Even if it hasn’t yet been confirmed, the odds are that the Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, is dead. Few will mourn the 78-year-old despot’s passing from a brain haemorrhage that he suffered on August 27, unless of course the Uzbek elites fail to ensure a smooth transition to fill the power vacuum caused when such a long-time leader leaves the stage without nominating a successor. Who, then, are the main candidates to take over?
Under Uzbekistan’s constitution, the head of the upper chamber of parliament, currently the little-known Nigmatulla Yuldashev, assumes the president’s role for three months if the president is incapacitated. But Yuldashev is unlikely to be anything other than a transitional figure, and there are a few names that crop regularly as potential long-term successors to Karimov.
Autocratic regimes like Karimov’s often look to family members to continue the dynasty. Witness Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his deceased father Heydar in 2003, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s lining up of his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, currently Kazakhstan's deputy prime minister.
But Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara made a hash of her attempt to be next in line when her dodgy business activities and self-enrichment finally caught up with her, leading to a falling out with her mother and sister Lola and later with her father, and subsequent house arrest since February 2014.
That leaves Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva, Karimov’s second daughter and Uzbekistan’s permanent delegate to Unesco in Paris, who people were openly talking about as Karimov's designated successor, as bne IntelliNews reported last September. One such observer claimed that the ageing Karimov had gathered together his closest lieutenants in April 2015 and announced that, “by the next presidential election he will transfer his post to a new, younger and energetic successor who will satisfy all parties concerned” and that, “I believe you won’t be against it if during my last term we will gradually prepare Lola for this mission”.
That observer writes under the mysterious pseudonym “Usman Khaknazarov” – a name known in Uzbekistan in the early noughties for exposing government corruption. “Khaknazarov” has been resurrected on the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan website, which is run by Muhamad Solih, Karimov’s Islamist rival in the 1991 presidential election. “In contrast to [Gulnara], [Lola] possesses diplomatic restraint and modesty, and in international circles she has a positive image,” Karimov was quoted as saying at the meeting by Khaknazarov.
Aside from Karimov, the meeting was apparently attended by the chief of the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, Interior Minister Adkham Akhmedbayev, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, according to Khaknazarov. This suggests the leak had come from one of Karimov’s most trusted associates.
However, an Uzbek observer living abroad, who requested anonymity, cast doubt on the veracity of the leak to bne IntelliNews. “This sort of story that she has been chosen as a successor is invented in order to ruin all her chances,” the source said. “This shows that some forces are trying to make sure that she doesn’t become a successor.”
The problem for Lola’s chances of succeeding her father is that, unlike Nazarbayev’s daughter in neighbouring Kazakhstan, the Uzbek elites are unlikely to accept her as a neutral figurehead because of her businessman husband Timur Tillyayev. “Elite groups understand that if they install Lola as head of state, they will install her husband’s clan, which is why it will hard for them to accept her,” the Uzbek observer said.
Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked at the US State Department under Madeleine Albright, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that his dealings with the Uzbek elite showed that social identities are crucial. “Sure, Uzbekistan is larger than California and more populous than Texas, has a capital bigger than Houston, is a natural-resources powerhouse, and has near-universal literacy. Even so, if you want to know who will line up with whom in the infighting ahead, look to their deepest loyalties and affiliations: clan and tribe,” Sestanovich wrote.
Karimov, like other autocrats in the region like Nazarbayev and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev, stayed in power by mastering the art of keeping the peace between the various clans vying for power and money by manoeuvring and playing them off against each other. Karimov hails from Samarkand Province, which is adjacent to Jizzakh Province, where the prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 58, hails from. The two clans, Samarkand and Jizzakh, are regarded as close.
Sestanovich also noted in his WSJ article that in a repressive place like Uzbekistan, the “power ministries” like the police, military and intelligence apparatus are bound to control the succession. That puts the chief of the powerful National Security Service (SNB) and the man who was seen as behind Gulnara’s fall, Rustam Inoyatov, in an important role.
Inoyatov, 72, is one of the most powerful people in Uzbekistan, having served as SNB chief since 1995. He is from the Tashkent clan, according to RFE/RL, which sees his age as counting against him in any succession, though does not rule out a transitional role for him. “Inoyatov is seen as a kingmaker, not a king,” RFE/RL wrote.
Whom might he play kingmaker to? RFE/RL cited reports that suggest Inoyatov is on good terms with Prime Minister Mirziyoyev and might lend his support to the premier. Mirziyoyev, who has been 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, which has been criticised for the use of forced labour and child labour.
But in contrast to Finance Minister Azimov, Mirziyoyev is not seen as an independent politician but an executor of the system’s day-to-day management. Despite being part of the system, he lacks the intelligence to contest the presidency and is regarded by many as a bit of a thug. “Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Mirziyoyev is seen as a ‘fist’ not a ‘brain’,” RFE/RL wrote, adding that if he does become president, Uzbekistan could become even more repressive.
Alternatively, from a clan basis it would be more logical for Inoyatov to throw his weight behind a bid by Azimov to become president, as they are both from the Tashkent clan.
Azimov is known for wielding enormous influence over the economy as well as being one of the key figures behind Uzbekistan’s ambitious privatisation drive. Azimov allegedly has indirect control of the Uzbek commercial bank Ipak Yuli Bank through Rustambek Rakhimbekov, whom Azimov made chairman in 1999. Azimov’s reputation supposedly began to rise after he started securing Asian Development Bank (ADB) financing for the country, including ADB’s first equity investment into Ipak Yuli in 2012.
“Azimov's presidential chances depend on how skillful he is as a politician, on his personal ambitions and on how he assesses his chances of getting the highest post or just staying in the system to have some influence,” an Uzbekistan expert has told bne IntelliNews adding that Azimov is believed to be the most pro-Western top official. “It’s hard to judge how strong he is within the elite and whether the system will allow him to implement a pro-reform agenda.”