Uzbekistan’s long-time dictator has just died, what next?
AS IT HAPPENED
August 17: President Islam Karimov last seen on state television.
August 27: Karimov suffers brain haemorrhage.
August 28: Rumours circulate that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov – a potential contender to succeed Karimov – has been placed under house arrest. Officials quickly denied this allegation.
August 29: Karimov’s death alleged by Ferghana News, which is denied by Uzbekistani officials.
August 31: Karimov’s daughter claims that he is in a stable condition in hospital being treated for a stroke.
September 1: Ferghana News reports preparations for Karimov’s funeral in his birthplace of Samarkand.
September 2: Media outlets confirm Karimov is dead.
RECENT POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
June 1989: Islam Karimov becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan, then part of the USSR.
August 1991: Uzbekistan declares independence from the Soviet Union and Karimov becomes president.
February 1999: 16 die in bombings in Tashkent, which Karimov blames on the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
June 2001: Uzbekistan becomes a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which also includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan
October 2001: Uzbekistan allows the US to use its Karshi-Khanabad airbase to support operations in Afghanistan.
March-July 2004: Dozens killed in shootings and bombings blamed on extremists. Terrorism is more prevalent in Uzbekistan than in any other Central Asian country.
May 2005: Troops open fire on demonstrators protesting their economic situation in the eastern city of Andijan. Estimates of the number killed range from 200 to 1,500, resulting in widespread international condemnation.
August 2005: Uzbekistan evicts US forces from the country in retaliation for American condemnation of the Andijan massacre.
June 2012: Uzbekistan withdraws from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation shortly after improving ties with NATO. This reflects Karimov’s policy of balancing between the US and Russia.
February 2014: Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, is reportedly placed under unofficial house arrest after corruption scandals, making it unlikely that she will succeed him.
March 2015: Karimov is re-elected with over 90 per cent of the vote, a regular occurrence
March 2016: Russia agrees to forgive 95 per cent of Uzbekistan’s debt.
Uzbekistan lies in the heart of Central Asia and has the region’s largest population. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, it has been ruled by President Islam Karimov since its independence in 1991. Karimov has maintained a ‘super-presidential’ regime – the presidency controls all decision-making; the parliament and courts are only nominally independent.
Karimov’s authoritarian rule has seen robust economic growth – fuelled mainly by commodities exports – but a weakening of civil society and accusations of systemic torture. Nevertheless, his regime maintained stability by balancing the demands of the country’s powerful clans, particularly from the three key regions of Samarkand, Tashkent, and Ferghana.
Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan to the south and Karimov has been an important, if fickle, NATO partner in the war on terror. Karimov has also maintained close ties with Russia, playing the two Cold War adversaries against each other to his advantage. Due to its size and location, Uzbekistan is the lynchpin of Central Asia; its behaviour can shape the political orientation of the region, with significant economic and strategic consequences as far afield as Russia, China, and South Asia. China has growing economic interests in Uzbekistan, particularly in the energy sector.
POTENTIAL OUTCOMES: DOMESTIC
Uzbekistan’s elites – namely its clan leaders, intelligence officers, and senior bureaucrats – may come to an agreement among themselves who will succeed Karimov. This would involve significant intra-elite bargaining and may partially explain the lack of clarity about Karimov’s current status as the elites seek to maintain stability while determining a successor.
The following men are the most likely contenders for the position.
Mirziyoyev has served as prime minister since 2003. He led the Independence Day festivities, a role traditionally filled by Karimov, and flew to Samarkand on Thursday, possibly to arrange Karimov’s funeral. Mirziyoyev will rely on strong support from the Samarkand clan – which he leads – as he vies for the presidency. Changes to the constitution pushed through in 2011 have increased the powers vested in the prime minister, which will aid Mirziyoyev’s bid for Uzbekistan’s top job. However, Mirziyoyev’s limited political acumen and a fearsome reputation for violence could hurt his chances. If selected, his rule could be more brutal than Karimov’s. Mirziyoyev also has strong ties to Alisher Usmanov, a Russian billionaire who has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Azimov is Uzbekistan’s finance minister and an experienced diplomat who hails from the Tashkent clan. He has served in finance-related government posts since 1998 and was the main interlocutor for Uzbekistan’s relations with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development after independence.
As chief of the National Security Service, Inoyatov is considered a kingmaker rather than a true contender. Inoyatov controlled access to Karimov and is thought to be responsible for the downfall of Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara. Despite being a member of the Tashkent clan, he seems to have some influence over the Samarkand clan through his intelligence networks. Yet the security chief is known to be on good terms with Mirziyoyev and he could opt to support the prime minister in order to balance the clans.
REFORMIST NEW LEADER
Finance Minister Azimov is described as a reformer within the regime. If he becomes the next president, the country may experience limited economic liberalisation. However, substantial social reform is unlikely, particularly if his control of the presidency is weak.
