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With Uzbekistan's Strongman Perhaps on His Deathbed the Region Wonders What Comes Next

Uzbekistan's president of 25 years has been known to be in poor health for years now

The reports regarding Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s critical health condition have an ominous ring about them. It is extremely unusual that an official ‘health bulletin’ has been issued in Tashkent on a topic that is usually treated as ‘top secret’. Evidently, someone at the very top thought it necessary to sensitize the public. Second, a post on the Instagram by Karimov’s daughter – itself very surprising – said, “At the moment it is too early to make any predictions about his future health.” (RFERL)

It seems to hint that the president may be incapacitated. While it is too early to speculate, the fact remains that a political transition in Uzbekistan is fraught with profound consequences for that country’s stability and regional security. Uzbekistan is an oasis of stability in the Central Asian region, but then, appearances can be very deceptive in the steppes.

Ferghana Valley has traditionally been a theatre of radical Islamism. If an orderly transition in Tashkent doesn’t happen, there is serious danger of instability as competing clans vie for power. No doubt, the security agencies will play a key role in any succession struggle.

It is all but certain that foreign powers will interfere from behind the scenes, given the pivotal role of Uzbekistan in regional security and stability in Central Asia. Against the creeping shadows of the New Cold War and the US’ containment strategies against Russia and China, Uzbekistan becomes a prized trophy in the great game.

Karimov had pursued robustly independent foreign policies and was a strong votary of the doctrine of ‘self-reliance’. China has been a major beneficiary thereof. Much depends on his successor, whoever that might be, given the highly centralised decision-making and authoritarian political culture in the country.

Three names have been doing the rounds – ‘Russia-friendly’ prime minister Shavkat Mirziayev, ‘western-friendly’ deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov and the longstanding boss of Uzbek National Security Committee (successor body to the KGB) Rustam Inoyatov.

But then, if one surveys the transition in Turkmenistan, the only post-Soviet country in Central Asia where political succession took place since 1991, the choice fell on an innocuous former dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow when Saparmurat Niyazov passed away in 2006. And he never looked back since then, disproving most analysts that he might be an interim leader.   

A transition in Uzbekistan at the present moment is highly sensitive due to the criticality of the situation in Afghanistan. There is real danger that the Islamist groups operating in Afghanistan may jump into the fray taking advantage of political uncertainties. Karimov brilliantly succeeded in insulating Uzbekistan from the spill-over of the Afghan civil war. But a successor may not have the same measure of success. 

Although a staunchly secular mind, Karimov was pragmatic enough to deal with the Taliban regime in Kabul in the late nineties (and with the ISI in Pakistan) to secure peace for his country, given the presence of Uzbek extremist groups in Taliban camp. On the other hand, the Uzbek intelligence also kept up with the Northern Alliance leaders, especially Rashid Dostum, Uzbeki leader on the other side of the Amu Darya.

For the NA leaders, bottled up in the north by the advancing Taliban, Tashkent was often a watering hole where they could get a visa from a foreign legation to travel abroad to make procurement for the war effort, arrange funding or to simply propagate their viewpoint to the international audience. Karimov’s pragmatism was at his best in those trying times in the late nineties, when a single-minded focus on sequestering his country from the menace of Islamic extremism subsumed all other considerations on his mind.

Interestingly, a commentary by Xinhua yesterday drew pointed attention to the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan being the proxies of foreign intelligence agencies, and of their capacity to “undermine the situation in the region and beyond, including Russia”. (Xinhua)

Karimov appreciated Russia’s role as a provider of security for the Central Asian region but also walked out of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. He had a rare genius for cherry-picking what was on the Russian platter. On its part, Moscow learned to live with him and not to push the envelope (which needed a lot of quiet patience at times), but comfortable in the knowledge that he wouldn’t work against Russian interests. (Karimov was a highly ‘Russified’ politician and had to teach himself to handle Uzbek language when independence was thrust upon the reluctant country by Boris Yeltsin in 1991.) 

Karimov always remained somewhat wary of western intentions in the region. The colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia probably didn’t help matters. On the other hand, he felt at home with China’s strict policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Central Asian states. In the ultimate analysis, his yardstick inevitably narrowed down to the utility of a foreign country for accelerating Uzbekistan’s development.  

On balance, Karimov was essentially a moderniser insofar as he could appreciate the selective uses of ‘westernism’. He even learned English and took coaching in tennis while in his late fifties. 

No doubt, Karimov ruled with an iron grip and was merciless in squashing dissent. Nonetheless, he consolidated Uzbekistan’s independence and navigated the state formation through the formative period with remarkable success. The Uzbek economy has been doing fairly well. (Karimov is a trained economist himself.)

According to the Asian Development Bank figures, the economy grew at 8% last year, which has been the ninth consecutive year of expansion at 8% or higher. Uzbekistan has been registering the highest growth rate in the entire Central Asian region. Of course, the growth is primarily led by public investment and spending. The services sector accounts for half of the GDP. 

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