Islam Karimov, who ruled over Uzbekistan for 25 years, has died from a stroke aged 78, the Uzbek government has confirmed. Dignatories are already making their way to his home town of Samarkand for the funeral on September 3.
The security clampdown over his death is in keeping with the way Karimov ruled Uzbekistan as probably the most brutal of Central Asia's dictators since the collapse of communism.
Karimov began as and remained the classic Soviet apparatchik. From a very humble beginning, born on January 30, 1938 at an orphanage in Samarkand, Uzbek SSR, Karimov rose through the Soviet education system and graduated from the Central Asian Polytechnical Institute in 1960 before joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1964. In 1967, he became a graduate of the Tashkent Institute of National Economy. He worked in the State Planning Committee of the Uzbek SSR starting from 1966 and became the finance minister of the Uzbek SSR in 1983.
In 1986, Karimov became the deputy chairman of the Uzbek SSR Council of Ministers and chairman of the State Planning Office. He also worked as the first secretary of the Kashkadarya Provincial Party Committee until 1989, when he took over as first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karimov moved smoothly into the role of the independent republic's first president. On March 24 1990, at the session of the Supreme Soviet of the Uzbek SSR, Karimov was elected President of the Uzbek SSR, a post that was confirmed in 1991 in a popular vote.
In 1995, Karimov's presidential term was extended again until 2000. He was repeatedly re-elected as head of state in 2000, 2007 and 2015.
As the country's strongman leader for a quarter of a century he can be credited with pulling Uzbekistan out of its Soviet lethargy, with its reliance on the cotton monoculture. But his obsession with control also prevented Uzbekistan from reaching its full potential, for instance in the way his fear of swelling current account deficits led him to impose currency restrictions in 1996 which choked off growth.
One of Karimov’s achievements was transforming Uzbekistan from a cotton field in the middle of nowhere to a more diversified economy. He drilled for gas that was ignored by the Soviet regime, who relied instead on the mammoth Turkmen gas basin, and exported it to China through a gas pipeline built by the Kazakhs.
He cut a $250mn gold mining deal with US mining company Newmont to establish a treatment plant to process the tailings at the Zarafshan mine in 1993, which earned the country millions until relations soured in 2006 – exactly as gold prices skyrocketed – and the authorities hiked taxes on the plant, putting it out of business. Thereafter Uzbekistan threw itself into developing its significant deposits of gold and other minerals.
Karimov also made Uzbekistan a regional automotive powerhouse. The president flew to South Korea to meet with the chain-smoking car legend and founder of Daewoo, Kim Woo-Choong, returning with a deal to build a car plant in the city of Andijan, in the verdant Fergana Valley. The UzDaewoo cars can be found all over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and were briefly the most popular cheap car in Russia.
The factory used to belong to the South Korean company until it went bust in 2005 and the Uzbek plant was bought out by the local government, who later did a deal with US General Motors that lead to the creation of GM Uzbekistan, owned by the Uzbek state-run vehicle holding company Uzavtosanoat (75%) and General Motors (25%). GM Uzbekistan’s vehicle sales in Russia, its main export market, grew steadily until they peaked in 2011 at 92,778 units.
These accomplishments have raised economic output from $3bn in cotton-based earnings in the early 1990s, to a GDP worth just over $66bn as of the end of 2015, according to Trading Economics.
But despite the grandiose state-led projects, Karimov was unable to create a business climate where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) could flourish. Many Uzbek households remain dependent on remittances from Russia, which brings in some $5bn a year – as much as the country earns from gas exports.
Karimov will be remembered mainly for the violence of his rule, seen most appallingly in Andijan in May 2005 when the country’s interior ministry and security service troops fired at a crowd of protesters. The official death count was 187, but independent reports claimed more than1,500 were massacred.
During Karimov’s more than 26-year rule in Uzbekistan, authorities detained thousands of people on politically motivated charges and routinely tortured those in prison and police stations. By the end of 2003, according to Memorial, the Moscow-based human rights group, Karimov had already imprisoned nearly 6,000 people on political or religious grounds, reports Human Rights Watch, “a number that continued to grow, with hundreds of new arrests each year”.
According to former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray and Human Rights Watch, the police routinely boiled people alive. Murray caused a furore with his statement and quit his job, saying that he was appalled that the British government would continue to maintain relations with a leader like this. But with the Afghan war raging across the border the West was happy to make use of Uzbek bases to billet their troops and turned a blind eye to the well documented abuses.
"People come to me very often after being tortured. Normally this includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids including complete immersion of the body. This is not uncommon. Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities,” Murray told the Guardian in an interview in 2004.
The Karimov regime’s human rights record is also blackened every year by the enforced use of children and students to bring in annual cotton harvests. This year an eight-year-old boy was killed when he fell asleep in a cotton hopper and was smothered when a load was dumped on him unnoticed by the workers.
Karimov’s brutal suppression of opposition is also to blame for the Fergana Valley becoming a hotbed of Islamic extremism, with one of the notable groups being the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU is one of the very few actively Islamic extremist groups operating in the former Soviet Union and has targeted Karimov personally in several bombing attacks in the capital of Tashkent, which has led to reprisals again anyone who is openly Muslim.
The alleged threat of IMU has often been used by Karimov as an excuse for political crackdowns. The reality, however, is that the rise in religiosity and the sparking of rebellions were in response to poor socioeconomic conditions, and his corrupt and dictatorial rule. In 1998, in the name of preventing extremism, the Uzbek government adopted one of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion, outlawing most forms of public or independent worship, regulating religious clothing, and placing mosques under the de facto control of the state.
The Andijan massacre resulted in the European Union and the United States imposing sanctions on Uzbekistan and calling on the Uzbek government to allow an international, independent investigation, demands that Karimov rejected.
However, there was little follow up by the West and the incident has been allowed to fade away. Following Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Karimov framed his persecutions in the context of the “global war on terror” and senior EU and US officials continued to travel to Tashkent to express their “warm friendship” with Uzbekistan.
Karimov’s death comes at a bad time for Uzbekistan and pundits worry that it could be politically destabilising. Sanctions and falling oil prices have hurt Russian demand for Uzbek goods and migrant labour. GM Uzbekistan’s Russian car sales plunged by 46% y/y to 20,451 units in 2015, while remittances collapsed 51% that year. Now the Russian economy is in recession, that work is drying up, forcing the guest workers home and adding to unemployment and social tension.
The new president will almost certainly try to continue Karimov’s heavy handed policy for running the country. But with rising unemployment in a country where the large part of the population is young men with few prospects, this is a very dangerous time for Uzbekistan. The possibility of a Uzbek spring or coloured revolution is very real if the power transition process doesn't go smoothly.