In the heart of Central Asia, enclosed by the Pamir mountains to the southeast and desert in the northeast, Uzbekistan was once the seat of vast wealth and influence. Its entrepreneurial spirit took off during the reign of Tamerlane, a fearsome 14th-century Turkic leader who ruled over India and Persia from his seat in the old capital at Samarkand.

The city’s golden mosques and domed trading halls boast the plundering skills of Tamerlane’s army and the international trade that flourished along the main drag of the Silk Road. But that glittering hub of decadence has waned – first under Soviet rule and now under the dictatorship of President Islam Karimov.

Russia overran Central Asia in the late 19th century and the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created in 1924. While the Soviets did a great deal to improve health through rigorous disease prevention programmes, they also brought environmental disaster. The Aral Sea is now mostly desert after the two main rivers that flow into it were re-routed for cotton irrigation during the 1960s.

Karimov has tightened his grip on the country since becoming the First Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989. Karimov set about squashing opposition to his regime as soon as Uzbekistan won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. A fierce clampdown on political dissidents after he was first elected president forced rivals into exile, while others were detained indefinitely or disappeared. Many of the 80,000 people currently being held in Uzbekistan’s 50 prisons and pre-trial detention centres are tortured. The death penalty was abolished in January 2008, but observers are not convinced the abolition will be upheld.

Photo: Sean Sprague / Panos

Internet sites critical of Karimov’s regime bring up an error message and journalists that stray from the official line are hounded, imprisoned or murdered. Press censorship stepped up a notch after May 2005 when government troops killed 600-800 civilians in the eastern town of Andijan.

A group of people had gathered there to protest against what they said was a sham trial of 23 local businesspeople accused of Islamic extremism. Although the demonstration started off peacefully, people with guns stormed the jail and freed their friends. The next day, several thousand people gathered in the main square and the militia began firing indiscriminately.

International criticism of the massacre prompted an abrupt ejection of foreign companies, media and NGOs operating in the country, but it is beginning to open up again for business. Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest exporter of cotton, as well as the seventh-largest gold producer. The Government pays low prices for these key exports and distributes the profit among a small circle of the ruling élite.

With all that cash, Karimov is surprisingly uninterested in fostering a personality cult, but that hasn’t stopped his daughter. Gulnara Karimova released her first music video, ‘Don’t Forget Me’, in 2006 under her pet name GooGoosha. For months, television viewers were bombarded with images of her writhing around a cartoon wonderland in a floating limousine.

In a hangover from Soviet times, the authorities recruit every able-bodied adult to sweep the streets and unblock drains in nationwide communal clean-up days, known as hashar. Anyone who needs medical attention on these days has to wait while the doctors finish pulling up weeds.

Around 44 per cent of the labour force work in agriculture but for every cotton harvest, children are rounded up from school by the security forces and sent out to work in the fields.

Silk vendors at the once-bustling bazaars in Buxoro (Bukhara) pounce on the smattering of tourists that have passed the vigorous visa checks and 10 per cent of the population are now refugees, mostly in Russia.

*Sorrel Neuss*