Uzbekistan has been in the news. According the BBC and the Observer (24 May) the government has been forcing hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to pick cotton in the searing heat, and to live in squalid conditions, on “pitiful wages”,
Uzbekistan the world’s third largest exporter of cotton. Uzbek state-owned and controlled cotton has been sold to some of the world’s largest retailers, such as Asda, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Wal-Mart, earning it more than one billion dollars to date.
The International Labour Organisation, however, has recently got the Uzbek government to sign conventions committing it to stop using child labour in its cotton industry. A number of retailers, including Asda and Tesco, are reported as having pulled out of Uzbekistan. Whether the government will implement the ILO conventions remains to be seen.
During the 19th century the area of Central Asia of which modern Uzbekistan is a part, was known as Turkestan, which was incorporated into the Tsarist Empire in the 1860s. The majority of the population were Moslems.
With the downfall of Tsarism the area broke away from Russia; but, after bloody nationalist uprisings, was finally recaptured by Soviet Russia. Uzbekistan became a Soviet Republic in 1924.
After the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, the Bolsheviks gained in influence, and played an increasingly prominent role in the Tashkent soviet, eventually gaining control. They then extended their control to other towns in the area.
In February, 1925, the Communist Party of Uzbekistan held its first congress. It was the only legal party in the country. The second congress, held in November the same year, put through land reforms. Between 1930 and 1934, more than 40,000 peasant “kulak” holdings were forcibly liquidated, and their former owners were either deported or executed. Collectivisation and industrialisation was implemented on a large scale.
The Stalinist purges of 1925 and 1937 were particularly drastic in Uzbekistan. The prime minister, Faizullah Khodzhaev, and the Party first secretary, Ikramov, were accused of organising a nationalist plot, with the assistance of British agents, and were both shot. Previously, the Soviet authorities, in line with developing capitalist industry, persuaded or forced women to abandon the burka and the veil. But hundreds of them were killed by their own husbands and relatives for violating the essential commandments of Islam.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Uzbekistan had become “the most powerful and economically most developed of all the republics of Central Asia” (Economic Geography of the USSR, N. Baransky, Moscow, 1956, p.370); and had become the main cotton producer of the Soviet Union.
Uzbekistan is not particularly large compared with other Central Asian countries (it is 447,400 km2 or 172,700 miles2); but it has a population of about 23 million (compared with Kazakhstan’s five million), of whom 70 percent are Uzbeks. The second largest nationality are Russians. It is bordered by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, with the Aral Sea to the northwest of the country.
From 1930 to 1945 Uzbekistan went through a period of rapid industrialisation. Oil production, and copper and coal mining, were all developed. Hundreds of thousands of former peasants, many of them displaced Russians, became wage slaves. But above all, cotton became King.
Uzbekistan produced cotton decades before the Soviet era. But following Soviet control, the aim consisted of maximising cotton production regardless of the interests of the local Uzbek population. Under Tsarist rule the cotton-growing area of what is now Uzbekistan, was about one million acres by the beginning of 1914. In 1950, it had increased to 2.5 million acres. “Large-scale irrigation work with the aim to extend the area under cotton was carried out in the 1951-1955 period in the central, most desert part of the Ferghana Valley” (Baransky, p.372). The area under cultivation in Uzbekistan is now more then 3 million acres. Numerous cotton-ginning plants and cotton mills have been constructed.
At the same time, however, the Soviet regime diminished the cereal-growing areas from 3.8 million acres in 1913 to 3.5 million acres by 1938. With an increase in population of nearly two million between 1926 and 1939, Uzbekistan became more dependent on food supplies from Russia. During the war, the population of Uzbekistan increased again by another two million. The food situation became critical. All of which, then and later, increased “bourgeois nationalist” discontent in the country.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign state in 1991. It did not become even a limited “bourgeois democracy”. The media is tightly controlled. The United Nations report that torture is systematic. The country has been denied cash from most “international financial” institutions; and unemployment is currently 40 percent.
However, “former US president George W. Bush started funding the uncompromising president, Karimov, after the country allowed US planes to stop there in the run-up to the Afghanistan invasion” (Observer, 24 May).
Meanwhile, Uzbek workers, young and old, continue to be exploited, repressed and robbed, creating surplus value and profits for the local, and overseas, capitalists.
Peter E. Newell