Uzbekistan after Islam Karimov
Navroz Singh

The President’s Legacy

After a week of intense speculation, dawn break on the 2nd of September 2016 coincided with the Uzbek state media finally declaring the death of the country’s first and only president, Islam Karimov. Almost a week earlier, President Karimov had suffered a stroke resulting in cerebral haemorrhage, causing an unusual commotion within the governmental apparatus. In an unprecedented move, state representatives broke the silence generally known to surround the president’s health by publically proclaiming the ‘criticality’ of the ex-Soviet apparatchik’s medical state. This was enough to set the rumour mills churning. Opposition news agencies had pronounced Karimov dead as early as on the 29th of August with supporting evidence from pictures which clearly depicted preparations for a funeral in Karimov’s native city of Samarkand. Delaying the public proclamation indicated ongoing negotiations to nominate a successor, conducted among a small group of elites representing key institutions, including the military and internal security services.

To many, Uzbekistan was honouring the Soviet legacy of keeping its leader’s health condition under wraps given the political tumult which ensues in the lack of a clear line of succession. Others wrote how it was reminiscent of the death of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, a critical analogy to draw particularly in the contemporary geostrategic context. Emperor Huang reportedly died after having taken mercury on the ill-advised presumption that it would grant immortality while he was on a tour, almost two months away from his capital. Consequentially, the emperor’s trusted are said to have delivered clothing and food to his shaded carriage and dragged carts of rotting fish in the royal procession to disguise the stench, as they sought to stave off an uprising and plot the succession that suited them best. To some, the events surrounding Karimov’s passing were also uncannily similar to the death of the Soviet leader Brezhnev, which was declared after a few days of speculation, against the background of sombre media displays through documentaries representative of Soviet might, and the mournful dress codes of news presenters.

Essentially, whatever may have been the reason for the deliberate creation of the power vacuum, it cannot be denied that the shroud of secrecy which so successfully maintained Uzbekistan as a quasi-hermetic state under Karimov was upheld even during its leader’s death.

Born in 1938 in Samarkand at the height of Stalinist terror, Karimov’s childhood is steeped in mystery. After graduating from a Tashkent polytechnic with a degree in engineering, he started work in an agricultural plant, and subsequently at an aviation factory. Karimov climbed up the ranks of the local Communist Party hierarchy in Tashkent before moving to the powerful state planning office, where he worked as chief specialist and first deputy chairman. In 1989, he was appointed as the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, the top post in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. But this was also the time when the Soviet Union’s command and control structure, brittle and weak owing to domestic compulsions caused by a sputtering economy and institutionalization of localized nationalisms, was beginning to show signs of collapse and finally, in 1991, Islam Karimov, like many of his counterparts in the region, unexpectedly found himself as the head of an independent state.

The Challenge of Political Stability and Growth

Policy making is operationalized in context. Taken in abstraction while being oblivious of the factors which necessitated their implementation, even the most well-meaning policies can be subjected to scathing criticism. In the case of post-independence Uzbekistan, Karimov was faced with the daunting challenge of steering his country through much troubled times. Born out of the dissolution of the USSR, he had to give the new state a national identity. Additionally, given geological compulsions, the economy of Uzbekistan, like that of other CIS countries was part of the Soviet system and therefore required to be restructured. Consequentially, the challenges of economic growth were combined with the need for political stability, without which development for the now independent country seemed impossible.

To his admirers, Karimov was a messianic figure who chartered a course for the young country at a time when the world doubted the sustenance of the emergent republics. Karimov sought to build legitimacy for his policies by glorifying his abilities to stem poverty and unemployment, thereby preventing the country from sliding into a state of political, economic and social chaos. His attempts at building a secular national identity secured, at times, through iron fisted policies which prevented vociferous expression of religion in the public sphere is often commended by many as essential to prevent the danger of injection of religion in the Uzbek polity, thereby preventing an ideological invasion. His bold and decisive demeanour in taking decisions which suited the domestic and global interests of the country he led was perceptible through his dealings with the United States and Russia.

In his life, since assuming power, Karimov was keen on reinstating the legacy of Uzbekistan’s 14th century conqueror, Tamerlane the Great- Amir Timur. His desire at establishing a legacy of magnificence, to many, seemed to be inspired by the statesmanship of Timur, which he sought to honour through his policies and actions. While this brought many gains to the fledgling republic, an inescapable impact was also the cultivation of an “iron” persona. For many in Uzbekistan, Karimov was emblematic of an emotionless leadership style which instilled a sense of regimentation and discipline born out of fear. Consequently, the world was also witness to documented trends which can be challenged, but not entirely negated.