Karimov’s foreign policy was characterised by isolationist and belligerent tendencies; a new leader could reset the country’s foreign policy. This may initially manifest itself as a softening of regional tensions. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had a fraught relationship since the 1990s but these tensions were mostly driven by personal grievances between the countries’ autocrats.
Reports of Karimov’s death may encourage long-suppressed dissidents to call for reform. If this occurs, popular discontent over corruption, poverty, and repression may spiral into demonstrations and force the government to implement a reform program regardless of who becomes president. However, the well-resourced security forces, which have been Karimov’s primary tool for quashing his political opponents, could be deployed again to similar effect.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic political organisation, has a longstanding presence in the country, where it has portrayed itself as an opposition movement. The organisation’s public presence has been decimated by Uzbekistan’s security institutions and the group will find it difficult to organise itself in time to affect the succession struggle. However, Karimov’s death may embolden the group to cease its underground activities and begin promulgating its conservative Islamist agenda again.
Another threat comes from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a UN-listed terrorist organisation. Splits within the IMU over its relations with ISIS in 2015 resulted in its leader disappearing. Many of its fighters have also been killed in Afghanistan over the past years, putting it in a weak position to destabilise the government. However, there are around 500 Uzbeks fighting in the Syrian conflict who could return home to take advantage of instability during this uncertain period. Limited bomb and shooting attacks are a possibility.
The Ferghana Valley has been a hotbed for unrest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence roiled the region in 1990 and 2010, partially triggered by economic disparity between urban Uzbeks and rural Kyrgyz. The city of Andijan, where at least two hundred demonstrators protesting their economic situation were killed by government forces in 2005, also lies in the valley. Anti-government sentiment over economic conditions may flare up again while the government is preoccupied with the aftermath of the presidential succession.
Over two million Uzbeks work overseas, almost all of them in Russia. Economic stagnation in Russia has seen some 15 per cent of these working-age migrants return home since over the past year. Unemployed and entering an uncertain political climate, this demographic could protest for political change.
Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan that has held an (unexercised) legal right to hold an independence referendum since 2013. Antigovernment sentiments over nepotism, environmental devastation and associated health problems, as well as economic stagnation, could lead to a push for independence. If challenged, Karakalpakstani rebels could disable the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline, which would halt almost all gas exports to Russia (a significant source of government income). If Karakalpakstan tries to secede, this discontent could spill over into Kazakhstan’s western provinces, which have a tense relationship with Astana. Despite this, Karakalpakstan will have little direct influence over who succeeds Karimov as the region’s clan is the country’s weakest.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – an organisation primarily set up to manage regional security – may deploy peacekeepers to Uzbekistan should stability deteriorate. However, the SCO chose not intervene during the Kyrgyz Revolution in 2010 and its strong non-interference principles would likely dissuade intervention unless the government lost complete control of the country.
Russia is unlikely to intervene unilaterally, particularly given its preoccupation with conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Moscow is more likely to lend political support to one of the leading candidates in order to gain influence with the next president. Russia could also direct the presidential succession through its ties to the powerful National Security Service.
In the event that the clans cannot negotiate a managed transition, public demonstrations escalate violently, or one or more of its regions moves towards armed autonomy, Uzbekistan may experience civil conflict. This would be the least desired result for all interested parties and is very unlikely to materialise.
Uzbekistan has the region’s largest and most well-equipped military force and the country’s division would lead to significant bloodshed. Ethnic Uzbeks in neighbouring states may internationalise the conflict. Under these circumstances, the likelihood of an intervention by the SCO or Russia would increase.
POTENTIAL OUTCOMES: INTERNATIONAL
Uzbekistan is not at risk of an economic crisis. Political instability can often scare off foreign investors and tourists, but neither play a substantial role in the Uzbek economy. As long as the government remains in control of its territory the country should not suffer economically as a result of Karimov’s death. The country’s near-term economic prospects were already slightly unfavourable but the succession is unlikely to worsen them.
However, the primary threat of economic pain would come from international sanctions. A repeat of anti-government riots and violent suppression as seen in Andijan in 2005 could result in a punishing round of sanctions. However, if this were to materialise, Tashkent could choose to appeal to Russia to block a UN Security Council resolution for economic aid in exchange for joining the Eurasian Economic Union or re-joining the CSTO.
NEW GEOPOLITICAL ALIGNMENT
The country’s next leader could abandon Karimov’s policy of playing Russia, China, and the US off against each other and align the country more firmly with Russia. This would involve joining the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or the Eurasian Economic Union. However, Uzbekistan will be careful not to stray too far from Russia’s orbit for fear of provoking its ethnic Russian population or separatists in Karakalpakstan who want to join the Russian Federation. Russia is also host to two million Uzbek migrant workers which contribute significantly to the country’s economy.