As their tyrant nears his end, the people of Uzbekistan hold their breath
WHETHER Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with astounding brutality for the past 27 years, is dead or alive, his era is almost certainly drawing to a close. Two questions now hover over his hapless people. Who will succeed him? And will they get a better deal? The one they have suffered under for so long could hardly be worse. Of the five post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s is widely regarded as the nastiest, its leader the most mercilessly paranoid.
News of Mr Karimov’s death went viral among Central Asia watchers on Twitter on August 29th, when it was reported by Ferghana News, an independent Moscow-based agency that writes about Central Asia, citing unidentified sources. Rumours of the 78-year-old president’s imminent demise have circulated for years in Tashkent, but this time they were more solid. In its first official announcement concerning the president’s health, the secretive regime revealed that Mr Karimov was in hospital with an undisclosed ailment. His daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, then took to Instagram, disclosing that Mr Karimov had suffered a brain haemorrhage. His condition, she said, was stable, his prognosis unknown. The government has not yet reacted to reports of the president’s death. But if Mr Karimov does not appear at independence day celebrations on August 31st and September 1st, his condition may indeed be dire.
If he dies, what next? Mr Karimov has not publicly planned for a transition from his rule, which began in 1989 when the Kremlin appointed him as communist boss of Uzbekistan. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he became president of an independent state. Mr Karimov has clung to power by rigging elections—last year he was re-elected supposedly with 90% of the vote—and by ruthlessly crushing dissent. In 2005 his security forces gunned down demonstrators in the turbulent city of Andijan. The official tally of victims was 187; independent observers put the figure at between 300 and 1,000. Torture is widespread: tales of prisoners being boiled alive surfaced in 2002.
Uzbekistan’s clans have been jockeying over the succession for years, eager to preserve the economic spoils amassed during Mr Karimov’s long rule. Unless it has been secretly settled already, a power struggle is likely to intensify. Outside powers will also be manoeuvring. Russia, the former colonial master, will be eager to assert its interest in what the Kremlin sees as its backyard. China, with its more mercantile approach, will want to secure its gas imports. And the United States will continue to woo Uzbekistan as an ally in the war against terrorism, mindful of the country’s border with Afghanistan.
The president’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was once groomed to inherit her father’s crown, but a few years ago she had a spectacular fall from grace, leaving the family tainted by scandal. In 2014 she was put under house arrest in Tashkent and may be nervously awaiting her fate in a post-Karimov era. But the presidency may yet be kept in the family via the president’s younger daughter, Lola, a sworn enemy of Gulnara, but she and her businessman husband Timur Tillyaev are not thought to be part of the ruling circle.
Two long-serving insiders probably have better chances: Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the prime minister, and Rustam Azimov, his deputy, though some say the latter has been arrested. Others say that Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service, the country’s most powerful and most fearsome institution, will be the final arbiter and that he may arrange for a dark horse to emerge.
Whoever succeeds him, Mr Karimov will bequeath a troubled legacy. Though Uzbekistan is the most populous of the “stans”, with 31m people and plenty of minerals, and was once widely considered the most hopeful, it has become an economic basket case, riddled with corruption and run along Soviet lines. A black market flourishes. Foreign investors are deterred by a history of assets grabbed. Vested interests in Tashkent rake in the cash from exports of gas, gold and cotton (reaped by a million forced labourers every year), while ordinary Uzbeks struggle to get by. Many depend on remittances from migrants to Russia, but these are dwindling as recession bites there, too.
Mr Karimov’s successor will also inherit one of the world’s most atrocious human-rights records. Political opposition and independent media are banned. Some 10,000 political prisoners languish in jails. Though most Uzbekistanis are secular-minded and practise an easy-going brand of Islam, extremism is festering thanks to the repression of any form of religious opposition. Hundreds of Uzbeks are thought to be fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. An Uzbekistani citizen is among those suspected of attacking Istanbul airport in June.
For a quarter of a century Mr Karimov has kept the lid on dissent. Whoever succeeds him has an unenviable choice. He (or conceivably she) could use the same brutal methods to stem the torrent of disaffection that may burst forth after his demise, or he could loosen up a little and risk being swept away in a deluge of popular anger. Many analysts are pessimistic. “The system that Karimov built can continue after him, self-replicating regardless of who sits at the top,” says Daniil Kislov, editor of Ferghana News. “There will not be a thaw.”