Central Asia’s largest country by population, Uzbekistan, is currently going through its most crucial leadership transition in recent history. On August 29th, reports began to emerge from various Russian-language media outlets that Islam Karimov, the only president in Uzbekistan’s history, had passed away after suffering a stroke. Government sources vehemently denied these claims, insisting that Karimov was in “stable condition,” and had even “risen out of bed” for a short period of time. The situation became so bizarre that two days later, on August 31st, an Uzbek news anchor read a long and triumphant speech, supposedly written by Karimov, congratulating the country on its independence day. Rumors about the president’s health continued to circulate until September 2nd, when Uzbek officials were finally forced to acknowledge his passing.
The nature of Karimov’s death reveals a lot about the political dynamic in Uzbekistan. Why did Uzbek authorities delay the announcement for so long? Many observers believe that it was done in order to give powerful interest groups the opportunity to allocate government positions and resources among themselves. Uzbekistan watchers often claim that the country’s political landscape is dominated by two major patronage networks, or “clans,” which are centered on the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. While this may not have necessarily been the deciding factor during the negotiations, it presumably played a major role. Furthermore, these secretive meetings are a perfect example of the total disconnect between Uzbek elites and the rest of the population. Average citizens in Uzbekistan do not have any real influence over how their country is run. Information is tightly controlled by the state, and national elections are a sham. Ultimately, it is the people who suffer from this corruption and kleptocracy.
As the succession process began to take shape, three major candidates emerged: Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has served as Prime Minister under Karimov since 2003 and managed to survive a series of government reshuffles; Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the country’s National Security Service; and Rustam Azimov, the Minister of Finance. Although Inoyatov is widely considered to be the most powerful person in Uzbekistan, the 72-year-old will most likely be held back by his age. Indeed, early indicators strongly suggest that it is Mirziyoyev who will become the country’s next long-term president, apparently with the blessing of Inoyatov. On September 6th, Mirziyoyev met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to Samarkand in order to lay flowers at Karimov’s grave and pay his respects to the fallen leader. Two days later, Mirziyoyev was confirmed by Uzbekistan’s parliament, the Oliy Majlis, as interim president. Ironically, this violated a constitutional precedent established by Karimov himself, under which executive power should have passed to the Chairman of the Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev. As with all other aspects of political life in Uzbekistan, leadership succession will be a largely arbitrary process, and assuming Mirziyoyev does not make any major missteps, he will almost certainly win the upcoming presidential election on December 4th.
Once the dust settles and Mirizyoyev finds himself tasked with actually governing the country, his first priority will be to establish legitimacy and popular support for his new government. Islam Karimov was a larger-than-life figure in Uzbek politics, and Mirziyoyev may find it difficult to gain the same type of undivided loyalty that his predecessor enjoyed; however, he has several tools at his disposal. First, he could leverage support from Uzbekistan’s former colonizer, Russia. Karimov was notoriously unreliable in his relations with Moscow, having joined and then subsequently withdrawn from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Throughout his time in power, Karimov emphasized the need for Uzbekistan to have an “independent” foreign policy, which usually took the form of isolationism. Mirziyoyev may not have such an option.
Today there are about two million Uzbeks working in Russia, who sent over $3 billion in remittances back home in 2015. Russia’s economic crisis and stricter immigration policies have caused this figure to go down in recent years, which could create a serious problem for Uzbekistan’s elites. The last thing they want is for the migrants (mostly young men) to return home seeking work, only to find none. Establishing closer ties with Moscow, including potentially joining the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union, would help ensure that Uzbeks will be able to freely work and reside on Russian territory. Furthermore, Russia is the only regional power that has both the resources and the desire to extend political and military support to Tashkent. Although China is quickly becoming a key economic partner for Central Asian nations, it has not yet taken any major interest in the region’s internal politics and rivalries. The United States, for its part, has gradually disengaged from Central Asia as it tries to wind down the war in Afghanistan. In many ways, Russia is a natural partner for Uzbekistan’s new government, and Putin’s recent visit to Samarkand may prove to be more than just symbolic.
Mirziyoyev’s next option is to take a page right out of Putin’s playbook, and exploit nationalist and irredentist sentiments in Uzbekistan. In particular, Mirziyoyev could attempt to orchestrate a dangerous escalation of the country’s border dispute with neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Most of the 1,314-kilometer-long border between the two nations is still undefined, and interethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz has been tragically frequent since the fall of the Soviet Union. Most recently, clashes broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan immediately following the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010 that overthrew then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Riots in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad left nearly 420 people dead, mostly Uzbeks, and caused tens of thousands more to lose their homes.
Although that incident did not lead to any serious confrontations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, there is a real risk that any similar violence in the future could lead to war. Even towards the end of Karimov’s lifetime, Uzbek security forces made some provocative maneuvers into Kyrgyz territory. Twice this year, Uzbekistan deployed a team of armed soldiers to Ungar-Too Mountain, which is the site of a Kyrgyz-run communications relay station. Although Kyrgyz officials used to worry that Karimov’s actions posed a danger to their sovereignty, at least he was someone they were familiar with. With Mirziyoyev now trying to legitimize his power, the situation has become more unpredictable, and any provocation could set off a major conflict.
Mirziyoyev’s final option is perhaps the most obvious: he could brutally suppress any resistance to his presidency, and purge any government officials that pose a threat to him. There is certainly a precedent for this in Uzbek politics. Over the past few decades, Islam Karimov mercilessly quashed any form of popular dissent, most notably during the Andijan massacre of 2005, in which Uzbek government forces killed hundreds (if not thousands) of protestors. Most opposition figures, including Karimov’s rival in the 1991 presidential elections, Muhammad Salih, have been driven into exile. Even though Karimov is now gone, his authoritarian state structure still remains. Both Mirziyoyev and Inoyatov are a product of this system, and there is no reason to think that they would seek to dismantle it.
Indeed, the key point here is that with the exception of some foreign policy shifts, there will be no real democratic change in Uzbekistan after Karimov’s passing. Most Uzbeks have no desire to undertake a so-called “color revolution,” as there exists a widespread belief in the country that a strong, authoritarian government is the only thing standing between stability and chaos. Karimov is often credited with preventing the country from becoming “another Afghanistan” by taking a hard line against all Islamic organizations that can be perceived as fundamentalist in any way. With terrorist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan looming on the horizon, it is very unlikely that Uzbek citizens will want to create any sort of power vacuum by taking a stand against the government.
Islam Karimov was only one of several Soviet-era communist officials who took over his respective country after independence. In Central Asia, this phenomenon was particularly widespread, with all five republics in the region falling under the control of these apparatchiks. With Karimov’s passing, only two remain: Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, and Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan. Both men have been in power for almost two and a half decades, and in that time they have both managed to establish their unquestioned authority as “Leader of the Nation.” There are no genuine opposition parties in Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, and there are no clear successors to either Nazarbayev or Rahmon. The big question now is whether Karimov’s death will demonstrate to them that they will not live forever, and whether that will inspire them to create a more sustainable model of governance that does not rely solely on one person. The future of regional stability in Central Asia may depend on it.