Goodbye Karimov

We don't know whether Uzbekistan's leader is alive or dead. But the system he created will live on.

Daniil Kislov
31 August 2016

29 August: Municipal workers clean Tashkent's Independence Square ahead of Independence Day in Uzbekistan. (c) AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This article originally appeared in Fergana News. We are grateful for permission to translate and repost it here. 

On Monday afternoon, according to our sources, Islam Karimov, the 78-year-old leader of Uzbekistan, experienced clinical death, and was later (possibly) wired up to an artificial blood circulation apparatus. This happened a few days before 1 September, the country’s main public holiday of Independence Day.

And this year, 1 September is no ordinary anniversary — it marks a quarter century of the republic’s existence. Today’s Uzbekistan was born 25 years ago as the successor to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and for all those 25 years it has been ruled by president Islam Karimov, a former Soviet Communist Party and Economic Planning official.

Now his life has come to an end. Just in time for the celebration.

Risks of the job

For those unfamiliar with Uzbekistan, I should explain that getting any news about the leader’s illness has been very difficult, in fact almost impossible — whether it’s a holiday or not. Working as a journalist here often means risking your life or those of your sources.

Our site has been blocked in Uzbekistan for ten years now. Many of the correspondents, whom we train and develop, flee the country to avoid prosecution. Those who stay are subjected to threats. Sources who work with us are intimidated and isolated. Any contact with our editorial team is dubbed “terrorist propaganda”.

Karimov’s circle have also turned out to be barely functioning. They can’t even show the country its president who, however ill he may be, is, they claim, of sound mind and memory

So we can never provide a 100% guarantee for our work. Only 99.9%. We have 99 % trust in our sources of information within the government of the republic — the people who supplied the sad news about Karimov.

But it’s no longer important whether the president of Uzbekistan is physically dead or alive. What is clear is that Islam Karimov is dead legally: his current state does not allow him to interact with the people around him; he is unconscious and unable to perform his official duties.

Karimov’s circle have also turned out to be barely functioning. They can’t even show the country its president who, however ill he may be, is, they claim, of sound mind and memory.

The pathetic “denials” by anonymous sources in the government machine don’t count. This is not the way things are done in civilised countries. Either an official denial should be read aloud by an official government spokesperson, or a detailed medical summary of the ruler’s current state of health should be circulated to all state run TV and radio channels.

“Privacy” is also not a consideration: Karimov is the president of a large country, and its people have the right to know whether he has had haemorrhoids, a stroke, water on the knee or even puerperal fever.


The official “semi-denial” is effectively an admission that there is no proof that the president is alive.

Those people who are standing round the president’s body are in flagrant breach of the law that states that in an emergency situation such as this, the presidential powers should be transferred to someone else. If the president is in no state to govern the country, the Constitution requires that the leader of the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament, assumed his functions.

Why is this not happening? The first excuse is that Karimov is still alive and connected to an artificial apparatus that sustains his basic functions. There is no likelihood of any recovery, but modern medical science can prolong a formal semblance of life in a lifeless body more or less indefinitely.

Today, Islam Karimov has become hostage to his own government-building policies and practice

Besides, the public love a spectacle. This is why the Uzbek government has no desire to spoil their Independence celebrations, on which a heap of money has been squandered and which at any time will always provide the most vivid propaganda symbol for the “prosperity and success” of Uzbek statehood.

The second excuse is that the group of powerful figures around the body of yesterday’s leader are in need of some quiet, a short breathing space. Time to carve up the cake (“there are lots of you and only one of me”). Time to agree on posts and promotions. Time to straighten the issues, unpick the mutual grievances and get over them. Again, without recourse to the law of the land and the Constitution. By the unwritten rules, the criminals’ code.

Plugged in

Today, Islam Karimov has become hostage to his own government-building policies and practice. By creating a sham parliament and unworkable laws and forgetting that he wasn’t going to live forever, by not even training up a successor, he planted a mine under the future of his country.

“Official government sources can’t confirm the death of the president of Uzbekistan, because they can’t make such announcements without the permission of Islam Karimov”. This joke has been circulating on Facebook for two days now, and it is only, as they say, half joking.

Let the people party and enjoy their independence. After all, in Uzbekistan, the state is in no way dependent on the people for legitimacy

Left without their “Daddy” or “Granddad”, the authoritarian ruler who signed every written order and issued constant important verbal commands, the Taskkent “elite” has fallen into a stupor. The Constitution is no help, because no one in this country ever lived by the Constitution. And other ways of handing over power have never even been tried here since the creation of modern Uzbekistan 25 years ago.

The succession process, and the successor him- or herself, will have to be invented from scratch. The officials will have to create a new dictator, provide them with legitimacy and set up fake, pseudo-legal structures of power without any help from the old reliable Islam Karimov, who used to sort everything out. This could take time; in the meantime “Granddad” will remain plugged into the mains.

They’ll pull the plug only when it is decided that everything has been accounted for, everything has settled down and the public are psychologically ready for some change. Meanwhile, let the people party and enjoy their independence. After all, in Uzbekistan, the state is in no way dependent on the people for legitimacy.

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Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

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