Essentially, Karimov encountered the twin trials of political stability and economic growth against the background of the spread of radical ideologies. In the backdrop of the implosion of the Soviet Union, the forces pushing for a certain ideological and political agenda, sought to expand their influence in this region, posing a challenge for Karimov to shield the culture, politics and society of his country from the onslaught of radical Islamist interpretations. This, many believe, was handled most successfully by the President, and is indeed an encouraging takeaway from his legacy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Karimov immediately made the Karshi-Khanbad airport near Termez available to Germany and the US free of cost. The relationship between the US and Karimov understandably soured in the wake of the intense criticism directed towards the Uzbek regime from the US and the West, post Andijan, in 2005. This experience defined the intensely cautious approach employed by Karimov in his foreign policy dealings.

Karimov, during his lifetime liked to project his legacy as that of democracy, stability and prosperity. He based these on what he termed as the “Uzbek Model” of development, which loosely translated to the essentiality of self-sufficiency and the need to promote Uzbek values hinged on the premise of discouraging Western ideological or ideational imports. This streak of isolationism also extended to his foreign policy strategies – Karimov endeavoured to engage with and yet maintain a safe distance from all major powers given his suspicion about Russia’s neo-colonialist aims and US’ strategic expansionism in the guise of a democratization agenda. This is being carried forward by his interim successor Shavkat Mirziyoev equally well.

Scrying through the Crystal Ball: What does the Future Hold in Store for Uzbekistan

The process for the transfer of political power is already underway in Uzbekistan. Less than a week after Karimov’s death, his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoev was approved by a joint sitting of the Uzbek parliament as the interim president. Constitutionally, in the event of the President’s death, the presidential responsibilities should have been transferred to the Senate chairman Nigmatulla Yuldashev. However, Yuldashev is reported to have voluntarily declined the appointment citing “lack of experience”. This step, many believe, may not have been entirely of Yuldashev’s own accord given Mirziyoev’s well known position as Karimov’s right hand man. Moreover, given the sudden rush of events, it was essential for the small group of Uzbek officials in-charge of making decisions since Karimov’s death to maintain a façade of stability and political security to avoid any foul play by those lusting after power in the state. For this precise reason, Mirziyoev fits the bill perfectly.

The country is scheduled to go for elections on the 4th of December. Given Uzbekistan’s democratic record, no substantive outcome is being expected out of these elections. In the last presidential elections conducted in March 2015, Islam Karimov was elected to his fourth term with an overwhelming majority, with 90% votes being polled in his favour. Lack of democratic choice is a given in Uzbekistan; the all-pervasive tendrils of state secure its existence by limiting, maybe asphyxiating political competition. According to Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert who had interviewed Karimov whilst he was president,

“Current day Uzbekistan is a creation of Karimov – and his charisma, his foibles and personal phobias.”

This is the legacy which Shavkat Mirziyoev inherits and is likely to cultivate. The precedent is carved in stone – no election in Uzbekistan has ever been uncertain and the December election is likely to be a monotonous repeat of the same tale. The formal transfer of long-term presidential authority is predicted to be a “managed succession” with the winner being determined well in advance via informal negotiation among a small group of elites, within which, a crucial chunk of say will be exercised by the state security apparatus.

Given this background, it is being conveniently assumed that Mirziyoev will continue as the long term president of Uzbekistan. And there are visible signs which confirm this assumption.

This year’s United Nations General Assembly session was significant for Uzbekistan given that it was for the first time that the country’s representative occupied the podium to amplify the voice of a government led by someone other than Islam Karimov. The address by H.E. Mr. Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs covered several important issues, but what did not go unnoticed was the mention of interim president Shavkat Mirziyoev’s name multiple times during the speech. Often, it was used in the context of significant policy decisions with a long term bearing on the future of the state. Mirziyoev’s address at the joint session of the chambers of the Uzbek Parliament where he underscored the six fold increase in the growth rates of the economy since independence was noted with appreciation by the house.

Most significantly, Mirziyoev’s stand on the inviolability of the fundamental principles which define the Uzbek foreign policy was perceived as an indicator of the fact that the interim president is entrenching his roots in a manner which creates his identity as indispensable to the office of the President. While he unambiguously reaffirmed his commitment to carry forward the legacy cultivated by Karimov to not “join any military-political blocs and alliances, not to allow for stationing of foreign military bases on its territory and not to send our servicemen beyond frontiers of the country”, the resolve and force with which this was conveyed at the first international instance since assuming power reflected the sense of security Mirziyoev enjoyed and power he wielded within the structures of the regime. The declaration made by the Central Election Commissioner of Uzbekistan confirming the nomination of Mirziyoev as the presidential candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan cements this opinion.

