Any account of contemporary Uzbekistan has to begin with the Andijon Massacre of 13 May 2005, which was sparked off when two dozen powerful local businessmen were jailed for being members of Akramiya, an allegedly extremist Islamic movement banned by the Uzbek government. A group of their allies stormed the prison where they were being held, touching off a massive but largely peaceful demonstration in Andijon’s main square. The authorities responded; over the next few hours, government troops killed somewhere between 187 and 1000 civilians, depending on which source you believe.
When Uzbekistan refused to allow an independent international investigation, the USA withdrew most of its aid and the EU enforced sanctions and an arms embargo. Karimov evicted American forces from the strategically important Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase near Karshi and the US Peace Corps and high-profile NGOs were forced to leave in the face of 'registration problems' or similar technicalities.
Karimov used the Andijon events to launch what Human Rights Watch called an ‘unprecedented’ crackdown against opposition political activists and independent journalists. Today it remains extremely difficult for a Western journalist to get a visa to Uzbekistan.
Relations with the West have slowly improved, largely because Uzbekistan remains a key player in regional security and as a transit for NATO operations in Afghanistan. With such tight control inside the country, many radical Uzbeks appear to have left to join Islamist organisations abroad, taking major roles in the New Year's Eve 2016 nightclub shootings in Istanbul and the Stockholm truck attack in 2017.
Despite a constitutional two-term limit, Karimov quietly won third and fourth successive terms in 2007 and 2015, garnering over 90% of the vote each time. Karimov was only forced out of power in 2016 by his death. He was laid to rest in Samarkand and a tomb is under construction at the Khazret Khizr Mosque.
The then Prime Minster Shavkat Mirziyoyev was duly elected president with 89% of the vote in a rubber stamp election. There have been signs that there may be some political reforms, especially after Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov was released from prison after 18 years, but few Uzbeks are holding their breath.
Uzbekistan remains a tightly controlled state, with almost no opposition, no free media, arbitrary detention and arrest, and reports of systematic human rights abuse and torture.
Gulnara, Karimov's daughter, a former pop star, socialite, diplomat, multi-millionaire businesswoman and one time heir apparent to the presidency, saw a spectacular fall from grace in 2014. After a public bust-up with her mother (who she accused of being a witch), she was put under investigation for corruption for receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes and at the time of writing remains under house arrest in Tashkent.
One piece of good news was the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Uzbekistan topped the boxing medal table, winning three golds and two silvers. Photos of the wildly popular athletes now advertise fruit juice across the country.
Two encouraging recent reforms were the deregulation of the national currency in September 2017 and the official end of student and teacher forced labour in the cotton harvest, both of which hint at more economic reforms to come.
Uzbekistan & Cotton
For better or for worse, the Uzbek economy hums to the tune of the ‘White Gold’. The country is the word's fifth largest producer of cotton and the crop earns the state over US$1 billion a year. Truth be told, cotton is – and always was – a poor match for much of Uzbekistan; it's a thirsty crop in a parched land. Decades of monoculture that has led to the drying up of the Aral Sea has also exhausted the land and saturated it with salt. Poor yields and low government-controlled prices leave farmers too poor to pay for machinery or labour. Yet the government won’t let them rotate their crops or convert to fruit. It’s all cotton, all the time.
The whole system would collapse entirely but for the country’s policy of forcibly sending students, doctors, government employees and others, including children, into the fields every autumn to harvest cotton. The practice has drawn international condemnation and boycotts of products made with Uzbek cotton by Wal-Mart and other juggernauts of the Western apparel industry.
The Uzbek government, which has always denied all accusations, finally passed a law in 2009 banning the forced labour of children under 16. The law has had no effect on forced adult labour according to the Cotton Campaign, which estimates that four million adults are forced to work in Uzbekistan's cotton fields, each of whom are given a daily quota of 60kg of cotton they have to pick. Travel through Uzbekistan or Karakalpakstan in the autumn and you'll see thousands of people in the fields.