Abstract: Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has continued to rely on an extractive system of forced child labor in the export-oriented cotton sector. In light of the political costs of this system, which relies on a repressive state apparatus and is detested by the Uzbeks who are victims of it, it is therefore of interest to examine the system from a political economy perspective. The costs and balances of the system are weighed, and its history in Soviet and late Tsarist-period practice is explored. For the foreseeable future, Uzbekistan seems to be in a state of institutional calcification with respect to the system of child labor and the human rights situation more generally. Policy alternatives discussed include engaging without preconditions or significant pressure, refusing to engage in the absence of reforms, and engaging through the use of foreign aid, conditional upon certain reforms. The lattermost option is recommended as the most realistic option for dealing with a fundamentally intransigent situation.
Introduction: Since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has continued the Soviet-era practice of relying on the cotton industry as central to the country’s economy. Uzbekistan has also institutionalized the former Soviet practice of forced labor, notably and most egregiously the forced labor of schoolchildren. Despite international pressure and clear evidence of domestic opposition, the Uzbekistani government continues to subject even very young children to an extractive regimen of cotton production, even using police as overseers.
That at the government of Uzbekistan continues to rely on such a notorious system despite the political costs involved warrants analysis and discussion regarding both the regime’s strategy, and the prospects for reform. Since independence Uzbekistan has been ruled by its autocratic President Islam Karimov, who has quashed all challenges to his repressive regime. His regime was targeted for sanctions by the EU in 2005 after a brutal massacre of protesters in May of that year, and by the US in 2003 for its human rights record. Although the sanctions have since been lifted, the central question remains: why does the Karimov regime continue to rely on forced labor, especially forced child labor, for the cotton industry?
Dependent Variable: The costs and benefits of the cotton industry in Uzbekistan can be appraised from a political economy perspective, in order to ascertain the degree to which it may or may not be profitable for the regime to continue the extractive system of forced labor. This will establish the place of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan’s political economy, and the nature of that political economy. First and most obvious, the economic importance of cotton to Uzbekistan must be considered: both the cotton industry’s profitability overall, and the arrangements pertaining to the ownership and use of the means of production. This will determine the ‘pure’ economic costs and benefits of the industry, as opposed to the ‘political capital’ aspects; crucially, it will also determine how the economic costs and benefits are distributed.
Secondly, the political costs and benefits must be considered. The Karimov regime is a repressive, authoritarian one, necessitating the orientation of the state apparatus towards repression in order to quash dissent. Consequently, a key factor here is the regime’s grip on power: to what degree does the Karimov regime appear to be in control? This is really the question of regime sustainability and stability: what (if any) domestic opposition does the regime face, and what are the regime’s responses? Popular unrest and military coups are the key forms of dissent to look for, because they measure the degree to which the regime has control of the civilian population and the armed forces, respectively.
Regime responses to international challenges, such as sanctions, are also of importance. To the degree to which Uzbekistan may require foreign aid, trade, and investment, foreign political pressures might constitute a significant force for change. This could constitute a significant political cost to the regime, and if said political costs lead to economic sanctions, an economic cost as well. Since international opinion has firmly condemned Uzbekistan’s human rights violations, it is worthwhile to ascertain the degree to which Uzbekistan has been subjected to significant political and economic pressure to reform, and, if so, how the regime has handled said pressures. If the regime has shown signs of relenting or caving to international demands, this would be a sign that these political costs were too high for it to sustain. If, on the other hand, the regime has been able to hold its ground by evading or simply flouting international demands, this would be a sign of regime confidence and obduracy, and an indication that it is unlikely to reform the extractive system of forced labor in the cotton sector.
