Mystery of Karimov's disappearance enlivens Uzbek presidential election

By bne IntelliNews February 19, 2015

Olim Abdullayev in Tashkent -


The campaign to elect an Uzbek president on March 29 - or rather re-elect the ageing incumbent Islam Karimov - is in full swing, but state-run television has only just shown Karimov accept his nomination, almost two weeks after the event took place.

On the night of February 18 Uzbek state-run television's flagship Uzbekiston channel showed the February 6 footage of Karimov's acceptance speech at a conference of the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party (UzLiDeP), which formally nominated Karimov, 77, for another term.

That the footage wasn't shown the same day the conference took place on February 6, and that state-run official mouthpieces did not provide excerpts of the speech, had given rise to rumours about the health of Karimov. He was last seen in public on January 27 when he received credentials from the new US ambassador in Tashkent, Pamela Spratlen, in his official residence Oksaroy.

The rumours were also fuelled by the website run by the People's Movement of Uzbekistan, headed by the president's arch-rival Muhammad Salih, who has been living in exile abroad after he lost the country's first ever genuinely contested presidential election to Karimov in December 1991. The website claimed that the president fainted at a dinner on January 28. It claimed that Karimov was "in a coma".

The website gained notoriety in March 2013 when it reported that the president suffered a heart attack after an argument with his eldest daughter Gulnara, who is now believed to be under house arrest for her public spats with the country's influential figures, including her mother Tatyana and sister Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva. A week later Uzbek television showed Karimov, safe and sound, receiving Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov to prove that Salih's information was false.

This time, however, the absence of Karimov, who is believed to suffer from cancer, had raised serious questions about his wellbeing. The semi-official business news website reported on February 6 that Karimov attended the UzLiDeP conference, which endorsed the incumbent's nomination for another five-year term. But, according to the Moscow-based Fergana News website, no other official agencies, including the presidential press service, national television stations and the UzA news agency, mentioned that Karimov attended the conference.

Ordinary people in Uzbekistan, who usually shy away from discussing politics in public with strangers because of their fear of omnipresent National Security Service agents, suspected that Salih might prove right this time. On the ground, many fear that if Karimov leaves office suddenly, this could cause damaging instability. Exposed to a barrage of state propaganda that presents Karimov as the guarantor of "peace and stability", they say they can't see anyone who could take his place.

Karimov's absence has again sparked talk about the question of the eventual presidential succession - which Tashkent had plainly hoped to quell by having him stand in a new election. In the event of his serious illness, a behind-the-scenes succession battle may break out (or may well already be underway).

Ironically, whether Karimov is seriously ill or not, his absence from his own election campaign for yet another presidential term has actually added a little intrigue to an otherwise dull and routine procedure in Uzbekistan.

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