Central Asia’s Chess Master: How Islam Karimov’s Wily Diplomacy Has Cemented His Power

Uzbekistan's dictatorial leader is headed for yet another election victory Sunday.


Uzbekistan heads to the polls on Sunday for presidential elections, but the results are a foregone conclusion: President Islam Karimov will be re-elected. Uzbekistan’s ruler since its days as a Soviet republic, Karimov has spent the last 24 years consolidating his power in the most brutal of ways: boiling dissidents, carrying out violent crackdowns against the political opposition, and even placing his own daughter under indefinite house arrest.

And while Sunday’s elections might not matter on their own, they come at a time when Uzbekistan once again finds itself at the center of a geopolitical chess game between China, Russia, and the United States for the heart of Asia. In January, Washington announced that it would be sending 308 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and 20 armored recovery vehicles to Uzbekistan, as the United States tries to push for countries in the region to play a larger role in Afghanistan’s security. Similarly, Beijing is investing heavily in the Uzbekistan’s gas sector. Moscow continues courting Uzbekistan to join its Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc.

But Uzbekistan is a fickle partner, and has used this great power rivalry to its advantage. “Tashkent’s foreign policy has always been about playing all sides off each other,” Viorel Ursu, a researcher at Open Society’s Eurasia program, told Foreign Policy. “But instability inside Uzbekistan has always made the regime quick to move from one partner to another.”

Through this strategy, Karimov has upgraded his country’s standing from pawn to rook.

Karimov first put Uzbekistan on the Eurasian chessboard in September 2001, as NATO, led by the United States, began operations in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Karimov backed the NATO intervention, and even allowed the United States and Germany to host airbases in his country. Not only did a Western military presence ease Karimov’s anxieties about terrorism in Central Asia, it provided a welcome counterbalance to Moscow’s influence.

But Karimov soon came to see the growing Western presence in Central Asia as more liability than benefit and as a threat to his own power. The former communist apparatchik has transformed Uzbekistan, a country of 31 million people — nearly half the entire population of Central Asia — into one of the most repressive states in the world. The president and his ruling circle of former Soviet intelligence operatives control a vast system of repression that monitors the activities of any opponent to the regime — real or perceived. Western support for the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 raised suspicions in Tashkent that Washington was actively seeking regime change in former Soviet countries.

When in March 2005, the president of neighboring Kyrgyzstan was ousted by popular protests, Karimov believed his fears had been confirmed. With an ailing economy and governments tumbling around him, Karimov responded in the harshest way in the city of Andijan. On May 13, 2005, after months of protests against the government, the Uzbek military sent in its troops and opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds — thousands according to some accounts — including women and children.

“The military sent in [armored personnel carriers] to block off all the escape routes from the main square where the protesters were,” a survivor of Andijan, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of government retaliation, told FP. “Things were getting tense, and in the evening the forces opened fire. Everyone panicked and some managed to escape down back-alleys,” he said. “There was all types of people in that square: women, children, young people. Most didn’t make it out alive.”

International condemnation of Uzbekistan soon followed and led Tashkent to oppose a stance of defiant isolation, rejecting efforts to monitor human rights conditions in the country. Eventually the White House denounced the massacre. In response, Tashkent evicted the United States from an Uzbek air base.

Subsequently, Uzbekistan moved closer to Moscow, flirting with membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a multilateral security alliance.

At the same time, Western paranoia reached new heights inside the Uzbek government. Sanjar Umarov, a successful businessman with ties to the United States, had been pushing for economic reforms to weed out corruption and open up the country’s sluggish economy. In the wake of Andijan, Umarov spoke out against the government’s crackdown, which proved to be the final straw for Karimov’s regime. In October 2005, Umarov was arrested, and tortured, and eventually imprisoned as the government tried to remove any semblance of opposition.

“Originally they tried to tie me to Andijan. Everyone was paranoid at the time that it was another color revolution,” Umarov told FP. “I was a very good scapegoat because I had business ties to the U.S. and my family lived there. Eventually they dropped this, but they wanted me to confess that I was working for America,” Umarov said.

Umarov was convicted for embezzlement and sent to a prison colony where he says he was beaten and drugged by prison guards. As a result of diplomatic pressure from the United States, Umarov was released in 2009. He was granted asylum in the United States, where he now lives with his family.

After its brief courtship with Moscow, Tashkent began in the late 2000s to once more move closer to Washington. Because of difficulties moving supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan, NATO needed a new transit point along the so-called Northern Distribution Network. At the April 2008 NATO heads-of-state summit in Bucharest, Uzbekistan opened the door to providing a supply route into Afghanistan. Soon thereafter, senior U.S. military and political officials resumed visiting Tashkent, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited in 2011.

Despite Uzbekistan’s westward pivot, Uzbek officials have repeatedly indicated that they will continue to work with Russia. China also continues to be a useful foil. In June 2012, Uzbekistan and China signed a strategic partnership agreement in which they pledged to strengthen ties.

With China, Russia, and the United States all wanting a piece of Uzbekistan, Karimov has managed to effectively insulate himself from international pressure against his rampant human rights abuses. All the while he cruises to another election victory Sunday.


Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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