In 1991 the tallest statue of Lenin, which stood in the largest Red Square in the former Soviet Union, was retired. He surrendered his pedestal in Tashkent, the capital city, to the world’s only globe showing a single landmass – Uzbekistan – floating freely in space.
The country is reinventing itself, turning away from Russian, and subsequently Soviet, influence.
The Uzbek language is now visible again in Latin rather than Russian script. Folk art, music and dance are flourishing, while Islam is making a more subtle comeback in the form of new mosques and schools. Turquoise domes are springing up amongst the granite-grey Soviet concrete. But the majority of the population remains atheist – veils are no more common than in Europe.
Uzbekistan was created by Stalin, which makes it a young state. The region’s culture, however, dates from at least the second century, when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.
There have been numerous such conquests, from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane to Amir Timur. The Uzbeks’ language is Turkic-Iranian, their religion Arab, their faces come from Mongolia to the Mediterranean.
Samarkand and the Great Silk Road to China made the region famous throughout Asia and beyond, though today the traffic in drugs is more common than Uzbek silk along the Road.
The Soviet Union promoted the production of cotton, making Uzbekistan the fourth-largest cotton producer in the world – a cotton-bud motif still appears everywhere in the Tashkent Metro. But the Aral Sea has been virtually drained to irrigate the crop, causing a major environmental catastrophe.
Though 60 per cent of the country may be desert, the remainder is fertile, including green mountain slopes where one can bathe, picnic, walk and ski. In Tashkent – ‘Bread City’ or ‘town of plenty’ – sun-dried, sun-sweet fruit can be bought by the bucketful from the mounds of produce in Uzbek bazaars.
President Karimov says that ‘fanaticism is not one of Uzbekistan’s characteristics’. People may have been relaxed by centuries of sun-basking and tea-sipping – or they may be under the President’s rather large thumb.
Karimov keeps the country on a tight rein. Outwardly, there are few visible signs of unrest – but prison sentences are long and, inwardly, Karimov does not appreciate criticism. Cuisine, countryside and culture are all one can safely write about under the arbitrary self-censorship restrictions.
The country has a suspect human-rights record. The police tend to be motivated more by money than justice; Russians complain of prejudice against them; homosexuals are breaking the law – the only former Soviet republic where this is still the case. A UN delegation decided against funding anti-AIDS provision whilst gays continue to be persecuted.
Though Mercedes-Benz, BAT tobacco, Newmont Mining and Daewoo have all set up shop in Tashkent, most foreign investors prefer Kazakhstan. There, the phone-lines are better, there is more access to information and currencies are freely convertible.
Uzbekistan – the seventh-largest gold producer in the world – is rich in natural resources, but the benefits for its people are limited. In common with the rest of the former Soviet Union, salaries remain pathetically low and educated specialists sell chewing gum in street markets.
Some still argue that a benevolent dictatorship aids stability. New statues and museums dedicated to the tyrant Amir Timur are part of the great Uzbek revival – even though he appears to have mellowed a little with his re-birth.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER Islam Karimov.
ECONOMY GNP per capita $970 (UK $18,340). Southeast Asian-style economic policies and privatizations, backed by the IMF and World Bank, were slow to start but are gathering pace.
PEOPLE 23.2 million.
HEALTH Infant mortality 46 per 1,000 live births (UK 6 per 1,000 live births).
CULTURE Mostly (75%) Uzbek, but with significant Russian, Kazakh, Tajik, Tatar, Jewish, Armenian, German and even Korean minorities.
Sources: The World Guide 1997/8; The State of the Worlds Children 1998; Asia and Pacific Review 1997.
Never previously profiled
Officially 100%, and virtually universal a third of all students go on to higher education.
Self-sufficient in gas and grain produces uranium, metals, coal, tobacco, fruit and vegetables. But still heavily dependent on cotton exports.
Little tolerance of dissent; courts and sentencing depend more on money than justice. Homosexuality is illegal.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Majority educated to secondary level, but most do not have jobs outside the home.
At 68 years, reasonable but, with a healthy climate and diet, should be better.
NI star rating