It is the most populous of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, with about 26 million inhabitants. Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 80%, while Russians and Tajiks account for a further 10% and Kazakhs around 3%.

 

Since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has been ruled by autocratic President Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party boss who does not tolerate dissent and enjoys wide powers.

 

Uzbekistan hosts a key US airbase and is a Washington ally in the war on terrorism.

 

Islamist radicals were blamed for a string of bomb attacks last year in Uzbekistan, including one in March that killed nearly 50 people. Coordinated explosions at the US and Israeli embassies in the capital, Tashkent, killed three people in July of the same year.

 

Uzbekistan has been heavily criticised by the West for human rights abuses. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has put on hold loan programmes with the Uzbek government because of the poor track record on abuses.

 

Human rights bodies say there are at least 6000 religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan, where only state-sponsored Islam is allowed.

 

With large gas and oil reserves, Uzbekistan is self-sufficient in energy. It is also among the world's top 10 gold producers and the number five cotton producer.

 

Delayed market reforms and tight state regulation have caused a sharp fall in living standards. Monthly wages are about $30. The International Monetary Fund has reduced its presence to a minimum due to official reluctance to carry out reforms.