The death of Islam Karimov is the end of an era, but not the system

The death of Islam Karimov is the end of an era, but not the system

In a special guest post, Pierre-Olivier Bussieres and Matthew Holland explore the key impacts of the recent death of Uzbekistan’s long-time regime leader, Islam Karimov. 

Last Monday, as news broke that Islam Karimov had suffered a stroke and was in intensive care, Central Asia’s stability was catapulted back into the headlines. On Friday, after much confusion, the Uzbek authorities finally admitted it: the president of Uzbekistan, one of the longest-serving leaders in Central Asia, was dead. Now, as the region and its leaders brace for the ripple effects, Uzbekistan is beginning to piece together the way forward and who will succeed him.

The succession race in Uzbekistan

Karimov had ruled since before Uzbekistan’s independence, the 25th anniversary of which was celebrated on 1 September. However, like his regional autocratic neighbors, he developed a personal dictatorship and scrupulously avoided naming a successor or allowing any one person to become a clear front-runner. However, his failing health in recent years makes it realistic to assume that, despite the political intrigue and internal rivalries that were an intrinsic part of Karimov’s regime, preliminary back-room talks on the succession may have already taken place.

According to Article 96 of the Uzbek constitution, if the president cannot fulfill his responsibilities, the chairman of the senate takes over and the election of a new president takes place within three months. Although a swift election is preferable, so as to increase faith in the state’s stability, it is not certain. Karimov’s longevity as a leader means that the nation has never needed to test this aspect of the constitution, which is itself largely a dictatorial regime’s window-dressing.

Most importantly, the timing of the election will be dependent upon a successful conclusion of backroom negotiations between the inner circles of Karimov’s regime and the major tribal alliances of the country; one of Karimov’s most notable achievements was to maintain the balance of power between rival clans. It is these talks that will decide the next president. The coming election is almost certain to be fixed, with one candidate winning by a landslide, having been publicly flattered and backed by several other largely unknown figures.  

At the moment, three men are emerging on the succession scene: Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzoyoyev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, and National Security Committee chief Rustam Inoyatov.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 58, is considered the likeliest successor. He has been prime minister since 2003 and has survived several purges and reorganizations. He has been a key figure in ensuring that the will of the president was carried out, and he has been described as a back-room fixer. His years at the metaphorical coal-face gives him a strong handle on the state of the Uzbek political chessboard and the opportunity to secure the support of key people. Further strengthening his hand, Mirziyoyev is considered to have close relations with both the Karimov family and the security forces, and he also enjoys strong support from the Kremlin.  

Azimov, 56, is seen as a loyal protégé of the president and another potential successor to him. An experienced organizer for the administration, Azimov–a former head of the National Bank of Uzbekistan–has presided over a dysfunctional Uzbek economy for nearly two decades. His knowledge of how the creaking, inflation-ravaged and corruption-ridden system works, makes him a hugely important figure for the elites trying to gain new contracts or move money. But, like Mirziyoyev, he is considered to be amongst the most corrupt of the country’s leaders. Furthermore, his largely financial role under Karimov means that he is likely to have less experience than Mirziyoyev in the political horse-trading that is so often required when securing support. As a sign of the uncertainty of the times, and possibly a sense of his vulnerability in the coming succession drama, rumors that he had been or was about to be arrested have surfaced in recent days–though they were flatly denied by his spokesperson.

Finally, the Chairman of the Uzbek National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, is also considered a possible candidate. Inoyatov is rumored to enjoy close relations with Uzbek-born oligarch Alisher Usmanov, whom Forbes lists as one of Russia’s richest men. However, at the age of 72, Inoyatov’s age would seem to rule him out as anything more than an interim leader, while his links to Uzbekistan’s horrendous human rights record would also play against him. Even if he fails to garner enough support, or simply decides to retain his position as a shadowy power broker, he has a critical role in the succession process–becoming president without his assent would be highly unlikely.

The succession race also poses unsettling questions for Uzbekistan’s top policy-makers. A new leader will bring new powers for his followers and supporters, and sackings or worse for others. Amid fears of a political purge to eliminate potential rivals and stamp the new leader’s authority, sources have told Fergana News that some bureaucrats are already packing their suitcases.

Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara was once considered a possible successor herself, before she was torpedoed by massive corruption scandals and placed under house arrest. Her frequent quarrels with prominent members of the government leave her little room for a comeback, and her current whereabouts are the subject of huge uncertainty too, with some rumours suggesting she has fled the country.