A key question here concerns civil and basic human rights. Given that the Karimov regime is repressive and notorious for its human rights violations, any change towards increased civil and political freedoms might be thought to be a sign of weakness on the part of the regime. On the other hand, such a change might be taken as a sign of prudent calculation on the part of a regime whose essential power remains undiminished: a measure designed to ameliorate international criticism or deflate domestic tensions. In other words, it is not enough to simply note the presence or absence of any signs of reform towards more civil and political rights: signs of reform, or their lack, must be measured in context within the broader complex of Uzbekistan’s politics, society, and economy.
Possible Explanations: One possible explanation for the phenomenon of the Karimov regime’s reliance on forced labor is that in fact, the regime cannot reform the sector without losing an unacceptable share of political and/or economic power. This scenario might be termed ‘institutional calcification’, and it requires some analysis and exposition. The basic idea is that, having institutionalized the system of forced labor, for the Karimov regime to now abandon it would jeopardize its enjoyment of power.
In other words, the regime will not abandon the system, either because it cannot reconcile itself to the diminished political and economic power it would wield without it, or because it fears not only this, but also the ramifications of such a step. It might be that the regime fears nothing more than losing a profitable source of revenue and an extensive and thorough system for controlling the population; on the other hand, it may be that the regime fears what else will happen if it allows this, i.e. revolution.
This model might be called ‘institutional calcification’, because it proposes that due to path-dependence, the regime is stuck with the system of forced labor: in the minds of President Karimov and his supporters, too much is at stake for it to relent. But within this model is an important question: if it is indeed the case that forced labor represents path-dependent institutional calcification, to what degree is the Karimov regime viable? It may be, for example, that the Karimov regime believes that it cannot relax its grip by abandoning the forced labor of schoolchildren, but the high political costs—domestic and/or international—associated with this strategy will likely doom the Karimov regime. This would mean that the Karimov regime is living on borrowed time, and will inevitably collapse. On the other hand, the Karimov regime may still be viable for the foreseeable future, even if this strategy is one that it is committed to for reasons of institutional calcification. Consequently, it is important to answer the question of whether or not the strategy is viable, as well as the question of whether or not Karimov’s regime is committed to it due to path-dependent institutional calcification.
Another possibility is that the regime has simply not met with enough pressure. Here the case of Russia, also a post-Soviet state, is potentially instructive: Russia has remained largely dependent on resource extraction, notably oil, but has also tried to diversify its economy. Russia has seen economic growth and a disastrous downturn in the recent financial crisis; all in all its successes have been quite mixed, but it has still succeeded in creating a much less regimented and repressive society than Uzbekistan’s. Given the common heritage of the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan as constituent republics in the USSR (federative, in Russia’s case), and with the Tsarist Russian Empire, it may be the case that Russia points the way towards what Uzbekistan could become with sufficient domestic and/or international pressures.
Research Results: Uzbekistan’s cotton industry is immensely profitable: the country is the third-largest exporter of raw cotton globally, to the tune of some US$1billion. The system of child labor is institutionalized and overseen by the state’s repressive security apparatus: quotas are assigned to each school, and teachers are tasked with ensuring that students, including children as young as nine, “collect thirty to fifty pounds of cotton a day.” Any student who refuses these exactions may be subject to beatings and expulsion; any teacher who refuses to take part will be fired.
This reliance on cotton production, including the use of forced child labor, has roots in Uzbekistan’s century-long history under Russian domination, from the Tsarist Russian conquest in the late 19th century to the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Determined to create a Russian-controlled source of cotton after the shock of losing exports from the U.S. South due to the Union blockade during the American Civil War, the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia and turned Uzbekistan and much of the rest of the region into a center of cotton cultivation. In keeping with the usual approach of the Tsarist regime, this system was heavily state-controlled and repressive.
