Uzbekistan starts a new era, but will old wounds fester?

Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan through a complex system of patronage, concession and accommodation. AP
Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan through a complex system of patronage, concession and accommodation. AP

Uzbekistan has predominated Central Asia since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. Home to 30 million people – almost half of Central Asia’s entire population – it possesses the largest and most formidable military of any state in the region. Expected to collapse soon after its birth, Uzbekistan has remained largely stable despite being in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

Islam Karimov cast such a deep shadow over Uzbekistan that, when his death at the age of 78 was announced at the beginning of this month, many expected his subordinates to plunge the country into a destabilising war of succession.

Karimov was, until his death, the sole occupant of Uzbekistan’s presidency. Nearly half of his compatriots, born around the time of Uzbekistan’s emergence as an independent state following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, have known no other leader. Karimov did not invest in a personality cult, yet he loomed so large that it was an act of heresy even to contemplate a future without him.

Karimov’s authority depended on a complex system of patronage, concession and accommodation. Unlike others in the region, Karimov did not expend a great deal of energy on building a political dynasty. His eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was for a while seen as his heiress. She was a pampered daughter, indulged by her father. She modelled and sang on television, started a fashion label and held diplomatic sinecures in Europe. After obtaining a degree from Harvard, she took charge of Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector. But she was too brazen. Multiple agencies in Europe and the US are investigating allegations that she received millions of dollars in bribes for doling out operating licences.

Gulnara was destroyed by her own hubris. Instead of striving to co-opt the power brokers who buttressed her father’s rule, she sought to displace them.

She published on her Twitter account attacks against important figures in her father’s administration. Rustam Inoyatov, chief of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, was one of her targets. Mr Inoyatov’s retaliation was swift: Gulnara’s businesses were requisitioned, her Twitter account was suspended and she was placed under house arrest.

Gulnara’s downfall reveals the limits of Karimov’s power in his final years. Her arrest coincided with the hasty promulgation of legislation that significantly lowered the eligibility requirements for the presidency.

The election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a long-serving prime minister, as Karimov’s interim successor suggests that there is unlikely to be a protracted power struggle. Constitutionally, power should have been transferred to the head of the senate, Ilgizar Sobirov, for three months. In the event, Mr Sobirov acted as president for about 48 hours.

It is not insignificant that parliament elected Mr Mirziyoyev and not Rustam Azimov, the relatively sophisticated finance minister, who had a close relationship with Karimov.

In fact, Mr Azimov, whose name was being bandied about hopefully in western capitals as a potential successor, was not even a contender when parliament voted.

Even if a challenge were to materialise in the future, Mr Mirziyoyev, now occupying the president’s office, can comfortably fend it off. The election mandated by the constitution will ratify his power. What remains of the Karimov family’s clout will eventually evaporate.

Karimov’s success in forging a stable Uzbekistan depended in part on luck. Hardly anyone noticed or cared when Uzbekistan became embroiled in a war with Wahhabi Islamists in the early 1990s. The long decades of enforced atheism under Soviet rule concealed the slow radicalisation of aggrieved Muslims in the conservative Fergana Valley.

By the time Uzbekistan became a sovereign state in 1991, they were a force to be reckoned with. Karimov at first tried to parley with them, but later recoiled as their demands became too unreasonable.

His government, having attempted briefly to use religion as a glue to bind the disparate peoples who occupied its territory, began cracking down on people it branded “Wahhabi”. It was a fierce contest. In 1997, Islamists beheaded an Uzbek policeman. By 1999, having found sanctuary and sponsorship in Pakistan, Uzbekistan’s radical Islamists nearly assassinated Karimov in a series of explosions in Tashkent. Karimov’s reprisals earned him international rebukes.

But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he became indispensable to the American war in Afghanistan. Not only were his crackdowns forgiven – but he also began receiving vast sums of cash to intensify them.

The 2005 massacre in Andijan – during which Uzbek troops opened fire on protesters – led to the termination of Karimov’s special relationship with the United States. But the void was soon filled by China. Beijing’s ambitious revival of the ancient Silk Road is dependent for success on Tashkent’s cooperation, and its investment in Uzbekistan now outstrips Russia’s.

The bad news for Mr Mirziyoyev is that the West will in short order withdraw completely from Afghanistan. The world, fixated on Syria, will soon lose interest in this region; the Uzbek militants who were once a potent threat to Tashkent will regroup; and disenfranchised young men will once again be drawn to them. The economy, already suffering from the decline of prices for Uzbekistan’s principal exports, can only get worse. A recent analysis by the Financial Times found that Uzbekistan draws lower foreign direct investment per capita than any other country in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Even the Chinese investments into Uzbekistan are, according to the FT, “barely a fraction of other similarly sized Silk Road countries”.

The presence of Russia’s leadership at Karimov’s funeral, including Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, signals that Moscow views this transition as an opportunity to make a belated but concentrated effort to bring Uzbekistan back into its orbit. Washington does not have a clear policy towards Tashkent – but no longer dependent on Uzbekistan, it is likely to ramp up its criticism of the government’s human rights record, especially if Tashkent tilts towards Moscow.

Karimov gave stability to Uzbekistan – but it was a stability that cloaked deep wounds. Those wounds will now resurface.

Kapil Komireddi, a frequent contributor to The National, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East

Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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