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The People of Uzbekistan, Ethnic Groups and Languages

Fergana Valley, Toshkent, Crimean Tatars, Tajiks, Kazakhs

Although many different ethnic groups live in Uzbekistan, the population is highly homogeneous. Uzbeks constituted 80 percent of the population by 1996 after their share of the population increased quickly in the 1990s. The group known as Uzbeks includes descendents of Turkic-speaking nomads who settled in the region beginning in the 15th century as well as Persian-speaking inhabitants of the region’s towns and villages. Russians are a large minority group, accounting for 6 percent of the population. This is less than in the 1980s; many Russians emigrated to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One reason for this emigration is that the government of Uzbekistan has rejected requests to grant Russians dual citizenship. Moreover, many Russians claim that they are subject to discrimination in Uzbekistan. The Russian share has also dropped because of a relatively low Russian birthrate. Other minorities include Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Tatars, followed by Qoraqalpoghs, Kyrgyz, Koreans, Ukrainians, and Turkmens (or Turkomans).

A significant part of Uzbekistan’s non-Russian minority population has also emigrated since the late 1980s. Some of these emigrants are members of ethnic groups that were forcibly exiled en masse to Uzbekistan under the directive of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II (1939-1945). Thus, the Meskhetian Turks, who had been deported from Georgia, have almost all left Uzbekistan. Other deported peoples who have left in large numbers include Germans and Crimean Tatars. On the other hand, the majority of the deported Koreans have remained in Uzbekistan. Although not members of a deported people, most of Uzbekistan’s Jews have also left, mainly for Israel and the United States. Most Jews arrived on the territory of today’s Uzbekistan only under Soviet rule in the 20th century; however, a small community of Bukhoro Jews has lived there for many centuries.

Most ethnic minorities are concentrated in particular areas. For example, the overwhelming share of Russians and Ukrainians live in Toshkent and other industrial centers. Tajiks are concentrated in Samarqand and Bukhoro. Qoraqalpoghs reside principally in their home region, the Qoraqalpogh Autonomous Republic, in western Uzbekistan. Kazakhs are concentrated in areas near Toshkent and Bukhoro.

Tensions among Uzbekistan’s ethnic groups have the potential to create regional conflict, but ethnic-based antagonisms have not escalated into violence since independence. Clashes did occur between Meskhetian Turks and Uzbeks in 1989; the conflict was attributed to the high levels of unemployment and the shortage of housing in the Fergana Valley.

The official state language is Uzbek. It is a member of the Eastern Turkic, or Karluk, language group. There are several Uzbek dialects. The written language that preceded modern Uzbek was written in an Arabic script, and Arabic letters continued to be used for about a decade after the creation of a modern Uzbek language under the Soviets. In the late 1920s, however, the Soviet government decreed that a Latin-based alphabet be used instead. Then in 1940 the government imposed a modified Cyrillic script (the script of the Russian language). In 1993 the government of independent Uzbekistan resolved to gradually revert to the Latin alphabet. Most ethnic minorities in Uzbekistan tend to speak their own native languages. Russian was the preferred language during the Soviet period and is still widely used in the cities.

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