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

Turkmenistan's Foreign Uzbeks

Uzbeks living on the wrong side of the border are told to get Turkmen passports – or get out.
By IWPR staff

Uzbek nationals living in Turkmenistan face a stark choice in a border demarcation which leaves them living in a foreign country.

In a tough statement in early June, Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, said that in the latest talks on border issues, Uzbekistan renounced claims to about 18,000 hectares of land which Turkmenistan effectively leased to it when both republics were still part of the Soviet Union.

Ethnic Uzbeks who either lived on the land already, or moved there later, took up Uzbekistan citizenship after the two countries became independent in 1991. As the area becomes fully incorporated back into the Dashoguz province of northern Turkmenistan, the community will technically count as foreign nationals even if they have lived here since before either country existed as a sovereign state.

Turkmenbashi told a government meeting after the talks, “We proposed to them that either they should get a Turkmen passport, or else we will give them an opportunity to move to Uzbekistan.

“As far as I’m concerned they can stay here – we have free gas and electricity for them. But it’s not possible to hold dual passports - we don’t have an appropriate agreement with Uzbekistan.”

Now the Uzbeks face a hard choice. Moving across the border would mean leaving behind the lives they have built up and taking their chances in the difficult economic environment of northern Uzbekistan.

Staying in Dashoguz province would require them to take Turkmen citizenship, making it harder for them to travel to Uzbekistan or anywhere else. They would also have to accept the erosion of their cultural identity that is part of Turkmenbashi’s policy of homogeneity.

Except for the groups now regarded as aliens, most members of Turkmenistan’s Uzbek minority do have Turkmen citizenship.

But many complain they still face discrimination. In recent years, Uzbek-language teaching in schools has been gradually wound down and placenames changed. Schoolchildren are required to adopt ethnic Turkmen dress, and mosques have clerics from the dominant ethnic group imposed on them.

There are also reports that ethnic Uzbeks face unfair treatment from local officials, including dismissal from their jobs.

Farhad, an Uzbek living in the ethnically mixed town of Dashoguz, believes the whole community is caught in a power-struggle between Turkmenbashi and his Uzbek neighbour Islam Karimov. “The Turkmen-Uzbek dispute certainly has some historical roots, but at this point it mostly defined by the personal animosity between the two presidents, each of whom aspires to the role of regional leader.

“There would be no problems for Uzbeks living in border areas if the Turkmen authorities weren’t conducting a policy of forced ‘Turkmenisation’ to please their leader…. To be fair, one should add that that Turkmens living in Uzbekistan face similar treatment.”

As citizens of one country suddenly stranded in another, the Uzbeks are in a similar position to other communities caught out by the recent demarcation of Central Asian borders. A joint commission has been at work defining the Uzbek-Turkmen border – which broadly follows the course of the Amu Darya river - since 2001.

What sets this community apart is that Turkmenbashi appears to view ethnic Uzbeks with some suspicion – even those who hold Turkmen passports.

The president’s attitude to Uzbekistan took a nosedive after November 2002, when he openly accused his neighbour of backing an attempt on his life.

The same month he issued a decree ordering a programme of resettlement from the eastern border – along which the Uzbek minority is concentrated - to the inhospitable north-west of Turkmenistan. His argument that this was a rational move to promote development through migration began to wear rather thin when he later said the target group included “people who have lost the respect of the nation” – a clear reference to the November assassination attempt.

The latest move, focusing on those Uzbeks now regarded as aliens, also has political undercurrents, with a Turkmen foreign ministry official saying it was Uzbekistan’s fault that their status was unresolved.

"Why do we need several thousand foreign citizens on our territory when in fact there’s no clear legal basis for them to be here?" asked the official, who asked not to be named. “Uzbekistan has an excess of labour and a shortage of arable land, so they are not interested in taking in migrants, even their ethnic kin. For that reason they may not object openly to the issue being raised – but they are showing little enthusiasm for resolving it, preferring instead to prolong the negotiating process."

It is not yet clear when crunch time will come for the Uzbeks of Dashoguz region.

Some of those interviewed by IWPR said they were prepared to take on Turkmen citizenship, and even to lie about their ethnicity in official documents, pretending to be of Turkmen origin.

“It doesn’t make any difference to me what passport I have, Turkmen or Uzbek, as long as my rights are respected,” said one mother of four.

Further south, the United Nations news agency IRIN reports that Uzbeks around the city of Charjou have found themselves facing similar choices – and 270 families from one town alone have moved to Uzbekistan.

A senior officer in Turkmenistan’s border guard force told IWPR that he had not been tipped off about any plans to force the Uzbeks of Dashoguz’s disputed area to move out.

"I don’t know how the matter will be resolved. So far we’ve received no orders. But forcible deportation to the neighbouring country is unlikely,” he said.

"That group of people is certainly in a difficult position – there’s no one waiting for them in their homeland, and they are foreigners here."

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