Tuesday, 03 November 2020

From Tamerlane to Alexander the Great: Uzbekistan’s Evolving National Narrative

Published in Analytical Articles

By Dmitry Shlapentokh

November 3, 2020, the CACI Analyst

After the death of President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s new leadership has engaged in a transformation process structurally similar to those in the post-Stalinist USSR and post-Maoist China. Manifestations of this new reality are manifold. Some are quite visible to the public, such as the recent harsh jail term for Karimov’s daughter, accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and other crimes. Other manifestations are more subtle, yet important in order to understand the new trends. In particular, a shift is underway from the emphasis of Tamerlane (Timur) as the founder of Uzbekistan to the role of Alexander the Great in the country’s antecedents.



  Mirziyoyev 500

BACKGROUND: After the end of the USSR, political elites across the post-Soviet states saw a pressing need to construct new national identities and placing these in a historical context. In Uzbekistan, Tamerlane (Timur), the brutal conqueror and creator of a huge empire, was from the beginning of the post-Soviet era proclaimed as Uzbekistan’s founder, and as a particular model for President Karimov’s rule. 

Karimov’s death and the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who became Uzbekistan’s president in 2016, led to changes in Uzbekistan’s internal and foreign affairs. While preserving major elements of the national mythological narrative – the importance of Timur, the autochthonous nature of Uzbeks as an ethnic group and an idiosyncratic culture – Mirziyoyev clearly distanced himself from Karimov’s legacy by departing from Karimov’s somewhat isolationist and implicitly assertive foreign policy. The departure from Karimov’s peculiar “Timurism” also implied a certain liberalization in the country’s internal policy, structurally similar to the de-Stalinization and de-Maoization that took place after the deaths of these rulers. This also drove a shift in the construction of historical images. Timur, as the founder of the Uzbek state, increasingly competed with images of Alexander the Great, representing openness to the world, especially the West, and comparatively lenient internal policies. 

Uzbek authorities and the broader scholarly and artistic communities advertise Alexander’s relationship with Uzbekistan in various ways: e.g. through well-publicized exhibitions, tourist attractions and archaeological excavations.  The exhibitions related to Alexander have been among the most palpable demonstrations of Alexander’s relevance to Central Asia. One exhibition, opened in the fall of 2017 and called “Alexander the Great: the way to Roxana,” conveyed a clear political message. Roxana was a local princess who married Alexander and the mother of his only son. The marriage emphasizes the historical symbiosis of the East (with Uzbekistan as the center) and the West. 

Exhibitions related to Alexander the Great are not the only means by which Uzbek authorities emphasize Alexander’s relevance to Uzbekistan. Archaeology and its findings have also been employed to demonstrate the importance of Uzbekistan’s territory in Alexander’s (and his successors’) empire. Excavations near the city of Termez have uncovered a city allegedly built by Alexander. The archaeological findings were broadly publicized both in Uzbekistan and abroad. Uzbek authorities clearly attach significant ideological importance to the discoveries, and plan to publish a “pocket book” to popularize them. 

Aside from publicizing archaeological discoveries and staging exhibitions with Western participants, Uzbek authorities have advertised Alexander’s role in Uzbekistan’s history through particular tours with international participants, for example an “international expedition” termed “Along the Road of Alexander the Great.”

IMPLICATIONS: These activities seem intended to emphasize the message that modern Uzbekistan emerged not from the brutal Timur, but from the rather benign and universalist Alexander. The reorientation of Uzbekistan’s national mythological narrative goes hand in hand with the new regime’s political agenda, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, Uzbekistan is undergoing a process with several similarities to the USSR’s de-Stalinization. The post-Karimov leadership has had Karimov’s daughter convicted of large-scale fraud, embezzlement and graft and given a harsh prison term – although it should be noted she had been confined to house arrest even in the latter years of her father’s tenure. The authorities have also released political prisoners and removed thousands from lists of alleged extremists.  

In Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, Tashkent has made several demonstrative gestures to indicate its new openness and orientation towards international cooperation. The most vivid changes have taken place in Tashkent’s relationship with Dushanbe, which has been extremely tense for several years due to their competition over water supply. At one point during the late Karimov tenure, the two countries appeared close to direct conflict. Yet after Mirziyoyev’s ascent to power, Uzbekistan-Tajikistan relations have undergone a process of détente. Uzbekistan resumed gas deliveries to Tajikistan, and in April 2018 Mirziyoyev visited Dushanbe. In March 2020, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan engaged in joint military exercises, the first in the post-Soviet history of these countries. A thaw can also be seen in Tashkent’s relationship with Moscow, and Tashkent has raised the possibility of entering the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union albeit this prospect remains uncertain. 

At the same time, Uzbekistan seeks to improve its relationship with the United States. Mirziyoyev’s 2018 meeting with President Trump was the first between Uzbek and U.S. leaders since 2002. Uzbekistan and the U.S. have also seen an increase in bilateral trade, continued military cooperation, and most recently, in February 2020, Tashkent hosted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Uzbekistan has also increased its cooperation with the EU, and Mirziyoyev proclaimed in January 2020 that Uzbekistan is open to “conscientious foreign investors.” In 2018, the EU and Uzbekistan engaged in “open negotiations on a new comprehensive agreement,” covering “rule of law, justice, freedom and security, human rights, migration, trade, as well as economic and sustainable development.” Uzbekistan has also extended its cooperation with individual European countries such as the UK. At the same time, the country has continued to develop its positive relationship with China.   

CONCLUSIONS: After the death of President Karimov, Uzbekistan has undergone substantial changes in its internal and external policies. This implies increased liberalization in internal policy, détente with former foes, and extended cooperation with all great powers and regional organizations, including the U.S. and the EU. These broad changes are underpinned by a modification of the national mythological narrative. In the national imagination, the centrality of Timur is increasingly challenged by Alexander the Great, who in this narrative has emerged as not just a humane, civilized leader, but also as the creator of an empire integrating the East and the West, built on trade and cooperation. While Uzbekistan’s current leadership does not motivate domestic and foreign policy by direct references to Alexander, the promotion of a new national narrative requires approval from the top leadership and is clearly utilized to indicate the post-Karimov change in Uzbekistan. 


AUTHOR'S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.


Image Source: United States Department of State via Flickr accessed 11/3/2020 


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