Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrived in Uzbekistan on September 6 to honour the memory of President Islam Karimov, who died last week after suffering a stroke.
During his visit, Putin met with the Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in a possible clue that the premier is the most likely successor to Karimov. The approval of Moscow has always played an important role in consolidating leadership in Central Asian countries.
The death of Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan for the past quarter of a century, opens up a power vacuum in Central Asia’s most populous state and worries about civil unrest and jihadism filling it. Karimov had long touted himself as a stabilising factor in a region often threatened and sometimes dominated by Islamic forces.
So it’s no wonder that Putin talked about stability urging Karimov successors to continue his policies. “One can make different judgments about what he [Karimov] did for his country, one can view various moments in Uzbekistan's modern history differently, but he preserved stability in the country, he preserved its steady development,” Putin said on his way to Uzbekistan, according to InterFax.
“New people will come ... I hope very much that they will be able to preserve this stability. For a country like Uzbekistan, it's extremely important, it's just indispensable for its self-preservation and further steady development.”
During the meeting between Putin and Mirziyoyev, neither one of them clearly indicated the issue of succession. Instead, both focused on exchanging common appreciation and pledging to strengthen bilateral ties.
“Your visit today says a lot and we are very grateful. This is the shoulder of a real friend, [needed] by us, by the republic in a difficult time, [when] we mourn our first President Islam Abduganiyevich [Karimov], the Uzbek prime minister said.
“Yesterday, we all watched your interview in China and your feedback on our respected Islam Karimov. You are right to say that over the years there has developed a serious structure of relations between Uzbekistan and Russia,” Mirziyoev said. The prime minister then assured that Uzbekistan will continue to develop such “strategic” ties with Russia.
In turn, Putin agreed with Mirziyoev, adding that “for our part we will do everything to maintain the way of our mutual development, to support the people of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek leadership; You can count on us in full measure as the most reliable friends”.
Mirziyoyev, 58, who has been Uzbekistan’s prime minister for a decade, boasts popularity among the Uzbek elite and is in charge of the country's key agricultural sector, the cotton industry.
Moreover, Mirziyoyev, comes from the Jizzakh Province, adjacent to Karimov’s Samarkand Province. The two clans, Jizzak and Samarkand, are regarded as close, which might provide further legitimacy to Mirziyoyev’s claim. At the same time, Rustam Inoyatov, 72, the chief of the powerful National Security Service (SNB), regarded as “the kingmaker”, is on good terms with Mirziyoyev, RFE/RL’s reports suggest. Thus, Inoyatov might have lended his support to the premier.
The new Uzbek 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 fails to go smoothly.