Whoever is now in charge of Uzbekistan’s dictatorship finally conceded on September 2 that Islam Karimov, the country’s veteran autocrat, has died. You can tell a lot about a man by how he lived. The same sometimes goes with how he dies.
The bar for Uzbekistan’s most surreal Independence Day was already very high, but it was well-cleared on September 1. As the world pondered whether Karimov was dead or so near-death as to make no difference, the presidential website issued a 1,339-word congratulatory greeting from – you’ll never guess – the president himself. Karimov had, it seemed, interrupted his own death to wish his people well.
Didn’t the president realise that he was dead? Or so incapacitated that a photo or video to dispel rumours of his demise was impossible? To adapt an anecdote once said about Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, “Today, due to bad health and without regaining consciousness, Comrade Karimov resumed duties as Secretary General”. Or perhaps it was the case, as some wags speculated, that Karimov’s doctors were too afraid to break the bad news to the president.
Uzbekistan is frequently described as “post-Soviet”, but this is only half true. It suggests the country has moved decisively beyond a Soviet style of governance, which is clearly not the case. Rather, Uzbekistan is neo-Soviet, retaining many features of the old (and officially despised) communist regime. When explaining his policies, Karimov liked to cite an old Uzbek proverb: “Don't knock down your old house before you've built a new one”.
By this yard stick, Uzbekistan still very much lives in the old shack constructed during communist times. The foundations of the state are Soviet, the leader Soviet-trained, the manner of ruling Soviet of a pre-Gorbachev vintage. And the people in Uzbekistan appear destined to live in the old house for many years to come.
Karimov never anointed a political heir. A credible deputy-in-waiting would have required serious powers that risked eclipsing the president and providing the means for a power-grab. Moreover, once a president anoints a successor he signals that the end of his presidency is near, becoming a lame-duck in the process and inviting impatience amongst those expecting to inherit his power.
There will be some, particularly those hardened oppositionists exiled from Uzbekistan, who may see in Karimov’s departure an opportunity to advance their interests. A far more likely scenario, however, is one that sees Karimov’s inner circle consolidating the autocracy. They may even rejuvenate it through the infusion of younger blood. However, if no undisputed leader emerges who can convince or coerce his rivals to submit, the possibility of civil strife cannot be excluded. Considering the country’s substantial natural resources, there is much for an ambitious contender to struggle for.
According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, should the president be unable to perform his duties through ill-health (interestingly, there is no mention of death at all), the Senate chairman, currently Nigmatilla Yuldashev, will hold the reins of power and is supposed to steer the ship of state towards an orderly transition. While there is much uncertainty right now in Uzbekistan, one thing we can be sure of is that Yuldashev will not succeed Karimov. If he was a serious contender, he wouldn’t have been entrusted with such a constitutional role lest he entertain certain ambitions. Such constitutional functions are given to court jesters, not political heavyweights.
The most likely scenario is that which played out in neighbouring Turkmenistan almost a decade ago. Indeed, Yuldashev might be lucky to escape the fate of his Turkmen counterpart following the death of Sapmurat Niyazov, the infamous dictator who had proclaimed himself Turkmanbashi (“Leader of all Turkmen”). According to Turkmenistan’s constitution, parliamentary chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev should have taken over as acting president following Niyazov’s death. Instead, Atayev was promptly arrested and sentenced to five years in prison on the bizarre charge of driving his daughter-in-law to suicide out of ethnic hatred. With Atayev out of the way, and a few rushed constitutional changes imposed, the way was clear for Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, deputy prime minister with responsibility for health and education, to assume the presidency. I wonder if Yuldashev has slept well this week.
Berdymukhammedov played the vital and well-publicised function of overseeing Niyazov’s funeral. Similarly, how Karimov’s interment is conducted will provide many clues as to how post-Karimov politics will develop. Kremlinology is not a defunct art and we will learn a lot from watching this carefully-choreographed event. Where one sits at the funeral will say something about the powers one can expect to exert after Karimov’s burial.