Under the Soviet Union and especially under Stalin, the system of authoritarian, state-controlled cotton cultivation was not only continued, but expanded in area and intensified. Control of irrigation was made subject to Moscow’s control, and collectivization was relentlessly enforced. This drew opposition from within Soviet Central Asia, especially given the ruinous effects of collectivization and centralized control of irrigation, opposition Stalin crushed with his usual recourse to violence and terror. However, as Teichmann explains, the peasants of Uzbekistan responded by crafting an ingenious system of resistance: faced with demands to produce cotton that were so crushing they threatened the peasants’ own livelihoods, they responded by subverting the entire apparatus. Through an informal system of local management, the peasants found ways to siphon off water for their own plots through “accidents” and “inefficiencies”.
Since independence in 1991, the arrangements governing the means of production in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector have changed but little. As before, the state remains firmly in control of cotton production, as seen, as well as crucial postproduction activities, through State Trading Enterprises (STEs). The Karimov regime took some grudging steps towards privatization as early as late 1993, but has never really relinquished control of the means of production. Moreover, socioeconomic factors help to reinforce the system of forced child labor: not only have children traditionally worked alongside adults in Central Asia, but rural Uzbekistani parents continue to have large families. This, coupled with the fact that 27% of the population is below the poverty line, helps to contribute to the maintenance of child labor as a means of supplementing family incomes, as well as the practice of forced child labor to meet cotton quotas.
Thus, the Karimov regime retains control of an immensely profitable export-oriented cotton sector. This is the key benefit, and it is a considerable one. The question, then, is the true measure of the costs. The literature reveals three key factors threatening the stability of the cotton sector: environmental degradation, domestic unrest, and international pressures. Soviet mismanagement has led to widespread ecological degradation, most notoriously the desiccation of the Aral Sea, but has also produced salinity buildup, water-logging, and the deterioration of irrigation systems. This is by far the most basic and fundamental challenge: if adequate production is not physically possible, the entire cotton industry will crumble due to the laws of chemistry and biology, irrespective of political and cultural factors.
In fact, the cotton harvest declined in 2006 by 3.2%, leading to concerns about further decline. International competition, especially from India, poses a further challenge. However, the harvest picked up again in 2007, and cotton continues to constitute a vital national industry. In addition to this, there is the important question as to why labor reform, a political and social consideration, ought to be the answer to an ecological problem—from the perspective of a repressive regime. In any event, Uzbekistan is still the world’s third-largest exporter of raw cotton, and it still nets US$1billion in revenue for the country. In light of the Karimov regime’s history with regard to any sort of reform and especially with regard to human rights, reform seems unlikely so long as the sector is profitable, as will be seen below.
The ‘land reforms’ introduced relatively recently by the Karimov regime are a good example of Uzbekistan-style reform: superficial changes that do very little to alter the overall balance of power. Before the reforms, the state owned the land outright, allowing it to direct the cultivation of cotton, in particular. As Bhat explains, the state introduced land reforms due to tremendous internal pressures pertaining to the political arrangements governing the means of production. However, the elites were not unified, and competing groups within the upper strata resulted in few and relatively ineffectual changes, for the most part. The rural poor lacked the ability to articulate their own voices in the national discourse in any meaningful way: they were too poor and too unorganized. The meaningful changes that did occur primarily benefited certain intermediate groups, notably local officials, and forced child labor remains as entrenched as ever.
The Karimov regime has faced internal opposition of two kinds: Islamist militants, and civilian protesters and political opposition. In 2004, a string of bombings and shootings racked the country; according to the government, these were probably the work of Islamic extremists. In the main, however, Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have not posed severe threats to the regime: for example, a 2002 report found that the IMU was regrouping, not in Uzbekistan, but in Afghanistan.
Civilian protests and political opposition present a potentially far more serious threat to the regime, one that might conceivably topple it. A study conducted by the International Labor Rights Forum found that the practice of forced child labor is deplored by “parents, children, teachers, and even the farmers whose livelihoods are aided…” Such widespread opposition to the practice would seem to indicate ripe grounds for revolt indeed.
