Confirmation that Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has been taken critically ill following a brain haemorrhage will be causing concern in Moscow.
Along with Kazakhstan’s leader Nursultan Nazarbayev Karimov is the last remaining leader of a former Soviet republic to have achieved power as his republic’s Communist Party First Secretary before becoming the republic’s President when the USSR fell apart. He has exercised autocratic control over Uzbekistan ever since, being the only leader Uzbekistan has known since it became independent.
Karimov has run Uzbekistan with an iron fist, heading a regime notorious for its human rights abuses and its brutal treatment of internal dissidents. These methods have been ruthlessly effective, with no evidence of any serious opposition to Karimov’s rule at the present time.
Though Uzbekistan is a poor country, it is rich in natural resources and with a population of 31 million is one of the biggest of the former Soviet republics. It has also historically been the cultural centre of Central Asia, with cities like Samarkand and Bukhara famous for their monuments and history. Its size, potential wealth and location at the heart of Central Asia make its stability critically important for Moscow.
Though Uzbekistan is a traditional centre of Sunni Muslim culture, Karimov has run Uzbekistan as a secular unitary republic, ruthlessly suppressing any manifestations of political Islam there. In doing so he has claimed – and perhaps exaggerated – the threat of Al-Qaeda and of Islamist terrorism in his country.
Karimov has also pursued a relentless policy of Uzbek nationalism, seeking to distance the nation from Russia and denying a role for Tajik (once the most common language in towns like Samarkand) as a minority language. One of his more striking reforms was to change the spelling of the Uzbek language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Notwithstanding this anti Russian policy Russian remains widely spoken and connections to Russia at an economic and social level remain close with many Uzbeks choosing to work in Russia as guest workers and some emigrating there.
In foreign policy Karimov has pursued an erratic course. At times he has tilted towards the US, hosting a US military base and involving himself in anti-Russian regional groupings such as GUUAM (“Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova”). However in 2005, after his brutal suppression of protests in the town of Andijan, which provoked protests from the US, Karimov appeared to switch alliances, tilting towards Russia and China. The US base was closed and Uzbekistan essentially quit GUUAM, and is now a member of the Russian and Chinese led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation instead.
Karimov has never however fully committed to Russia and China. Uzbekistan remains outside the Russian led Eurasian Union. Though it briefly participated in the Russian led security organisation the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, it soon quit. There have been persistent rumours that one reason Karimov has held aloof from these organisations is because of his feelings of jealousy towards Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom Moscow tends to look on as its chief ally in the region.
The Russians will be watching the situation in Uzbekistan in light of Karimov’s illness closely. Whilst for the moment the situation in Uzbekistan is stable, they will be concerned that it remain that way. For the Russians instability in Central Asia leading to Jihadi groups led by Al-Qaeda getting a foothold there is a nightmare, and one which they will work to prevent at all costs.
Beyond that there is the question of Uzbekistan’s future course. Karimov has dominated Uzbekistan so completely and for so long that it is difficult to imagine Uzbekistan without him or to guess what its course might be after he is gone. This is made even more difficult by the fact that Karimov has no obvious successor. The person who some – almost certainly wrongly – imagined Karimov might be grooming as is successor, his daughter Gulnara Karimova, suffered a dramatic loss of favour in 2014 and is now reported to be under arrest.
An iron rule of successions in autocratic dictatorships since the mid twentieth century is that they lead to a strong reaction against the person and policies of the dead leader after he is gone, with the successor, whoever he might be, trying to distinguish himself from the dead dictator by pursuing contrasting policies.
The nearest comparable situation which might give some clues to what may happen in Uzbekistan after Karimov is gone may be provided by the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan where until his still somewhat mysterious death in 2006 the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov (“Turkmenbashi”) ran a regime in some respects similar though if possible even more repressive than Karimov’s.
Like Karimov Niyazov kept his distance from Russia, pursued a strongly nationalist domestic policy involving switching the spelling of the national language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and kept Turkmenistan aloof from the various Russian led Eurasian institutions whilst pursuing a strongly independent foreign policy which at times seemed to tilt towards the US and the West.
Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has since Niyazov’s death significantly softened the level of domestic repression in the country, and though he has still kept Turkmenistan outside the Russian led Eurasian institutions, he has nonetheless significantly improved relations with Russia.
Whether Uzbekistan follows a similar course to Turkmenistan remains to be seen. Certainly the Russians will be watching the situation there closely.