Mirziyoev seems keen to build ties with people. He recently initiated a virtual reception website for the people to address their queries and concerns directly to his office, visited the Sergeli district of Tashkent to get acquainted with the current construction works, preparations of housing and social facilities for the autumn-winter period and made a working trip to Syrdarya region to get acquainted with the economic reforms and large-scale works in the industrial, agricultural and social sphere. These efforts may be a part of his official responsibility profile as the president, though interim, but also reflect an intent on his part to build a social perception which reflects positively on the results of the December elections. Mirziyoev is, however, considered to be a Kremlin ally, particularly because of family ties with Alisher Usmanov, the Russian-Uzbek oligarch. This is a card which is most likely to play in his favour.

As far as the nature of the ‘elected’ government is concerned, the jury is out. It is predicted to be a managed succession. Those responsible for navigating the course through these unchartered waters are plotting for continuity. According to Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow, “It will be a leadership change, but not really a regime change.” And no matter who comes to power, voices which call for the establishment of at least the fundamentals of democratic governance are bound to lose. Karimov may have built his fort of power through policies which have been essentially unique, deemed questionable by some. A change from this scenario is unlikely. Unavoidable factors in the region have birthed demons who would give in to any opportunity to gain political power. And managing them through any means other than the existing policies of stifling political competition would be hard. The system which has been carefully built by the Soviet-styled intelligence network of the state is bound to eliminate any opponent – real or perceived – to the regime.

The list of nominations for the presidential elections has been released. Immediately after the announcement of Karimov’s death, there was no lack of hypotheses on who may succeed him as the second president of Uzbekistan. Various theories which pitted cultural legacies against the interests of the institutions sought to provide an answer to this crucial question. Names were floated – some speculated the chance of Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, a technocrat wielding considerable power and functions and also belonging to the opposing Tashkent clan (Mirziyoev, like Karimov, belongs to the Samarkand clan) as a likely successor. The decision of the National Security Council (SNB) chief, Rustam Inoyatov was being awaited with much anticipation given the title of ‘king-maker’ which has been duly accorded to him seeing his significance in the regime structure. The possibility of the President’s widow Tatyana Karimova, an economist, as the likely candidate was treated with a fair degree of seriousness for a short period. But it came across that Tatyana, for now, was not seeking a wider public role. Gulnara Karimova, the president’s elder daughter, once seen as the potential successor to her father’s regime appears to have fallen out of favour and placed under house arrest after a much publicized spat involving charges of bribery, money laundering, physical violence and even sorcery. His younger daughter, Lola, a senior diplomat was considered relatively inexperienced to assume presidential responsibilities.

All calculations thus seemed to favour Mirziyoev, who had been serving as the prime minister for almost 13 years, since 2003. And the tentative list of nominations (which shall be subjected to review by the Central Election Commissioner in the period between 30 September and 20 October) confirmed this opinion.

Apart from Mirziyoev, who has been nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, there are three other contenders. Sarvar Otamuradov, nominee of the Uzbekistan National Revival Democratic Party, Narimon Urmanov, nominated by the Justice Social Democratic party and Khatamjan Ketmanov, nominee of the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan. That most candidates are loyal to Mirziyeov, or at least were to Karimov and his party is a working assumption. But even if they weren’t, it is safe to surmise that political competition which possesses the potential of posing a serious challenge to the ruling regime supported by the security apparatus wouldn’t be allowed to exist, let alone contest the elections. And given the previous record of elections which brought Karimov into power and sustained him, the outcome is unlikely to be a surprise.

Leadership battles apart, the geostrategic importance of Uzbekistan cannot and must not be underestimated. Uzbekistan, through its policy of isolationism has for long stood as a safeguard against excessive Russian interference in the region. The China-Central Asia gas pipeline runs across much of the country. Uzbekistan’s play vis-à-vis China and the West has always been an interesting case for analysing the survival dynamics of a country which could be hurt by the ‘paradox of plenty’. Any succession in Uzbekistan is therefore likely to have a major impact on the country’s national interest, with far reaching regional ramifications. While it may be clear that a possible successor would not overhaul the foreign policy substructure of Uzbekistan, managing domestic tensions would be critical. The spectre of radicalization looms large and is a challenge which Uzbekistan, much like its regional counterparts needs to affirmatively address than push under the carpet.

Karimov’s most well-known political legacy is the creation of a patrimonialistic state structure. This occurred in a region with a complex regional security dynamic where the future of each country is closely tied not only with its neighbour, but also its ‘near abroad’. The prediction that Uzbekistan may transform into the epicentre of Balkanization through sustained religious and interethnic conflicts in the case of a mismanaged transition must no longer be treated merely as a conspiracy theory. It is a viable possibility of utmost concern, given that the stakeholders at risk may be many more than those apparent.