In May of 2005, a crowd of thousands of protesters rallied in the eastern city of Andijan. The occasion was the jailing of several alleged Islamic extremists, which set off a riot that turned into a jailbreak. Thousands of prisoners were freed by the rioting crowd, leading to a confrontation with the state’s apparatus of repression the next day. Soldiers were sent in, and they opened fire on the crowds, leading to casualties reported in the hundreds. Months later, the government tried and convicted fifteen men for inciting the demonstration that led to the bloodshed. The trial was widely condemned by international observers as a farce, given the use of torture and psychotropic drugs to elicit the men’s confessions.
And yet, the Karimov regime remains in control today, and the practice of forced child labor in the cotton fields continues. Andijan has yet to serve as the touchstone for a broader revolutionary movement, whether an armed confrontation or a non-violent political ‘negotiated revolution’. In the years since the massacre, the regime has continued to crack down on dissent, jailing human rights activists and possibly murdering a journalist. Karimov was re-elected in 2007, despite being constitutionally barred from running for a third term, in an election which international observers predictably found “rife with fraud and ultimately a failure in meeting international standards”. In particular, Karimov’s “three unknown rivals spoke about his successful stewardship of the economy” and “also refrained from asking Uzbeks to vote for them.” Since his re-election, Karimov seems to be taking the country in an increasingly autocratic direction, expelling international human rights observers and continuing to jail alleged inciters of religious extremism.
At this juncture, certain observations are possible. First of all, the literature indicates that it is extremely unlikely that the Karimov regime will discontinue the practice of forced child labor. As seen, child labor is deeply engrained in Uzbekistan, due to a combination of socioeconomic factors and the country’s repressive history under the Soviets. Domestic sources of opposition have been ruthlessly suppressed, most notoriously at Andijan. And although the rural populations that are affected the most by the practice are apparently quite against it, they remain poor, unorganized, and marginalized by a system of state power over the means of production, and a repressive security apparatus that sets police as guards over schoolchildren who are forced to work in the cotton fields.
For all of these reasons, it seems appropriate to describe the extractive system of child labor as an example of institutional calcification to some degree. At the very least, the government benefits from it massively, and is under remarkably little pressure to change it. The government has much invested in this system, which produces about US$1 billion a year. And so far the Karimov regime has very successfully, albeit very cruelly, dealt with all perceived threats to its power, most notably at Andijan. Whether it believes it has to continue the system of forced child labor to maintain its hold on power seems almost irrelevant: the rural populations are poor, unorganized, and deeply marginalized, and the only dissent that urban populations have managed to produce has been brutally suppressed.
This still leaves the question of foreign pressures, most notably sanctions. Under President George W. Bush the U.S. led the way in this regard, slapping an arms embargo on Uzbekistan in 2003 due to Karimov’s terrible human rights record. In 2012, however, President Obama restored military aid, albeit only “in the form of non-lethal defensive weapons and equipment.” Ironically, this move came at a time when Uzbekistan’s record was, somehow, managing to worsen further still, and in the face of complete obduracy on the part of President Karimov. For the U.S., the key motive was to expand an already productive working relationship with Tashkent: the U.S. was already “using Uzbekistan to transit non-military cargoes”, and Washington dropped the sanctions in order to entice Tashkent into expanding the permissible cargoes to include military technology and equipment.
The EU hit Uzbekistan with a much more comprehensive list of sanctions in response to the Abidjan massacre, including an arms embargo. Since Uzbekistan gets most of its weapons from Russia, however, the latter was a largely symbolic gesture. In fact, symbolic is probably the best description of the sanctions’ true impact, since they did very little to actually hurt the regime’s economic and political foundations. In any event, they were repeatedly watered down and progressively abandoned.
Still, the EU sanctions were finally dropped entirely in 2009 after the Karimov regime took a couple of steps which might appear to be important: it released some political prisoners, and abolished the death penalty. Although this might seem a step in the right direction for Uzbekistan, Karimov’s terrible human rights record and penchant for ‘reforms’ that do very little to change the underlying systemic realities of power in the country. International human rights activists criticized the EU’s decision in this, urging it not to cave. Indeed, perhaps the most egregious aspect of this from a humanitarian perspective is that the EU dropped even its demand for an independent investigation into the massacre at Andijan.
