He has already been isolated from real power, but it's impossible to tell who of the circle controlling him has the best shot
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Business New Europe
The succession situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan is similar to Kazakhstan in that it will end sooner rather than later, but different in that he is increasingly being isolated from running the country and today doesn't hold any real power.
With Karimov yet to formally accept (or decline) the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party's nomination to stand for another term in the forthcoming presidential election on March 29, his "mafioso and cronies” are trying to keep firm control to ensure a smooth transfer of power when he suddenly dies, one observer living abroad tells bne Intellinews.
Exactly for this reason, the Uzbek president's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was last year stripped of her assets and placed under house arrest, the observer, who requested complete anonymity, says.
"It is impossible to predict which member of the elite will be installed when Karimov departs because the country is so isolated,” says the observer, “but it is important who will succeed him in that it depends on the person whether he or she will start reform.” Any reform, though, will be economic: “It's too early to talk about political reform in Uzbekistan, no one is ready for it."
Despite being a resource-rich country – Uzbekistan is the world's 17th largest producer of natural gas, ninth largest producer of gold and sixth largest producer of cotton – the country’s citizens are incredibly poor. GDP per capita was only $1,900 in 2013 against $13,200 in Kazakhstan.
The high levels of poverty and unemployment drive millions of Uzbeks to work abroad. Karimov's successor will need to steer the country's planned economy towards the free market in order to improve living conditions, thus avoiding great social upheaval and reducing social tensions. However, if the political situation is freed up too hastily without any economic improvement, the new authorities will find it hard to control "masses of hungry and angry people”, the observer notes.
Unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan doesn't have any strong personalities in politics except for two or three people, and Karimov's relatives are unlikely to join the fight for power. In the past, Uzbek politics was the preserve of competing groups representing regional elites, which have since become intertwined and each player is concerned only about protecting their business interests.
The president's eldest daughter Gulnara had been involved in a massive campaign to promote herself as a future leader in the media controlled by her, and in spring 2013 she made her presidential ambitions public.
At the same time, Gulnara engaged in a dangerous game of discrediting the chief of the powerful National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, 70, as well as one of the most liberal and influential members of the Uzbek government, First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov.
But it was when she started a media war against her younger sister Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva and her mother Tatyana that her common enemies colluded to use against her investigations by Swiss and Swedish prosecutors into alleged bribery and money-laundering involving Gulnara's business associates.
She was placed under house arrest with almost no contact with the outside world in February 2014, which marked her fall from her father's favour. In September Uzbek prosecutors announced that they had opened a criminal investigation into her alleged membership of an organised crime ring that was involved in blackmail, extortion, document forging and misappropriating state stakes in a number of enterprises.
Gulnara's downfall may intensify the succession battle, but could also serve as a warning to members of the elite about how precarious their situation is. "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," the Uzbekistan expert says of Azimov, an economist 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."
In contrast to Azimov, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev is not seen as an independent politician but an executor of the system's day-to-day management. Despite being part of the system, Mirziyayev lacks the intelligence to contest the presidency, so he is "not a desirable" candidate, given his "animalistic excesses" in dealing with people during his time as a regional governor, the expert believes.
While Inoyatov, as the security chief and the longest serving Uzbek top official, might not be seriously considered as one of the main contenders because of his own health problems, he might be instrumental in the choice of successor because he enjoys great influence.
According to the Uzbek constitution, in case of the president's incapacity or sudden death, presidential powers are transferred to the speaker of the Senate, until the election of a new president within three months. The current speaker of the Senate, little- known Ilgizar Sobirov, could be a temporary figure until the system finds a suitable candidate to be elected in a presidential poll.
In Turkmenistan, the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, in December 2006 didn't lead to the transfer of presidential powers to the then speaker of the Turkmen parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, as the constitution requires; instead, he faced criminal charges and the parliament endorsed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as the sole candidate for president. A similar scenario could well be repeated in Uzbekistan.
While nationalists are the outside contenders in any power struggle in Kazakhstan, it is Islamists who could challenge the Uzbek regime, and indeed that of neighbouring Tajikistan, where a relatively youthful 62-year-old President Emomali Rahmon holds untrammelled power.
Uzbekistan saw a rise in Islamism in the early 1990s soon after independence, as many rediscovered Islam as part of their identity. But a crackdown by the authorities forced political Islam underground and many followers, especially among the youth, have since become radicalised.
Two Uzbeks – Juma Namanganiy and Tohir Yuldosh – set up a radical Salafi group in 1991, which was re-established as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1998 with the aim of overthrowing Karimov and setting up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.
In February 1999, there was a series of bombings in Tashkent that the authorities blamed on Islamists, in particular the IMU. In 1999 and 2000, the IMU made two attempts to penetrate the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In fact, hundreds of Central Asian jihadists are reportedly fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and sensing a power vacuum should any of these ageing regional leaders suddenly die, they could return to wreak havoc.
Thus these Central Asian leaders' grip on power and their deliberate silence on succession plans give rise to a legitimate question: does this silence represent the biggest threat to stability in their countries?