Uzbekistan was the site of one of the world's oldest civilized regions. The ancient Persian province of Sogdiana, it was conquered in the 4th cent. BC by Alexander the Great. Turkic nomads entered the area in the 6th cent. AD It passed in the 8th cent. to the Arabs, who introduced Islam, and in the 12th cent. to the Seljuk Turks of Khwarazm. Jenghiz Khan captured the region in the 13th cent., and in the 14th cent. Timur made his native Samarkand the center of his huge empire. The realm was much reduced under his successors, the Timurids, and began to disintegrate by the end of the 15th cent.
Throughout these turbulent times, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, situated on major trade routes to China, India, Persia, and Europe, were centers of prosperity, culture, and fabulous luxury. In the early 16th cent., the Uzbek, formerly called Sarts, invaded the region from the northwest. A remnant of the empire of the Golden Horde, they took their name from Uzbeg Khan (d. 1340), from whom their dynasty claimed descent. Later in the 16th cent., the Uzbek leader Abdullah extended his domain over parts of Persia, Afghanistan, and Chinese Turkistan; but the empire soon broke up into separate principalities, notably Khiva, Kokand, and Bukhara.
Weakened by internecine warfare, these states were conquered by Russian forces, who took Tashkent in 1865, Samarkand and Bukhara in 1868, and Khiva in 1873. Kokand was annexed outright to the Russian empire, but Khiva and Bukhara remained under their native rulers as vassal states of Russia. Efforts by Uzbek leaders to establish a European-style democratic republic in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 were unsuccessful.
In 1918 the Turkistan Autonomous SSR was organized on Uzbek territory, in 1920 the Khorezm and Bukhara People's Republics were established, and finally, in 1924, the Uzbek-populated areas were united in the Uzbek SSR. Tajikistan was part of the Uzbek SSR until 1929, when it became a separate republic. In 1936 the Kara-Kalpak Autonomous SSR was joined with Uzbekistan. In 1956 and 1963, the Mirzachul Steppe (
Hungry Steppe) was transferred from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. Some of the area was returned in 1971.
In June, 1990, the Uzbek parliament passed a resolution declaring the republic's sovereignty. Islam Karimov, who had been named Uzbekistan's Communist party chief in 1989 and given the new title of president earlier in 1990, initially did not oppose the abortive coup of Aug., 1991, in Moscow (see August Coup), but he denounced it when it failed. On Aug. 31, Uzbekistan was declared independent, and it joined the Commonwealth of Independent States in December. During the same month, Karimov was elected president by popular vote.
Karimov began a crackdown against political opponents, some of whom were jailed; at the same time, some free-market reforms were undertaken. Karimov also established controls on devout Muslims, which grew increasing harsh and indiscriminate during the late 1990s, when such Muslims were among the few remaining critics of his rule. In 1995, in a referendum in which voters' preferences could be observed by election officials, Karimov won an overwhelming endorsement to remain in office until the year 2000.
Several people were killed by car bombs outside government offices in Tashkent in Feb., 1999, in an apparent attempt on the president's life; a number of radical Islamists were held in connection with the bombings. In Jan., 2000, Karimov was reelected to the presidency, again by a lopsided majority. In August there were clashes with Uzbek Islamic guerrillas who had crossed into Uzbekistan from bases in Tajikistan. The following year, Uzbekistan allowed U.S. forces to use bases there in its campaign against Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban; the U.S. campaign there also weakened Uzbek Islamic guerrillas supported by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In 2002, after a referendum that was criticized by Western nations, Karimov's term was extended to Dec., 2007.
In Mar., 2004, there was an outbreak of terrorist violence in Tashkent and Bukhara in which several dozen people died, and in July there were suicide attacks in Tashkent. Islamic groups were blamed for the attacks, but international rights groups said that Karimov's rigid authoritarian regime created a climate that fostered Islamic militancy and antigovernment attacks. In November there protests in several cities against new regulations on traders in the bazaars; the most serious one, in Kokand, involved attacks on police and other officials. Despite Uzbekistan's strategic alliance with the United States, the country failed to win U.S. certification for aid in 2004. At the same time, however, relations with Russia, which had been strained, improved. The Dec., 2004, parliamentary elections were contested only by candidates from parties that supported the president.
In May, 2005, protest in Andijan against the arrest and trial of local businessmen turned into an antigovernment uprising when the local prison and a regional administration building were seized. The uprising, which spread to other areas of E Uzbekistan was brutally suppressed by government forces, who claimed that less than 200 terrorists had been killed. Other sources, however, estimated that more than 700 men, women, and children had died when security forces shot indiscriminantly at protesters. Subsequently, the government engaged in a widespread, ongoing crackdown designed to suppress dissent generally and limit access to information about the uprising and its aftermath. The events strained relations with the United States and European Union nations in the following months. Meanwhile, in July, 2005, Uzbekistan terminated the agreement that allowed U.S. forces to be based in the country, and U.S. forces were withdrawn by the end of 2005.
In Dec., 2007, Karimov was again reelected; the vote was criticized as undemocratic and being of questionable constitutionality. Beginning in 2009 Uzbekistan restricted the flow of goods, electricity, and natural gas into or out of neighboring Tajikistan in response to Tajikistan's construction of a hydroelectric dam that could reduce the flow of water needed for irrigation in Uzbekistan. Elections for the Legislative Chamber, held in Dec., 2009, and Jan., 2010, were again open only to candidates of parties aligned with Karimov; elections for the legislature in Dec., 2014, and Jan., 2015, were again monopolized by the pro-Karimov parties. In Mar., 2015, Karimov was reelected president in an election in which no opposition candidate ran.
Karimov died in Sept., 2016; Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who had served as prime minister since 2003, was appointed acting president by the parliament. In December, Mirziyoyev was elected president; as in the 2015 presidential election, no real opposition candidates participated. The new president gradually consolidated his power, and removed his main rivals from power in 2017 and 2018. Under Mirziyoyev, ties with Tajikistan gradually normalized, and in early 2018 a number of closed border crossings were reopened and sales of electricity and natural gas between the two nations resumed. Legislative elections in Dec., 2019, were again contested only by progovernment parties, despite some reforms under Mirziyoyev.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: CIS and Baltic Political Geography