Thursday, 30 March 2017 00:00

Party Problems and Factionalism in Soviet Uzbekistan: Evidence from the Communist Party Archives Featured

Nicklas Norling


March 30, 2017, pp. 131

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Executive Summary
This paper examines party problems and factionalism in Soviet Uzbekistan, covering the period from the creation of the republic in 1924-1925 to independence in 1991. More specifically, it focuses on the social basis of politics, the existence of place-based elite networks, faultlines of conflict within the Uzbek elite, the prevalence of national and/or regional solidarities, and centralization and decentralization of appointment power.

The prevailing theory on the subject is that politics in Soviet Uzbekistan was defined by indigenous "clans" or regional "solidarity networks", resulting from traditionally strong family bonds and a clan-based social structure. This literature is not uniform but adherents share the assumption that the largely pre-modern Central Asia compelled strong loyalties directed to one's place of birth, district, or province rather than to the nation or even the communist party. Thus, when given an opportunity, senior Uzbek officials stacked offices with individuals from their home-town or region of origin and ignored formal Soviet appointment rules. Moscow, on the other hand, had to maintain a delicate balance between these groups so as to prevent any one of them from becoming to hegemonic, lest they challenge its authority.

Several books and dozens of articles have been published on Uzbekistan's "clans" or solidarity groups but none of them, notably, build on primary archival sources. Still only contemporaneous archival documentation could, conceivably, shed light on Soviet authorities' perception of patronage and whether it was viewed as distinct from that exercised elsewhere in the USSR.

This paper aspires to fill this gap. It draws on archival evidence from Moscow's RGASPI and RGANI archives and documentation of the Party Control Commission which monitored party violations in the Soviet Union. The Commission neatly described and categorized forms of patronage, the presence of nepotism and localism (zemlyachestvo or mestnichestvo), and tribal influences in each republic and is, as such, an invaluable resource on this subject. The focus is Soviet Uzbekistan although plenty of material has been drawn also from other Soviet republics. Whether locally based loyalties were more or less present in Uzbekistan than elsewhere in the Soviet Union can, needless to say, only be assessed comparatively.

The main findings are: First, the archival record contains scant evidence that subnational loyalties were a major problem in Soviet Uzbekistan. While there were rifts these were mostly limited to antagonisms between Uzbeks and Russian/Slavs in the Central Committee, "groupism" in the agricultural sector on the specific technologies to be used, and oligarchic decision-making in obkom and republican bodies. Locally based loyalties were noted elsewhere in the Soviet Union, especially in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and several Russian oblasts but only rarely in Uzbekistan. This held true even during Khrushchev's union-wide crack down on zemlyachestvo in the 1960s.

Soviet authorities did adopt a policy to balance the neighboring Turkmen tribes in the 1920s. But no such policy was ever considered for Uzbekistan, presumably because the social structure of the nomadic Turkmen was greatly different from the settled Uzbeks and Moscow shared this preconception. If anything, Uzbeks were considered highly capable and generally advanced and were therefore also dispatched to staff party and state apparatuses in neighboring republics.

That particular regions dominated politics in early Soviet Uzbekistan while others lost out owed to events coinciding with the Bolshevik conquest. Stalin decimated the disloyal Kokand autonomy and its elite, Bukhara was bought off, and the historical power center Khwarazm was too backward to compete for political power. Thus figures from Tashkent, Bukhara, and to a lesser extent Ferghana – the economically, demographically, and politically most important component parts of the republic – came to dominate the new republic.

Second, the supremacy of any one or two of these regions at later points in time could be explained by Moscow's intricate "hierarchy of regions" in which cadres were drawn from the most important oblasts, the ranking of which varied over the Soviet period; Minsk and Vitebsk filled analogous roles in Belarus, just as Vilnius and Kaunas did in Lithuania.

Notably, however, when power over cadre appointment was extensively decentralized, principally during the Brezhnev era, this hegemony dissolved. At no point in Soviet Uzbekistan's history did members of the Central Committee Bureau (the highest party organ) hail from more varied regions than during the zenith of Rashidov's powers, who served as First Secretary throughout the Brezhnev era.

