TASHKENT, U.S.S.R. — Nervousness infuses the politics of Uzbekistan today, as unmistakable as the scent of lemon trees in the courtyards of the clay houses in this capital's old quarter.
The troubled giant of Soviet Central Asia declared its political sovereignty in June, and people agree that it is on the brink of dramatic change. But what kind of change?
Nationalist dictatorship or Western-style democracy? Islamic revolution or ethnic civil war? Intellectuals debate the probabilities over shish kebab in the private cafes that abound in the one-story neighborhoods that survived the 1966 earthquake.
Will liberation from the role of cotton plantation to the Soviet empire bring prosperity? Or could independence, with the loss of subsidies from the neighbor to the north, start a slide into Third World misery? People wonder over endless cups of green tea, seated on the floor around a traditional low table piled with apricots and cherries.
"There's a feeling of uneasiness, of uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring," said Mirzaakhmed Alimov, Uzbekistan correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda. "The genie of nationalism is out of the bottle, and no one's going to get it back in."
Mr. Alimov says he is typical of this multiethnic land: His father is Uzbek, his mother Tadzhik. "When the nationalists say 'Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks,' they don't know what they're saying. They're going to start a conflagration beyond anyone's imagination."
Uzbekistan's 20 million people make it the third most populous republic, after Russia and the Ukraine, and its population is exploding. Half of the population is under 20, and 600,000 people are added every year. Fully 60 percent of the population is rural, and village families of eight, 10 and 12 children make it one of the few places in the world where the rural population is growing faster than the urban.
It is also, with its Central Asian neighbors, among the poorest of Soviet republics. In 1988, 45 percent of Uzbekistan residents earned less than 75 rubles a month per capita, compared to just 6 percent of Russian Republic residents and 3 percent of people living in Latvia.
According to official estimates, there are a million unemployed; unofficial sources double that. Infant mortality, at 43 deaths per 1,000 babies, is nearly double the Soviet average.
Every statistic shows Uzbekistan lagging behind Russia, and this fuels the growing national self-consciousness. "Colonialism," a taboo word for most of the seven decades of Soviet rule, now springs quickly to the lips even of some Communist Party officials.
"If we talk about catastrophe and crisis in the Soviet Union as a whole, what can we say about Uzbekistan?" asked Abdurakhim Pulatov, a young, bearded scientist and leader of the nationalist movement Birlik (Unity). "By every indicator, we're two to three times worse off."
But when the Uzbeks look not north but south, to Afghanistan, some acknowledge that the story of Uzbekistan's relations with Russia and the Soviet Union is not just one of exploitation. In Afghanistan, life expectancy is 25 years shorter than in Uzbekistan, infant mortality four times higher, illiteracy far more widespread. Even in Iran, which underwent a period of fairly intensive development, health and education indicators are far lower than in Uzbekistan.
The old line is that Russia, "elder brother" to the other republics, gave them a helping hand. Traditional propaganda lingers in the glistening modern center of Tashkent: the stainless steel monument next to a subway stop, spelling out in Russian "Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union"; building-sized portraits of Marx and Engels, such as have long since been taken down in Moscow; the massive, marble Lenin Museum, the 30 million-ruble tribute of an impoverished society to a man who never actually came here.
The new political consensus is starkly different, and it revolves around one word: cotton.
For years, Uzbek writers were criticized and persecuted for suggesting that Uzbekistan's dependence on "white gold" was more to Moscow's advantage than to Uzbekistan's. Now even the Communist Party leader, Islam Karimov, speaks boldly of "the harm to the republic inflicted by cotton monoculture."
In the early 1930s, Stalin decided the Soviet Union should be self-sufficient in cotton production, and the expansion of cotton plantations began. It continued unabated until about two years ago, with cotton supplanting needed food production, boosting unemployment because of the seasonal nature of cotton work and spawning endless horror stories of child labor and herbicide-poisoned water supplies.
"Our people were enslaved on the cotton plantation," said poet Mohammad Salikh, chairman of the new political party known as Erk -- "Will" in Uzbek. "That's what socialism has given us," he said.
That kind of talk, naturally, makes the ruling Communists nervous. "Democracy is not just rights, it's also duties, responsibility and discipline!" shouts their downtown billboard.