do, so they turn to Islam.”
Boredom and marginalization “push more Uzbeks to try to find explanations in religion for the injustices they face, making them susceptible to real or perceived influence by radical Islamic groups,” said Sodiqov from the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University.
Dushanbe has recently stepped up pressure on practicing Muslims
and Islamic groups
, including the registered opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Several Uzbeks who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety said they find their voice in the IRPT, which, in turn, admits it seeks support from sidelined groups – women, young people and ethnic minorities.
Even for relatively secular Uzbeks, political representation is slim, with only two of the 63 seats in Tajikistan’s parliament held by ethnic Uzbeks.
One barrier to political empowerment is language policy. Though the constitution guarantees linguistic plurality, in practice the use of anything besides Tajik in public discourse is discouraged. Few radio or television broadcasts are in Uzbek, an omission that drew criticism from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its last report on Tajikistan. Perhaps more significantly, civil servants are required to speak Tajik.
Language policy likewise inhibits upward mobility for Uzbeks. University applicants must be fluent in Tajik. Although schoolchildren study the Tajik language for two hours a day, for many rural Uzbeks this is not enough to master reading and writing.
“My children struggle at school and cannot read enough Tajik to get into university. What can we do to improve our situation?” said Guldana, a 50-year-old mother of five.
Some time ago, in the ethnic Uzbek village of Shiravkhisrau, just 30 kilometers from Afghanistan, the transformer broke, leaving the village without electricity. The situation is common in Tajikistan, where infrastructure is tormented by age, brain drain and corruption. Even the nearest town, Shaartuz, the seat of local government and home to both Uzbeks and Tajiks, often has only two hours of power per day.
Poverty is something Uzbeks and Tajiks freely admit they have in common. “We are poor,” said Guldana, adding after a pause, “like many Tajiks.” The similarity dulls resentment.