Uzbekistan: after Karimov, what next?

The news that Uzbekistan’s president has suffered a stroke has plunged the region into uncertainty. Central Asian analysts from Fergana News offer their views.

Fergana News
31 August 2016

Uzbekistan's authoritarian president Islam Karimov has suffered a brain hemorrhage, putting the region's future politics in doubt. (c) Manish Swarup / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.We repost this article with permission from Fergana News.

After the news that Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov, who has ruled the country for more than 25 years, is in intensive care following a stroke, Central Asian politicians and political analysts have been discussing the future of Uzbekistan, the largest republic in the region.

The main question is, of course, who will replace Karimov as Uzbekistan’s head of state? The two obvious rivals for the job are prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his deputy Rustam Azimov.

We reproduce some of their comments as published by the Fergana.news online news agency.

Arkady Dubnov, Central Asia specialist

“The person with most chance of occupying the Tashkent ‘throne’ is the second figure in the official Uzbek hierarchy, 59-year-old PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has led the government since 2003. Daniel Kislov, editor in chief of fergana.news, shares my opinion. Mirziyoyev’s weight in the administration is also connected with his proximity to the presidential family and the support of Rustam Inoyatov, the all-powerful chief of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB).

“The most important question, however, is what will become of Uzbekistan after Karimov. If he is succeeded by Mirziyoyev, then Tashkent will come under much stronger Russian influence, although this doesn’t imply that it will rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The interests of Karimov’s successors, which will be more pragmatic than political, require real support and Moscow won’t stint on it as it is a crucial issue.

“It can’t be discounted that the new generation of the Uzbek elite will have more pro-western leanings, but sharp swings in mood and direction are not typical of Uzbek politics, and this would be a matter for the future.

“Any signs of a change will, of course, be anxiously awaited in the neighbouring capitals Dushanbe [the capital of Tajikistan], Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan] and Astana [Kazakhtan], and moreover with greater apprehension than hope.

Any signs of a change will, of course, be anxiously awaited in the neighbouring capitals Dushanbe, Bishkek and Astana, and moreover with greater apprehension than hope

In Uzbekistan itself some people are hoping for a thaw, like the one after Stalin’s death in 1953. Others are afraid of Islamist radicals coming to power: there has been a general belief that it was only Karimov that held them at bay. In any case, Uzbekistan will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its independence on 1 September without a leader for the first time.

“There’s no obvious potential leader in Uzbekistan’s political opposition. There hasn’t even been an opposition for a long time. That says a lot about the country’s regime: it was intolerant of any opposition from the start. All the opposition figures from the Soviet years are either no longer with us or emigrated long ago. Having said that, Karimov still has one well known opponent, Muhammad Salih, a celebrated poet who stood against Karimov in the 1991 presidential election but received only 13% of the vote.

Salih was the founder and leader of the Erk (“Freedom”) Party, which still claims many followers in Uzbekistan, although Salih now lives in exile (and was given a 15 year prison sentence in absentia). The only threat to the present government, however, is of course the radical Islamist movement, many of whose members have been imprisoned simply for observing their faith by praying five times a day and reading religious books, and who are the reason for Uzbekistan’s reputation for having a large number of political prisoners.

“We nevertheless need to look at the situation from all angles: Karimov is still regarded by many Uzbeks as a guarantor of stability, and that’s also true”.

Andrey Grozin, head of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan Department of Moscow’s CIS Institute

“Karimov’s successor will come from among the people who are already in prominent positions – people who have been part of the president’s inner circle for the last ten years at least. There are not many of these, and three names usually come up. In the first place, there is Rustam Inoyatov, who has been head of the Uzbekistan’s National Security Service since 1995.

Then there are long serving PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his deputy Rustam Azimov, who also oversees the country’s financial and external economic politics.

The Uzbek elites will want to maintain the political system developed under Karimov and their own place in it — their groupings, their businesses and their control, and I think they will manage to come to some agreement and avoid serious internal conflicts in the interests of preserving this status quo”.

Alisher Taksanov, political émigré and former ministry of foreign affairs official

Taksanov is urging people not to forget Uzbekistan’s Constitution, according to which “if the current president is unable to carry out his responsibilities, his responsibilities and powers should be temporarily entrusted to the Chair of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis [parliament]”, and a presidential election should take place within three months.

So, according to Taksanov, “for the moment, the acting head of state should be Nigmatilla Yuldashev, a former justice minister who belongs to the Tashkent clan. This has one crucial consequence — a total transfer of power to the regional elite in the capital. The representatives of the Samarkand (of which president Karimov is a member) and Fergana clans will now have to take second and third place respectively in the pecking order.

The only route open to Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Rustam Azimov, on the other hand, is to stand in the presidential race that will take place three months after the start of Yuldashev’s acting powers 

“However, the politicians still need to observe the law, if only for form’s sake. Which means that Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who has never shown any ambition to be top dog, is temporarily holding the reins of government. Security chief Inoyatov, of course, has his own plans, but needs to choose between two options: to stay within the law, i.e. support Yuldashev, or organise a putsch to place one of the other candidates in power.

And we mustn’t forget that Yuldashev is also now acting military Chief of Staff, which means that all the security structures also fall into his remit. If the National Security Service doesn’t fall into line, the acting president has other, equally powerful forces at his command – the police and the army. Given these structures’ mutual hostility, there is a good chance of putting down any attempted putsch. The old Security chief is well aware of this, and may well be consulting his colleagues about what to do next.

The only route open to Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Rustam Azimov, on the other hand, is to stand in the presidential race that will take place three months after the start of Yuldashev’s acting powers (and in which he may also take part). Then it’s all down to the voters — or else whoever has the biggest resources to influence the Central Election Commission”.

Dosym Satpayev, Kazakh political analyst

Dosym Satpayev believes that any problems connected with the change of leader in Uzbekistan will inevitably affect Kazakhstan.

“The thing about Uzbekistan is that the region lies in a very unstable zone — the Fergana valley with its high unemployment levels and widespread radical extremist tendencies, its proximity to Afghanistan and border issues with neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan, with a population of 32 million, is the largest country in its region, and any destabilisation there would be bad for everyone: Russia, the USA, China

If Uzbekistan’s old elite can’t resolve these issues after the election of a new president, these ‘time bombs’ will start exploding. Islam Karimov was able to keep the situation under control with an autocrat iron fist. He purged the entire political scene, eliminated the democratic opposition. He also purged the elite, leaving only a few regional groupings dominated by the Tashkent and Samarkand clans. So it’s unclear whether his potential successors will be able to preserve this method of government”.

Satpayev sees the problem as the fact that in Uzbekistan all the rivals for power have an equal right to it. This is no hereditary monarchy, where everyone knows who will come next. Some members of the president’s family have also lost their protected status — his elder daughter Gulnara, previously tipped as a potential successor to her father, is now mired in a damaging bribery scandal.

Ajar Kurtov, analyst with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies

Kurtov is putting forward an unlikely scenario, in which the Uzbek elites can’t reach an agreement on a successor to Karimov. However, the president’s illness opens the way for Islamists and the democratic opposition in exile to attempt to influence the situation.

Members of the Islamic opposition inside Uzbekistan, says Kurtov, are deep underground. The main threat of destabilisation, he believes, comes from neighbouring Afghanistan, but it is in no position to organise a major invasion or internal uprising. Especially since Uzbekistan, with a population of 32 million, is the largest country in its region, and any destabilisation there would be bad for everyone: Russia, the USA, China.

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