From the above, it is clear that the regime has faced very little international pressure, and the international pressure that it has drawn has proven to be of little impact and not long in duration. The country’s human rights record remains as dismal as ever, and there is no sign of any compelling factor which might influence the regime to discontinue the practice of forced child labor in the cotton fields.
Policy Analysis and Recommendations: As it is currently constituted, it is doubtful that the regime will tolerate enough pressure to push for reform; it is far more likely to continue to be obdurate and refuse to bend until it breaks, in the event of sufficient domestic opposition. But even this presumes that there will be sufficient domestic opposition to constitute a serious, severe challenge to the regime’s survival. It might be argued that when Karimov eventually dies or retires the regime will die with him, but given the historical roots of Uzbekistan’s extractive labor system and other human rights abuses this appears an exercise in wishful thinking.
The first policy option, then, is to simply engage with the regime. The international community can accept that Uzbekistan is not going to change in the foreseeable future, and continue to do business with it anyway. The U.S. has already chosen this course, and so has the EU. Following this policy option, foreign countries will continue to do business with Uzbekistan and not attempt to pressure the country unduly.
On the other hand, the chief kind of business that Uzbekistan does with the outside world involves the export-oriented resource model: Uzbekistan exports cotton and hydrocarbons, in particular. As the case of Russia, not to mention the ‘rentier’ states of the Middle East, demonstrate, reliance on an export-led model tends to undermine the chances that a country will develop a more diversified economy. In practice, such models have also served the needs of a variety of authoritarian regimes quite admirably, notably in Saudi Arabia and until recently, Libya under Gaddafi. Uzbekistan is another good example of this very thing. For this reason, it may be argued on humanitarian grounds that it is not morally permissible to engage with the Uzbekistani regime ‘as it is’, because in so doing, the outside world is effectively bolstering the regime. As long as Uzbekistan’s cotton exports continue to be profitable, Karimov will have no real incentives to change labor practices, all other factors being more or less equal.
Although the prospects for change are extremely unlikely in Uzbekistan, there is a third option that might make the most of the limited opportunities available. Under this option, the international community could offer certain kinds of aid, but make the aid contingent upon the regime’s willingness to permit international human rights observers. If this works, perhaps, after several years, more of this kind of pressure could be used to again tackle the issue of child labor. This approach is by no means a sure strategy for affecting meaningful change in Uzbekistan; indeed, the prospects for the foreseeable future remain very slim. Nonetheless, this sort of dynamic engagement, neither simply accepting the country as is nor refusing to do business with it, may allow for the best chances of eventual change at some point in the future.
Aksoy, M. Ataman, and John C. Beghin, Eds. Global Agricultural Trade and Developing Countries. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2005.
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UZNews.net. “US lifts sanctions against Uzbekistan.” UZNews.net. January 2, 2012, http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=en&cid=31&nid=18953
 Alyssa Antoniskis, “Cotton Picking in Uzbekistan: A Child Labor Industry,” The Human Rights Brief, November 13, 2013, http://hrbrief.org/2012/11/cotton-picking-in-uzbekistan-a-child-labor-industry/; Bilal Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia,” Problems of Economic Transition 54, no. 1 (May 2011): 89, DOI 10.2753/PET1061-1991540108
 Stephen Castle, “Europe Ends Its Attempt to Penalize Uzbekistan,” New York Times, October 27, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/asia/28uzbek.html?_r=0; Oana Lungescu, “EU removes Uzbekistan arms block,” BBC News, October 27, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8327703.stm; Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” Uzbekistan Country Review (2012), 14-17, http://search.ebscohost.com/; UZNews.net, “US lifts sanctions against Uzbekistan,” UZNews.net, January 2, 2012, http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=en&cid=31&nid=18953
 Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia,” 89.
Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 9-11.
 Castle, “Europe Ends Its Attempt to Penalize Uzbekistan,” New York Times; Oana Lungescu, “EU removes Uzbekistan arms block,” BBC News; UZNews.net, “US lifts sanctions against Uzbekistan,” UZNews.net.
 Emerging Europe Monitor, “Karimov Beyond 2007?”, Emerging Europe Monitor: Russia & CIS 11, no. 8 (2007): 10, http://search.ebscohost.com/; Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 9-11.
 Keith Crane and Artur Usanov, “Role of High-Technology Industries”, in Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, ed. Anders Aslund, Sergei Guriev, and Andrew C. Kuchins (Washington, D.C.: Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2010), pp. 118-119; Sergei Guriev and Aleh Tsyvinski, “Challenges Facing the Russian Economy after the Crisis”, in Russia After the Global Economic Crisis, ed. Anders Aslund, Sergei Guriev, and Andrew C. Kuchins (Washington, D.C.: Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2010), pp. 9-10.
 Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 9-12.
 Alyssa Antoniskis, “Cotton Picking in Uzbekistan: A Child Labor Industry,” The Human Rights Brief.
 Thomas McCry, Uzbekistan (New York: Haights Cross Communication, 2004), 61-62.
 J. Franz, I. Bobojonov, and O. Egamberdiev, “Assessing the Economic Viability of Organic Cotton Production in Uzbekistan: A First Look”, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 34, no. 1 (2009): 100, DOI: 10.1080/10440040903396821; McCry, Uzbekistan, 62.
 Christian Teichmann, “Canals, cotton, and the limits of de-colonization in Soviet Uzbekistan, 1924-1941”, Central Asian Survey 26, no. 4 (2007): 504-509, DOI: 10.1080/02634930802018240
 M. Ataman Aksoy and John C. Beghin, eds., Global Agricultural Trade and Developing Countries (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2005), 267; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Cotton and Wool Situation and Outlook Yearbook (Springfield, VA: Economic Research Service, 2000), 22.
 Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia,” 87-89; Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions”, 10.
 J. Franz et al., “Assessing the Economic Viability of Organic Cotton Production in Uzbekistan”, 100.
 Emerging Markets Monitor, “Uzbekistan: Economy Stable Amid Risks to Cotton Sector”, Emerging Markets Monitor 13, no. 5 (2007): 18, http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
 Antoniskis, “Cotton Picking in Uzbekistan”, The Human Rights Brief.
 Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia”, 89-91.
 Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 12.
 Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia”, 89.
 Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 14-15.
 Uzbekistan Country Review, “Political Conditions,” 17.
 Antoniskis, “Cotton Picking in Uzbekistan”, The Human Rights Brief; Bhat, “Socioeconomic Dimensions of Child Labor in Central Asia”, 89.
 UZNews.net, “US lifts sanctions against Uzbekistan,” UZNews.net.
 Emerging Europe Monitor, “Limited Global Pressure”, Emerging Europe Monitor: Russia & CIS 9, no. 12 (2005): 10, http://search.ebscohost.com/
 T.O.L., Transitions Online, “Human Rights: Time to Rethink Uzbekistan”, T.O.L., Transitions Online (2009): n.p., http://search.ebscohost.com/
 Castle, “Europe Ends Its Attempt to Penalize Uzbekistan”, New York Times; European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, “EU lifts sanctions on Uzbekistan despite human rights concerns,” European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity (October 27, 2009), http://www.europeanforum.net/news/759/eu_lifts_sanctions_on_uzbekistan_despite_human_rights_concerns
 European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, “EU lifts sanctions on Uzbekistan despite human rights concerns,” European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity; T.O.L., Transitions Online, “Human Rights: Time to Rethink Uzbekistan”, T.O.L., Transitions Online