Uzbekistan profile - Overview
- 31 March 2015
- From the section Asia
In 1991 Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign country after more than a century of Russian rule - first as part of the Russian Empire and then as a component of the Soviet Union.
Positioned on the ancient Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia, the majestic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, famed for their architectural opulence, once flourished as trade and cultural centres.
Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country and has the largest armed forces.
The country's political system is highly authoritarian, and its human rights record widely decried.
There is no legal political opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has described the use of torture as "systematic".
The country is one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. However, economic reform has been slow and poverty and unemployment are widespread.
Following the 11 September attacks on the US, Uzbekistan won favour with Washington by allowing its forces a base in Uzbekistan, affording ready access across the Afghan border.
Human rights groups accused the international community of ignoring the many reported cases of abuse and torture.
Since independence, the country has faced sporadic bombings and shootings, which the authorities have been quick to blame on Islamic extremists.
In May 2005, troops in the eastern city of Andijan opened fire on protesters demonstrating against the imprisonment of people charged with Islamic extremism. Witnesses reported a bloodbath with several hundred civilian deaths. The Uzbek authorities say fewer than 190 died.
Opponents of President Karimov blamed the authorities' brutal determination to crush all dissent. The president blamed fundamentalists seeking to overthrow the government and establish a Muslim caliphate in Central Asia.
The government's reaction to the Andijan unrest prompted strong criticism from the West, and relations cooled. In response, Uzbekistan expelled US forces from their base and moved closer to Russia, with Mr Karimov at one point describing it as Tashkent's "most reliable partner and ally".
From 2008 onwards, ties with the West began improving again, spurred on by Europeans' search for alternative energy sources in Central Asia and Uzbekistan's strategic importance for the anti-Taliban operation in Afghanistan.
The EU eased sanctions imposed after the Andijan killings, and the World Bank reversed a decision to suspend loans to Uzbekistan. In 2009 the EU lifted its arms embargo.
At the same time, relations with Moscow became less warm, with Uzbekistan in 2009 criticising plans for a Russian base in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
President Karimov's uncompromising policies have also at times created friction between Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, and Uzbekistan has been wary of moves towards closer political integration.