Funeral rites – burying the president, bolstering the system

On Saturday, Islam Karimov’s funeral provided our first opportunity to gauge the regime’s strength and the public mood. The regime, well aware that a well-organized funeral was a key first step towards a peaceful and successful transition, took no chances with security. Authorities levied travel restrictions for non-nationals until September 5 and barred access to parts of Samarkand for the funeral procession, which made its way to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Registan, with the city’s residents throwing flowers as the funeral cortege passed by.

Building up support for, and publically mourning, the dead president is a key way the authorities will try to channel the natural worries people may have after the loss of a long-term leader. It also plays well for prime minister Mirziyoyev, who as organizer of the funeral was given a role that in Soviet times was reserved for those most likely to become the next leader.

Regional stability in question

Assuming, for a moment, that the succession is peaceful, whoever succeeds Karimov, the new president has a huge job ahead of him. Despite large reserves of gas and gold, the nation is held together with scotch tape. Socio-economic inequality, corruption, joblessness, and inflation dwarf official growth figures posted every year, and they provide fertile ground for discontent along with political and religious repression—particularly in the Ferghana Valley, the center of Central Asia’s traditionally moderate brand of Islam.

Any perceived cracking of the government’s façade of control amid a power transfer could provide room for an angry protest movement to flourish—despite an understandable reticence among those who fear making their nation another Syria. However, the rare public demonstrations of organized opposition have been brutally smashed in the past : in 2005, soldiers opened fire on a crowd in the mining town of Andijan, killing hundreds.

Though the fear of Islamic extremism is often manipulated by regimes around the region, fear of terrorism does exist, particularly in the government. Many in Tashkent remember the 1999 car bombings that killed over a dozen people and were blamed on the IMU—a group which last year pledged its allegiance, however disingenuously, to Islamic State. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and recent Taliban successes further add to fear of radicalism in Central Asia.

In times of trouble, Uzbekistan’s reflex in the past has often been to close its borders, a habit that has systematically depressed trade. During the September 3 funeral, for example, even the capital’s airport was shut down. Tightened border controls — for fear of extremism — are likely to continue or increase until the government feels that control is assured and the short-term danger has passed.  

Foreign powers agreed on stability first

For all the country’s many problems, the new leader will benefit from the fact that few people inside or outside Central Asia will want to do anything to further political instability in Uzbekistan right now — least of all Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s 72-year-old president may well be hearing time’s winged chariot hurrying near with the news from Tashkent. He has had a worrying year himself, with his country eyeballing anaemic growth and having weathered extremely rare public protests on land reform. There have even been shootings of police in Aktobe and Almaty.

Tajikistan’s President Rakhmon and Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov both run nations strapped for cash amid falling gas prices and remittances from Russia, with the latter hitting Kyrgyzstan too. A suicide bombing in Bishkek Tuesday has also no doubt underlined the Kyrgyz government’s own fear of terrorism. Stability in Uzbekistan is deemed crucial by the region’s capitals, even if they might each have axes to grind with Tashkent going forward.

Outside Central Asia too, there is no desire for regime change. The US and the UK have sold arms to the Karimov regime despite its rights record, and Washington’s half-hearted objection to Tajikistan’s destruction of the Islamic Resistance Party shows that realpolitik is favoured in this region. Beijing will also want security, along with assurances that China’s purchases of natural resources from the region are secure. The curve-ball could be Russia, which might be tempted to ‘offer’ support to Uzbekistan during its transition, though this would come with strings attached — either in the form of Russian armed forces on their soil or a commitment to joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow would be hoping to find the new president more pliable and less deft than Karimov.

The death of Islam Karimov is one the most important political events to happen in post-Soviet Central Asia. His iron rule made Uzbekistan into one of the most secretive and repressive states on the planet, yet his supporters insist that it helped avoid the chaos seen in other parts of the former Soviet Union. All the signs so far point to a continuation of the same model, aided and abetted by foreign powers hoping to maintain regional stability, even if they hold their noses as they do so. Whoever is finally elected as his successor, the next few months are likely to be highly disappointing for those who hoped that self expression and economic conditions might be more open after Karimov.

Pierre-Olivier Bussieres is a Junior Research Analyst at the SecDev Group, a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada, Editor-in-Chief for Republic of the East,  and a member of the Aleph-Canada network. Pierre holds a Master of Arts (M.A) in Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from Carleton University and spent three semesters working and studying in Russia. He was previously Desk Officer for the Montreal Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, Research Assistant at Carleton University’s Centre for Excellence in European Studies. In addition to his M.A, Pierre obtained a Practical Certification in Political Risk and Geopolitical Scenario Planning.

Matthew Holland is a freelance FSU analyst specialising in Central Asian affairs. He has an MA in War Studies from King’s College London, and has previously worked for IHS and at the UK Parliament.

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This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.