To be well-armed is to be well-positioned in any succession stakes. Senior figures in the “power ministries” (the police, military and intelligence apparatus) are likely to play a vital role in determining the outcome.
Three men are being mentioned as leadership contenders. Longtime Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 58, is considered to be the frontunner with backing from within his native Jizzakh Province and the neighbouring Samarkand Province, Karimov’s home base. Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56, from the Tashkent clan has also been mentioned and for many years enjoyed Karimov’s confidence, having served in national government for almost two decades. Finally, there is Rustam Inoyatov, 72, of the Tashkent clan who has headed the feared National Security Committee (SNB), successors to the Soviet KGB, for 21 years.
Mirziyoyev is seen as tougher, and less sophisticated and outward looking than Azimov, but this is relative and neither man would likely relax the system that brought them to prominence. The SNB chief is most likely too old to replace Karimov and might therefore settle for being kingmaker rather than king. All contenders have thrived in Karimov’s brutal regime, played an important role in maintaining the coercive apparatus, and have been taught that suppression is akin to stability.
There was a time when it seemed that the political heir might also be a biological one. Ex-Soviet republic Azerbaijan had even provided a precedent in 2003 when a dying Heyder Aliyev transferred power to his son Ilham, who still rules the oil-rich state. Until relatively recently, the president’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was considered a possible successor. Enjoying an extensive business and media empire, she had, under the stage name “Googoosha” also pursued a pop music career, along with an assortment of diplomatic and education positions. On Karimova’s (now defunct) website one could find photos of her hob-knobbing with the likes of Ban Ki Moon and Bill Clinton, and for a reported £1mn she had brought Sting to Uzbekistan for a private performance. Karimova overstepped the mark, however, and for reasons never officially stated, she disappeared from public view and is believed to have been, with parental consent, under house arrest these last two years.
Will anything change?
A change of governor does not imply a change in governance. In a style favoured by the departed president himself, let me try to explain what I mean by use of a folksy anecdote.
During a meeting with a friend from Samarkand (let’s call him Timur), I was told me he would marry in August. I was surprised – I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend, let alone a fiancée, and August was only five months away. In response to my query, Timur expressed certainty regarding the wedding date, but ignorance of his bride’s identity.
He proceeded to explain that his mother was currently examining prospective wives for him and she would get back to him with a decision in due course. Sensing my confusion, and without any prompting on my part, Timur elaborated. It wasn’t like the West, he explained, where citizens worked well into their sixties before enjoying a long state-funded retirement. Most men were dead by then, requiring them to get jobs for their children much earlier. Uzbeks had to settle down quickly and Timur, already 25, was coming under enormous familial pressure. Having many kids, and having them earlier, was, I learned, the only salvation in old age. For in Uzbekistan the social contract is not between citizen and state, but within the family. It is family members that provide health, education, food, shelter and provision for old age. The Karimov regime was always more stick than carrot and experience demonstrated that while the state didn’t do much for you, it could do quite a lot to you.
When it came to family, it was marriage first, then love. It struck me that, in a way, the same applied to politics. Power first, then the quest for legitimacy. In Uzbekistan, Karimov acquired power before attempting to win popular affection and, if that failed, there were always other tried-and-trusted ways of keeping the arrangement together. We should not, therefore, be entirely surprised that people willing to outsource the choice of their matrimonial partner to someone else can also countenance allowing others to choose their president for life.
In the first days of September rumours swirled about the heads of state scheduled to descend on Uzbekistan, and Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand being prepared for a big event. Officially, however, the president still lived. Like my Samarkand friend whose mother chose his bride, we knew a funeral would take place – we just weren’t told for whom.
Over 30mn people are now sitting and waiting for others to decide whom they will love and obey until death of president do they part.
Dr Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Director of the Research School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. You can follow him @Donnachakaz