Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov died of a stroke on August 29 at 15:35, the Moscow-based Central Asian news agency Fergana News reported, citing anonymous sources. The 78-year-old strongman had been running the Uzbek republic from before its independence in 1991 with an iron fist.
The office of the president issued a very short statement late on August 29 denying the reports of Karimov's death and said he was in a stable condition. Earlier the government, in a rare comment on the president's health, admitted he had been hospitalised.
On August 29, Karimov’s daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva wrote on her Instagram account that her father was in hospital due to a “cerebral haemorrhage”, adding that his condition was “stable”.
Sources close to the People Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), an umbrella group of diaspora opposition movements headed by exiled political activist Muhammad Solih, claimed to have been present when Karimov lost consciousness on August 26, when the Uzbek leader received the country’s Olympic team at his residence near Tashkent. Karimov reportedly lost consciousness after consuming some alcohol at the banquet, the PMU said in a statement on its website.
The death of Karimov, if confirmed, will start a succession struggle that has no clear standout candidate. The president's first daughter Gulnara appeared to want the job, but publicly clashed with her father in 2014 and has not been seen in public since, while her business empire has largely been dismantled.
Other reports say that Karimov's right-hand man and close economic advisor First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who is another succession candidate, has been placed under house arrest. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev is also seen as a leading candidate.
However, information is sketchy in the tightly control authoritarian regime that Karimov ran. All eyes will be on the September 1 independence day celebrations to see who will read the president’s keynote speech as a clue to who will take over.
Silk road to the presidency
Islam Karimov was born on January 30, 1938 in the legendary Silk Road city of Samarkand. In 1960 he graduated from the Central Asian Polytechnic Institute and in 1964 joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), before going on to study mechanical engineering at the Tashkent Institute of National Economy and eventually a PhD in Economic Sciences.
He moved up quickly through the party ranks, being appointed to the State Planning Committee of the Uzbek Soviet Republic in 1966. Then in 1983 Karimov was the finance minister of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and in 1986 became the deputy chairman of the Uzbek SSR Council of Ministers, chairman of the State Planning Office.
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Unio,n he had been almost two years at the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, and 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. In 2000, 2007 and 2015, he was re-elected head of state. He was married, with two daughters, Gulnara and Lola.
The only precedent for what is happening now is when the long-ruling dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkens, suddenly died in 2006. In that case, the former Soviet republic’s elite came together and chose a new president, the relatively unknown Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a dentist, to take over. Berdymukhamedov is believed to be Niyazov’s illegitimate son. The inner circle also headed off a power bid by Niyazov’s security services, resulting in a smooth transition.
In that case officials initially denied Niyazov's death and continued to maintain the president was a alive during the week it took for the elites to choose a successor. If Karimov is dead then Uzbek-watchers are expecting a similar scenario.