Tuning in to the news last week, the death of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov may have had some of you asking the important questions – “Where?” and “Who?” especially. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Uzbekistan and its complex political history, let me introduce you to a nation that has kept itself largely hidden from the eyes of the Western world.
Uzbekistan – A Brief Introduction
Uzbekistan is a Central Asian nation state with a population of just over thirty million, nestled in between a number of other seldom heard of countries, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in addition to the infamous Afghanistan. Despite the secularism practised both before and after independence, the population of Uzbekistan is primarily Islamic. Their close proximity to areas stricken with radical Islamist conflict has formed the basis of how Uzbek government operates and as a result, the threat of Islamism is all too often used in attempts to justify the human rights abuses that have been rife in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.
The Rise of Islam Karimov
Until last week, just one man had sat at the head of Uzbek government since independence – Islam Karimov. Now infamous for his controversial tactics of governance and the cult of personality which propped up his government for a quarter of a century, Karimov’s regime was repeatedly condemned by the United Nations for widespread human rights abuses. His use of torture against political opponents was exemplified by his decision in 2002 to boil a duo of dissidents alive, just one of many horrific acts carried out under his presidency. Born in the Uzbek second city of Samarkand, he rose to the presidency in 1990, becoming the leader of Soviet Uzbekistan at a time when nationalist movements were springing up across the USSR.
Uzbek independence became a reality ten days after the attempted Moscow coup in 1991. Despite a referendum in March of the same year that had allegedly seen over 90% of voters back a sovereign Uzbekistan within a renewed Soviet federation, the coup set the nation on a different path, leading Karimov to declare full independence. This move was backed by a further referendum in December, which in addition to electing Islam Karimov as President also served to ratify national independence.
The tactics which the Karimov regime used to stay in power were controversial to say the very least, with the Uzbek head of state organising numerous referenda to extend presidential term limits. This was a move they deemed necessary to cling onto power at a time when free and fair elections would have likely resulting in a change of government, due to the widespread socioeconomic decay that Uzbekistan, like many other former Soviet states, was experiencing.
Uzbekistan’s Role in Western Foreign Policy
Islam Karimov’s opposition to Islamism led to the country becoming a staple in Western foreign policy as a key ally in the War on Terror, due to the mutual opposition of the US and Uzbekistan to the Taliban. This period was a particular focus of the UN’s condemnation of systematic human rights abuses by the regime, which they referred to as “institutionalised, systematic and rampant”. Their report also found that the US had deliberately ignored this aspect of the Uzbek judicial system in order to secure the nation’s assistance in the conflict. The threat of Islamism will likely rear its ugly head once again if Uzbekistan is unable to hastily re-stabilise under a new presidency. Islamist organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir will be keen to strike when the state is at its weakest and such instability raises serious concerns as to whether the nation’s future is a secular future.
There is one event that Islam Karimov was known for, even to those who otherwise have little knowledge of this Central Asian state. The Abidjan massacre took place on 13th May 2005, when Uzbek troops opened fire on protesters in the city of Abidjan. The resulting death toll has been estimated at between 187 and 1500 deaths, the vast majority of which were civilians. Ikram Yakubov, an Uzbek defector to Britain, alleged that Karimov had personally given the order to open fire. The massacre was met with opposition from governments across the globe, with even the US, a close ally at the time, choosing to heavily criticise the Uzbek interior ministry and its security services. This led to the souring of relations between Uzbekistan and the West, forcing the US to abandon their base in Karshi-Khanabad and leading to the regime forming closer ties with the Chinese and Russian governments.
Karimov’s final election came last year, elected to the presidency once again with just over 90% of the vote. This election, which although judged to be free and fair by observers from agencies linked to the Russia-friendly CIS and China, was widely condemned by international media and observers as systematically rigged and illegitimate.
The Death of a Dictator
The personal health of the Uzbek President was a no-go zone for comment by even his closest political allies. Rumours of a heart attack in March 2016 were dismissed, however the Uzbek strongman disappeared from public view for the last time in mid-August. On 26th August, the Uzbek government issued a statement declaring little other than that Islam Karimov was in critical condition following a stroke. One week later, on 2nd September 2016, he succumbed to the cerebral haemorrhage he had suffered the previous week. Uzbekistan was plunged in a world of unknowns, many Uzbeks never having known an Uzbekistan without Karimov at the helm. Nigmatilla Yuldoshev will remain as Acting President, a role he is bound to by his position as the leader of the Senate, until early elections can be held.
The War of Uzbek Succession
Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara Karimova was once seen as his inevitable successor, the immensely successful businesswoman having risen to international fame in the 2000s due to her presence in the humanitarian field. However, the rapid downfall she suffered in 2014 appears to have put to an end any ambitions of ascending to the Uzbek presidency. It has been reported that she has since been under house arrest, for the alleged bribery and corruption that propelled her to the top.
Clans play a pivotal role in Uzbek electioneering, with the two largest clans dictating who ascends to the top positions of government. The Samarkand Clan, of which Islam Karimov was a member, is likely to support any bid by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whereas their main opposition, the Tashkent Clan, is more likely to throw its weight behind Rustam Azimov, who currently holds the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
The Next Step for Uzbekistan
Departing from the isolationist foreign policy pursued by Karimov would until recently have been considered unforgivable by the Uzbek elites. However, the cosying-up of Uzbekistan to Russia is epitomised by the writing-off of $865m of Uzbek debt in 2014. This is a trend which is likely to continue if Mirziyoyev becomes President, the man seen as the pro-Russian candidate of the two. Putin has continued to expand his power in Central Asia through the Eurasian Economic Union and Uzbek membership would be someone of a coup for Russia. This would also have the added benefit to Russia of being disastrous for the US, as the gas and oil reserves of Central Asia have formed a key geopolitical battleground. Losing influence in such a key region would only serve to further emphasise the decline of the US as a superpower.
Relations between the membership of NATO and the Russian Federation are at their highest since the end of the Cold War, following the annexation of Crimea and the alleged Russian military support given to rebels in Eastern Ukraine. As a result, the next destination for the largest of the Central Asian states will play a pivotal role in the geopolitical game that we are locked into. Perhaps the actions of Islam Karimov’s successor will benefit Russia, or perhaps another player vying for power in the vacuum created by the death of Karimov. For some time yet we will be unable to tell, but one thing we can tell is this – the result will not benefit Uzbekistan.