The most populous country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan was of little interest to the outside world until, in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States was attracted to its 85-mile border with Afghanistan. Although 80% of the 26 million citizens are Uzbeks, there are significant minorities of Russians and Tajiks. Uzbeks themselves also live in neighboring countries, such as Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, where they make up 13% of the population, and Tajikistan, where they account for almost a quarter of the population. There are also two million Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is an oddly-shaped nation, the product of the Stalinist equivalent of gerrymandering. In fact, there are four parts of Uzbekistan that are surrounded on all sides by Kyrgyzstan. Besides the capital of Tashkent, Uzbekistan includes the ancient Silk Route cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, part of the ecologically-ruined Aral Sea and, in the east, most of the densely populated and politically volatile Fergana Valley. Most Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims and 99% are literate. Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton (behind the United States), and it is one of the only nations in the world that is self-sufficient in oil.
Lay of the Land: Flat-to-rolling sandy desert with dunes; broad, flat, intensely irrigated river valleys along Amu Darya, Syr Darya; shrinking Aral Sea; semiarid grasslands surrounded by mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in east.
The United States recognized Uzbekistan as an independent state in December 1991. Diplomatic relations were established in February 1992, following a visit by Secretary of State James Baker to the republic, and the United States opened an embassy in Tashkent the following month.
US-Uzbek relations cooled significantly following the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005. At this time the government of Uzbekistan sought to limit the influence of US and other foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on civil society, political reform, and human rights inside the country. Relations deteriorated rapidly following US and European demands for an independent, international investigation into the May 2005 Andijan violence.
Uzbekistan’s strategic importance to the United States goes beyond its geopolitical location vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The Central Asian country is also a major supplier of uranium. In fact, the sale of this and other nuclear fuels from Uzbekistan to the US constitutes the majority of all trade between the two nations. In 2008, the US imported a total of $292 million in goods from Uzbekistan—of which, $285 million was nuclear materials and other fuels.
US Ambassador Sees Changes in Human Rights for Uzbekistan
In 2003, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov ordered parliament to pass a law that made him and all members of his family immune from prosecution forever. Later he made it illegal to refuse to praise him and his policies during religious services. Actually insulting him was punishable by up to five years in prison. He also criminalized placing loyalty to Islam above loyalty to the nation’s leaders. For good measure, Karimov banned the study of Arabic, which was being used by students and scholars to read the Quran in its original language.
Note: The United States recognized Uzbekistan on Dec 25, 1991, and established diplomatic relations on Feb 19, 1992. Embassy Tashkent was established Mar 16, 1992, with Michael Mozur as Chargé d'Affaires ad interim.
Ilhom Nematov has served as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States since February 2010.
George A. Krol was nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan on July 1, 2010.