CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Uzbekistan colossus has feet of clay

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Uzbekistan colossus has feet of clay
Islam Karimov died almost exactly on the 25th anniversary of the state he had led since its foundation.
By bne IntelliNews September 19, 2016

The death of Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov, which was announced on September 2, sparked speculation over who would succeed him, which almost immediately died down once Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was made acting president of Central Asia’s most populous country.

But while Mirziyoyev might be the next de facto ruler of Uzbekistan, and while it might be tempting to see the Uzbek succession story as similar to that of Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov after Saparmurat Niyazov’s death in 2006, things may not be what they seem.

“It’s unlikely that there will be a similar situation to Turkmenistan, as Uzbekistan is a much larger country,” Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based independent political analyst, said during a conference on power transition in Central Asia held at Kazakh Exclusive magazine’s headquarters. Zhumaly suggested “two or three people” will rule the country as “either a duumvirate or a triumvirate for at least the first six months or a year after Karimov’s death”.

“Just like after the death of Stalin, a ruling triumvirate of Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev arose…[prior to] the conflict between the three, which eventually led to the rise of Khrushchev,” Zhumaly said, hinting at the likelihood of quarrels within the ruling elite. In Uzbekistan’s case, the other two co-regents would be First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, and head of the National Security Committee (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov.

“[Azimov, Inoyatov and Mirziyoyev] have organised for themselves a division of labour - each one of them responsible for developments in separate segments [of governance],” Farkhod Aminjonov, Deputy Director of the Almaty-based Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies, told bne IntelliNews. “This trio, even during Karimov’s reign, has more or less mastered a mechanism for governing the country. Changing this [three-way] mechanism will be particularly hard; and likely impossible for at least the first year or a year and a half.”

Mirziyoyev, who controls the country’s cotton industry, was originally appointed to lead Uzbekistan’s industrialisation; Inoyatov maintains the country’s security apparatus; while Azimov’s role is to cut foreign investment deals.

A triumvirate is not a far fetched possibility, considering the speculation that Karimov, while still remaining nominal president while he was alive, may not have retained much power in the “mafia-like” system he had developed in Uzbekistan during his quarter-century-long rule, an Uzbek observer told bne Intellinews in September 2015. This system ensures stability by trying to balance out the interests of the disparate clans.

The ruling Uzbek triumvirate realises the threat of instability, says Aminjonov. “[Azimov, Inoyatov and Mirziyoyev] most likely understand that engaging in a political conflict within the current situation will do more harm than good,” Aminjonov said.

Inter-clan friction

Instability is a real danger. Boasting a population of over 30mn, Uzbekistan’s divisions heightened by poor transport connections and longstanding cultural differences that were ignored when the republic was founded.

At the turn of the 20th century, the territory of modern Uzbekistan consisted of the Khiva Khanate, the Kokand Khanate and the Bukharan Emirate. “The modern borders of Uzbekistan were drawn, not by the people who lived on these territories, but under the watch of the Bolsheviks,” Zhumaly said.

An old Uzbek proverb goes, “the Samarkand clan rules, the Tashkent one counts its money, and the Fergana clan prays,” according to an RBC article by Andrey Kazantsev, the head of Russia’s MGIMO Institute for International Research.

Uzbekistan should now be compared to the situation of Arab autocracies prior to the Arab spring - Libya in particular – countries that were also brought into being with haphazard borders and which quickly became dictatorships that tried to prevent inter-clan friction.

“As Arabic countries have shown, strong authoritative regimes with a strong police apparatus only give an illusion of stability - these turned out to be colossi with feet of clay,” Zhumaly noted. “One shouldn’t rely on the outward appearance of strength.” 

“Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian security services and police forces were a cut above those of Uzbekistan; yet the [uprisings] happened there, nonetheless,” he added. “As you can see, Libya is no longer a single country,” he continued, before urging to “not forget that Uzbekistan used to consist of three countries”.

Unlike some of the Arab countries, Uzbekistan is not a monarchic state, but along with its most of its neighbours it is similar to other countries rocked by the Arab Spring in having a facade of secularism, which could make it more vulnerable.

“The [openly] monarchic Arab countries ended up being better fitted for stability, since monarchy is more suitable to the mentality of the population,” Zhumaly said, referring to the fact that uprisings bypassed the truly monarchic Arab states, while consuming the ones that feigned democracy.

Yet Zhumaly also highlights how the superficially secular Arab countries were still monarchic at the core. In that regard, it could be argued that countries that attempted to maintain hidden monarchies or autocracies under the guise of democracy are, in reality, less stable than both real democracies and open autocracies and monarchies.

Fuel to the fire

To add fuel to the fire, Uzbekistan is experiencing a youth bulge, with the average age of an Uzbek citizen now around 27, Kazantsev says. This phenomenon, combined with rampant unemployment in rural parts of the country, which has been worsened as many Uzbek migrant workers return from recession-hit Russia, threatens instability.

It doesn’t help that Karimov, during his reign, contributed to the growth of radical groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) through violent crackdowns. Crackdowns by the authorities forced Uzbekistan’s political Islam underground and many followers, especially among the youth, have since become radicalised, re-establishing themselves as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

There is no point in expecting sweeping reforms in Uzbekistan in the short-run but there could be changes. “If you take a look at the independence day address to the people of Uzbekistan [written on behalf of Islam Karimov] on August 31 of this year, you will notice that the format of the address is mostly identical to the ones from previous year, except for one paragraph,” Aminjonov pointed out during Exclusive magazine’s conference. “The new address claims that there is a necessity for radical reforms in the economy, domestic policy and power structure.”

That stands in contrast to past presidential addresses that focused on “the concept of the Uzbek model of development”, Aminjonov suggests. Other bullet points of the ghost written address emphasise the importance of diminishing government regulation of the economy and promotion of private property, according to the copy of the address on the Uzbek presidential press service website.

“Full liberalisation of the Uzbek economy is unlikely in the short-term,” but Aminjonov sees the possibility of “weakening regulations on inter-regional trade inside the country”.

Moreover, any changes in the country’s attitude towards the great powers are out question. Putin’s meeting with Mirziyoyev sparked speculation that Tashkent would bolster its ties with Moscow. Aminjonov denies such a possibility. “Russia currently has no financial resources to influence Uzbekistan,” he believes. Political neutrality and self-sufficiency are here to stay.

Still, a shift in relations with neighbouring Central Asian countries is possible in the light of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Karimov’s funeral. Rahmon and Karimov had long been seen as at odds, since Uzbekistan opposing the construction of the massive Rogun dam on Tajik territory as it would affect the irrigation of lucrative cotton crops in Uzbekistan.

“Uzbekistan has long been on a path to weaken its dependence on cotton, as it nearly halved the lands allocated for cotton between the 90s and today,” Aminjonov said.

Tashkent plans to cut raw cotton output to 3mn tonnes by 2020 from 3.5mn tonnes in 2015, freeing up additional 175,000 hectares of farmland for growing fruit and vegetables. That would inevitably lead to weakening of its dependence on rivers flowing into the country from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which, in turn, would, in the long run, improve its relations with its neighbours.