Implications for India

Relations between India and Uzbekistan have their “roots deep in history.” Frequent references to Kamboja, which is said to include parts of modern day Uzbekistan, have been included in Sanskrit and Pali literature. At various times the Saka / Scythian, Macedonian, Greco-Bactrian, Kushan Kingdoms included parts of both India and present day Uzbekistan, and it is widely believed that at certain times in history they were part of neighbouring empires. Quite naturally, cultural linkages between the two modern-day nation-states, spaced over centuries, enriched the architecture, dance, music and cuisine of the civilizations. Mirza Ghalib, considered as the patron poet of Delhi, and Amir Khusro are notable Indians of Uzbek parentage.

During the Soviet times, India had undeniably close interactions with the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Indian leaders made frequent visits to the capital city of Tashkent and other locations of significance. The former Indian Prime Minister, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in Tashkent on 11 July 1966 after signing the Tashkent declaration with Pakistan In August 1991. Prime Minister Modi, during his June 2015 visit to Uzbekistan, paid a glowing tribute to the former premier at a memorial which has been erected in his memory. In fact, as the events leading to the disintegration of the USSR unfolded, President Islam Karimov, in his then capacity as Chairman of Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan, was visiting India, thus being the first of the new leaders from the former Soviet republics to have visited the country. Given the sudden developments back home, he was forced to cut short his visit while he was in Agra and rush back to Tashkent. In an article for The Wire, Ambassador Asoke Mukerji, who served as India’s last counsel-general in soviet Central Asia, based in Tashkent during the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and opened India’s first embassy in Uzbekistan in March 1992, humorously recounts an anecdote which is worth quoting verbatim,

(Quote) On the way to the airport, when his mind must have been grappling with the momentous choice he would have to make about his and his country’s future, faced with the imminent collapse of the system that had created him, Karimov looked out of the car window on to the monsoon-soaked Agra streets and asked rhetorically, “How does one deal with bicycle thieves here?” A fortnight later, on September 1, 1991, he presided over the hastily cobbled celebrations of Uzbekistan’s first Independence Day at the renamed Mustakillik Maydoni (Independence Square) … (sic)… (Unquote)

Skand Tayal, another former diplomat, who was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2005-08, recounts President Karimov’s generosity when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Uzbekistan in April 2006. Overlooking protocol, President Karimov accompanied PM Singh to the airport to see him off, and in what he describes as a “touching gesture”, even continued to stand on the tarmac for half an hour when the take-off was delayed due to a technical malfunction.

Prime Minister Modi started his five nation tour of Central Asia in July 2015 with a meeting with President Karimov. Quite succinctly, his departing tweets were an overwhelming expression of the mutual warmth shared by the countries as he described the trip to be “memorable”. In a bilateral meeting held on the side-lines of the SCO summit in June 2016, the Indian Prime Minister thanked President Karimov for support to India’s membership of SCO and conveyed his country’s interest in organizing a ‘Festival of India’ and an ‘Indian Trade Exhibition’ in Uzbekistan to mark 25 years of Uzbekistan’s independence and 25th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations with India. Additionally, both leaders acknowledged the growing cooperation in defence and reiterated the need to expand cooperation in security.

Given this background, there is no doubt that the relationship between India and Uzbekistan are on an upward trajectory and is likely to strengthen and diversify, even under the new leadership. Notably, on both visits that PM Modi made to Tashkent, he met with his then counterpart, now interim president Shavkat Mirziyoev. In June 2016, PM Mirziyoev, in a significant gesture, received PM Modi at the Tashkent International airport. And through the flurry of pictures tweeted by the Indian PMO, the meetings were perceived as cordial and satisfactory for both sides. The precedent for India seems quite encouraging therefore. Both countries realize the significance of the supportive partnership of the other in this new geopolitical order of ascending multipolarity and sharp competitions. And India seems keen to reciprocate the amicable gestures indicated by the Uzbek leadership.

In this context, it wouldn’t be entirely rhetorical to invoke the quote that the world, under the impact of supersonic communication and transportation technologies, is indeed transforming into a global village. History records that it took several months for Zahir-ud-din Babur, an Uzbek from the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan to enter India in 1526. While, cut to 2015, it took PM Modi less than three hours to take the flight from India to Tashkent. The implications of events in the region are likely to impact India, more directly and significantly, today more than ever before, and a carefully crafted approach which defines and emboldens the interest of the state given the compulsions and opportunities of the contemporary context is therefore necessary.

Published Date: 27th October 2016, Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
6 + 6 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us