What Follows in Uzbekistan?

The very fact that closed and repressive Uzbekistan, never known for press freedoms or public honesty concerning its leader’s health, has now publically announced that President Islam Karimov has been hospitalized for “necessary medical treatment” that will “take a certain period of time”, shows that it must be a very serious matter. It is also possible that the government is, through this “openness,” preparing the nation for a death announcement. Much like the Soviet Union before, from which Karimov rose to power, various officials and family members in Uzbekistan could very well be trying to sort out a succession crisis years in the making before releasing further statements.

The timing of the announcement is particularly significant because President Karimov has always attended Independence Day celebrations on 1 September. The announcement at this point may have been designed to delay the need for further explanation if and when Karimov does not appear on that date. Meanwhile, rumors ranging from Karimov having had a stroke, to Russia’s top heart surgeon, Leo Bokeria, rushing to Uzbekistan to treat him again, fly across the internet. Whether these rumors are able to penetrate into Uzbekistan is unknown, as is the effect they would have if they became public knowledge.

Karimov is the only leader that independent Uzbekistan has known. Raised in an orphanage means that he saw the Soviet Union as mother and father. Thus, he joined the Communist Party early on, ultimately rising to become its First Secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989, from where he attained the position of President in March 1990. He subsequently declared an independent Uzbekistan on 31 August 1991, after the failed putsch against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Karimov would win the election as the first President of a free Uzbekistan in December 1991, in what was the first of several questionable landslide victories, albeit one in which opposition parties were allowed to take part.

Karimov is one of only two surviving Soviet-era leaders in post-Soviet space – the other is Kazakhstan’s Nulsultan Nazarbayev, who, like Karimov, inherited his newly-born nation and who also has not prepared for a succession. Central Asian history does not bode well for peaceful transitions of power. Tajikistan descended into civil war within a year after independence, a condition that would likely return after current President Emomali Rahmon. After the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, (better known as Turkmenbashi), Turkmenistan selected Minister of Health, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who later won a barely contested election for a term in his own right. Initial hopes of more openness in Turkmen society were dashed when Berdimuhamedow replaced Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality with one of his own, albeit one somewhat less absurd. Only Kyrgyzstan has followed its fallen Presidents (all of whom left alive), with a plausible form of democracy to choose new ones, but Kyrgyzstan has also chosen to be a somewhat more open society, with organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank, and USAID offering economic and development advice, and, at least until recently, NGOs operating freely in the nation and relatively liberal social policies. Uzbekistan has had none of this, just as it no longer has a legal political opposition.

Opposition parties and politicians were allowed to participate in the first Presidential election because Karimov was consolidating power over the other members of the old Communist guard. However, as the opposition Birlik “Unity” Party became a populist favorite, Karimov made the political processes for registration for future elections so complicated and so limited in time, that Birlik was not able to obtain the requisite number of signatures to register as a political party, and thus they could not compete. Karimov followed in subsequent years and elections with more authoritarian measures that have prevented the development of any domestic political opposition. Open dissent is now limited to pronouncements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), although this group is no longer unified – one faction continues its traditional allegiance to the Taliban, al Qaeda and other traditional groups, while a second faction has pledged loyalty to Daesh.

Thus, there is no unified or significant political opposition from which a post-Karimov leader could arise, a condition the world noted elsewhere after the Arab Spring.

In a “traditional” society such as Uzbekistan, the problem of succession could be solved if Karimov had a son; he has two daughters: Gulnara, who is reportedly under house arrest, and Lola, who serves as Uzbekistan’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. For years, it was assumed that Karimov was grooming Gulnara for the Presidency, but their falling out over her lavish lifestyle, her shady business dealings, and the fact that she was for a time thought to be more popular than her President-father, followed by her own pronouncement (likely under pressure), that she would not succeed him, as well as recent revelations in the Panama Papers of even more entrenched corruption than previously known, means that this will certainly not occur. Lola is likewise an unlikely choice, as she is relatively unknown at home, quite comfortable working in Paris, owns property in Switzerland, and, if rumors are true, has recently purchased a house in California. It seems she would prefer not to return to Uzbekistan either as President or citizen.

Because Karimov has survived for so long, he has had ample time to remove anyone who might consolidate their own power base outside of him and thus, there are few individuals with the clout and experience necessary to lead the nation. Only Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, since changes to the Constitution in 2014, has seen an increase in duties and power. Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, and Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service come to mind, but all are unlikely to yield easily to the others. It is possible though, that they are currently trying to work out exactly what will happen behind closed doors, as happened in Turkmenistan before. In this struggle, however, they are just as likely trying to work out what will happen with them, their families, their livelihoods, and their lives as they are with Uzbekistan. The Uzbek Constitution states that, in the event of the death of the President, the Speaker of the Senate becomes Acting President until elections are held.

If emergency succession becomes necessary, whether the Uzbek Constitution is followed, whether matters are decided behind the scenes, or whether outside powers get involved – Mirziyoyev is said to be Russia’s choice, with the West leaning toward Azimov – it is unlikely that Uzbekistan will become an open democracy with free and fair elections or that life will improve for ordinary Uzbeks any time soon.

Author: Dr Jonathan Z. Ludwig 

Dr. Jonathan Z. Ludwig is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA and a member of the SIA Advisory Board.

***Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia ***

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