Uzbekistan laid to rest long-ruling President Islam Karimov in his home city of Samarkand on September 3, a day after the government announced his death following a stroke at the age of 78.
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.
Thousands of Uzbeks lined up along Tashkent’s main roads as a cortege carried Karimov's casket to the airport. Karimov was buried after an Islamic funeral ceremony on Samarkand’s historic Registan Square. Thousands of people, including foreign states heads, attended the ceremony.
Foreign officials attending the funeral included Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. Kazakhstan sent its prime minister to the funeral, in contrast to earlier reports that Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarabayev would visit Tashkent.
Karimov’s wife, Tatyana Karimova, and his younger daughter, Lola Tillyaeva-Karimova, also attended the funeral, while his eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova was not present. Gulnara fell out of favour with her father and was reportedly placed under house arrest in 2014 amid corruption allegations.
Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is considered one of Karimov’s potential successors, gave a speech during the ceremony, calling him the “founder of the state” and a “great and dear son of the nation”, RFE/RL reported.
Karimov spent 27 years in power and has led the country ever since it gained independence in 1991. While he can be credited with pulling Uzbekistan out of its Soviet lethargy, his brutal rule and obsession with control also prevented Uzbekistan from reaching its full potential.
One of Karimov’s achievements was transforming Uzbekistan from a cotton field in the middle of nowhere to a more diversified economy. As a result, economic output from $3bn in cotton-based earnings in the early 1990s, rose to a GDP worth just over $66bn as of the end of 2015, according to Trading Economics.
Still, 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 rule, Uzbek authorities detained thousands of people on politically motivated charges and routinely tortured those in prison and police stations. 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.
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. Russia is a major trading partner and a source of remittances for Uzbekistan. 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.