Third, in Uzbekistan, as elsewhere in the USSR, coalitions of protégés formed at the oblast and republican-levels primarily among former co-workers and associates. Region of origin played a marginal role at most in this calculus, as archival documentation cited in this paper attests to. That the Uzbek elite typically served in several provinces during their careers diversified loyalties beyond home regions. Coalitions formed among figures of diverse origin, resulting in essentially non-territorialized factions. This diversity was arguably more pronounced than elsewhere, not less. This explains in part why zemlyachestvo was a marginal concern in contemporaneous archival documentation.

Fourth, the party violations pinpointed by the Party Control Commission in Soviet Uzbekistan were scarcely unique: Foot-dragging on policy implementation, nepotism at lower levels, embezzlement, theft, concentration of powers, misuse of state funds, low numbers of figures from working class backgrounds in governing positions, failure of plan fulfilment, wrecking and sabotage under Stalin, a lenient approach to national/religious sentiment, exclusion of local nationalities, "groupism", corruption, and speculation. These were to varying extents observable in the Western parts of the empire as well. The only special concerns in Central Asia appears to have been Uzbeks' "feudal attitude towards women" and, possibly, a high turnover of cadres.

Fifth, appointment power was not uniform over time in Soviet Uzbekistan. Apart from the lax Brezhnev era, noted above, the period in which the Uzbek leadership had greatest freedoms in selecting their associates was, paradoxically, under Stalin in the 1940s. During the pre-1937 era and under Khrushchev and Gorbachev the Uzbeks' room for maneuver was highly circumscribed. The notion of Uzbek "clans" that alternated in power is thus a gross simplification since the center often exercised its prerogatives over the nomenklatura, leaving no or little room to fill the highest offices in the republic.

Sixth, Uzbekistan as a territorial entity only began to appear on maps in 1924-1925. Recent statehood has been viewed in the literature as one explanatory factor for strong pre-national regional loyalties. While this may make sense theoretically, archival documentation rather points to the opposite: National solidarities crystallized quickly among the elite, if for no other reason than that these officials owed their careers to Stalin's "affirmative action" policies and the creation of an Uzbek republic. Factionalism existed in the early days, doubtlessly, but this was rarely influenced by sub-regional loyalties.

Such national sentiments reached their heights during the Yusupov period, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1937 to 1950, and also under Rashidov. Rashidov was, in many ways, a product of Yusupov's Uzbekistan and the recovery of Uzbek history that took place under Yusupov's reign. Nationalism became a potent force in Soviet Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek elite coalesced around this idea. Noteworthy is that Stalin often sided with the Uzbeks against the Russian prefects stationed in the republic, thereby encouraging the emergence of an increasingly cohesive and nationalistic Uzbek elite.

Seventh, older readers may remember the "cotton scandal" in the mid-1980s, in which hundreds of Uzbek officials were purged following revelations of widespread corruption, embezzlement of cotton, and "mafia-rule". This, it seems, was also the catalyst of the clan/region hypothesis pioneered in 1985 by an article on Uzbek "regionalism". This theory of extensive nepotism and subnational loyalties corresponded seamlessly with the picture portrayed by the Prosecutor General's anti-corruption investigators, Telman Gdlyan and Nikolai Ivanov, as well as that of Rashidov's successor Inamzhon Usmankhodzhaev. In 1988 Soviet central media began referring to "clans" in Uzbekistan and shortly thereafter, in 1989, Western scholars too adopted this concept. This chronology raises the question whether the notion of "clans" in Uzbekistan was a genuinely scholarly finding or an appropriation of a propagandistic word used by Soviet authorities that took a life of its own.

This, in summarized form, is some of the evidence that compel a re-evaluation of politics in Soviet Uzbekistan. Of course, this paper does not portend to have said the final word on the topic. Other archival evidence or oral testimony may surface that challenge these findings. But on the basis of evidence examined by this author there are few reasons to conceive of factionalism and party problems as different from republics in the western non-Muslim parts of the empire. There were some distinctive features, to be sure, but "clans", tightly organized regional solidarity groups and the like were not among them. Some may find this argument strange since most leading Central Asia scholars have affirmed the existence of these groups. Even so, a literature can easily be susceptible to mythmaking when authors cite each other as evidence and there is no original account, based on primary sources, from where claims stem.



Read 13729 times Last modified on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 12:36





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  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
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    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
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    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
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     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
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    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.