Uzbekistan’s veteran dictator and first President, Islam Karimov, left his country as he ruled it: plagued by inconsistencies in news reports, government cover-ups, and incorrigible deceit. While Karimov reportedly died on September 2nd at the age of 78 due to a brain hemorrhage, he likely passed away well before his government’s official announcement. The full extent of Karimov’s critical condition was not revealed to the media until his daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, announced it on her Instagram profile. Then, after days of speculation, the Uzbek government finally confirmed that Karimov had passed away. Following a few hours of contention, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, the chairman of the upper house of Parliament and next in the line of presidential succession, stepped aside to allow long-time Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev to become the interim leader.
The postponed announcement of Karimov’s death sheds light on the fears of the regime. Given that Uzbekistan has never held democratic elections and that nearly half of the country’s 32 million citizens have only lived under Karimov, such a delay in announcing the Uzbek leader’s death signifies that the regime is concerned about maintaining the status quo. Unfortunately for its citizens, its neighbors in Central Asia, and leaders around the world, Uzbekistan’s malicious, progressively inert, and undeniably criminal status quo looks set to stay for the foreseeable future.
Out with the Old, in with the Old
Despite Uzbekistan’s status as the second largest—and most populous—Central Asian country, its happenings rarely appear in Western news. However, Karimov’s death deserves attention: it is the first political change in Uzbekistan since the dissolution of the Soviet Union more than a quarter-of-a-century ago. The impending transition period will be a decisive test for the future of the country. A smooth, internal transfer of power from one strongman to another is all but assured; even though such fluidity may not be ensured if the new administration continues to embrace old government policies of stagnation and oligarchy.
Fortunately for Uzbekistan, the nation’s finest institution is its propaganda machine. The tightly-controlled press allows the government to maintain a steady and controlled flow of communication and order. According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, a presidential election must be held within three months of the former leader’s death, and former Prime Minister and now-President Mirziyoyev was sworn in after the December 4th election. Such a result was to be expected, not because the people wanted Mirziyoyev, but because the choosing of the Uzbek leader happened months before the people had any “voice” in deciding their contested future.
While Mirziyoyev as the next president is assuredly fortunate for the country’s inner circle in Tashkent, it is disastrous for the millions of other Uzbek citizens who are oppressed by the government daily. The destitute citizens of Uzbekistan should not remain hopeful for change under a new administration, because the moment Mirziyoyev took power, he characterized his predecessor’s tenure in office as one replete with “democratic reforms and transformations in the political, economic and social spheres.” That is why it was no surprise that during his first day on the job, Mirziyoyev emphasized his intention to maintain the policies of Karimov’s government.
For domestic policy, the interim President reiterated the urgency behind preserving the stringent and borderline oppressive rule of law, authoritarian inter-ethnic harmony within the nation, and a continued “strict observance of the rights and freedoms of citizens.” While these initiatives may seem promising, in actuality, they entail continued monitoring of citizens, violence toward non-Uzbek peoples, and further human rights violations in order to maintain law and order.
On an international level, Mirziyoyev also pledged a continuation of isolation and a fervent repudiation of potential membership in international economic communities or military alliances. It appears that Uzbek political commentator Usmon Khaknazarov was correct in 2003 when he noted that Mirziyoyev, as the governor of Samarkand, was a “young Karimov.”
Thus, the future of Uzbekistan is clear. Unless it begins to reform its stagnant economic policy and grant expanded political rights and freedom of speech, relations between the elite and poor will become more contentious and may spark an uprising and accompanying authoritarian crackdown, of the same magnitude as the events in Andijan roughly a decade ago. Early in 2005, after Uzbekistan had once again fallen into another economic downturn, countless citizens abhorred both Karimov’s deplorable economic policies and his political authoritarianism. These citizens took the streets in the Uzbek city of Andijan to protest, but were brutally repressed by Karimov’s police. The police claimed the protestors were Islamic militants who wanted to overthrow peace and stability in Uzbekistan.
After close inspection of Uzbekistan’s political climate, a similar procession of events is highly possible, as the coming transfer of power will likely lead to “increased government repression and total intolerance for any form of civil protests”. The Uzbekistan National Security Service has, in fact, already begun “increasing its counterintelligence and antiterrorism activities.”
The repercussions of Karimov’s reprehensible policies will only worsen if Mirziyoyev continues Uzbekistan’s quasi-isolationist policies, which mix domestic political repression and economic ignorance. Over the past decade, Russia has been pushing for a stronger, multilateral engagement with its former pre-dissolution regions, and Putin wants to include Uzbekistan in this effort. History between Uzbekistan and Russia, however, suggests further Russian efforts to cultivate that estranged relationship may not be fruitful. Throughout his tenure, Karimov pursued a policy dedicated to self-reliance and an independence from foreign partners, which isolated his country both from the West and Russia. Some of these high-profile decisions included Karimov removing all U.S. military personnel from the country in early 2005, pulling out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (spearheaded by Russia), and refusing to join the Eurasian Economic Council.
Uzbekistan’s relationship-averse foreign policy, and fear of potential domination by a more powerful nation, will lead to a less economically progressive and geopolitically competitive country. One report noted that continuing such a policy will inevitably cause the reverse outcome, and will eventually necessitate Uzbekistan joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which “68 percent [of Uzbeks] favor joining.” The largest roadblock to joining is that membership in these organizations would entail Uzbekistan loosening its stringent trade policy, in conjunction with opening its economy and making its archaic bureaucratic structure less difficult to negotiate for its potential foreign friends. One editorial noted that these current economic structures ensure “some of the country’s influential business groups benefit directly from monopolies on imports and exports.” At best, Uzbekistan may forge a stronger relationship with Russia because of Putin’s personal relationship with Mirziyoyev, but it would be difficult for that fostered association to translate into serious new trade policies or membership in economic unions.
A Restless Future
Uzbekistan’s geographical situation certifies its key role in maintaining trade and transit routes throughout the Central Asian region, and it remains a vital player in the dynamic world that is Asian geopolitics. A violent transition of power, one resulting in domestic discontent from both tyrannical political and failing economic policies, could be consequential in jeopardizing both the region’s political stability and collaborative economic unions.
Image Source: Wikimedia/Пресс-служба Президента России