Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenistan: Uzbek Blues

Uzbek minority loses hope as Niazov attempts to "Turkmenise" the country.
By Seid Seidov

The march of nationalism in Turkmenistan, the most hermetic of the former Soviet states of Central Asia, is demoralising the Uzbek minority, who are losing jobs and identity and have nowhere to run to.


Under the leadership of president for life Saparmurad Niazov the drive to "Turkmenise" the country is moving ahead briskly, and minorities find that their livelihoods and separate cultural traditions are in the firing line.


The impact is being felt particularly in the north of country, where most of the 12 per cent Uzbek minority is concentrated.


In the Dashoguz region, which borders Uzbekistan, the community accounts for around 40 per cent of the population but has no special recognition. The frontier, which divides the once powerful state of Khorezm, was established in the Soviet era, leaving many Uzbeks in what is now Turkmenistan.


A recent directive in military and police academies stated that only Turkmens should be enrolled, putting an official stamp of approval on a practice that has been increasingly followed throughout the education system.


Russian, Uzbek and Kazak schools have been gradually turned into Turkmen schools, and there are now demands that all school children should exclusively wear the Turkmen embroidered skull-caps.


"My children are Uzbek, they study at an Uzbek school, we have our own national skull-caps, so why should they be forced to wear Turkmen headwear? What is that, other than an infringement of our national feelings?" commented a neighbour, who is currently unemployed.


Particularly patriotic employers are demanding that female members of staff come to work in traditional Turkmen dresses, irrespective of their nationality. If they don't, they are the first in the firing line should there be any staff cuts.


The Turkmenisation drive is creating problems for Turkmens as well. All official documents are now expected to be written in Turkmen, based on the Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic.


"It's just a joke," complained Antonina Petrovna, an ethnic Russian secretary. "My bosses, Turkmens, just can't get their heads round the Latin alphabet. I have to rewrite the incoming documents in the old alphabet (Cyrillic), and the outgoing documents in the Latin alphabet.


"If they hadn't increased the age limit for going onto a pension, I would have long ago given up and retired."


Antonina Petrovna's family has long since moved back to Russia under a policy by which Moscow accepts so-called Russian-speakers as immigrants. Astana maintains the same approach for Kazaks wishing to return to their historic homeland.


But Uzbekistan, which with about 25 million people is the most populous state in Central Asia, is not very keen to invite ethnic Uzbeks. The country also has large unemployment problems. So, unlike other nationalities, Uzbeks in Turkmenistan cannot solve their problems by "getting out". They have to accept their situation and bear it.


In addition to the problems with employment, Uzbeks in Turkmenistan have difficulty visiting their relatives across the border in Uzbekistan. New restrictions on crossing the frontier have led to several brushes with the security forces and spontaneous demonstrations on the Turkmen and the Uzbek sides of the border.


Some argue that the Uzbek minority in Turkmenistan should be employed in areas where they are strong. Uzbeks are recognised as excellent builders, but because of decisions taken in Ashgabat, only Turkish companies are involved in construction.


Uzbeks are also good at working the land. But the Aral ecological crisis, several years of water shortages and the poorly thought out policies of the authorities have almost entirely destroyed the agricultural sector.


How long the patience of the Turkmen Uzbeks will last, is a question the authorities in Ashgabat need to face.


Seid Seidov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan


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