- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first and only president, may or may not be dead. According to the Russian-language, Central Asia-focused news site Ferghana, which cited sources close to the regime, the leader died after suffering a stroke. However, other Russian news agencies, including Interfax and the state-run RIA Novosti, have cited sources saying the Uzbek president is still alive but hospitalized.
With Karimov ailing and potentially dead, the looming political transition raises questions about who will take the reins, given that there is no clear successor in place, and what that will mean for the stability of the strategically located Central Asian state.
Ferghana first broke the story on Sunday that the authoritarian leader was hospitalized in Tashkent, the capital. But as of Monday, there has been no official confirmation on the death of the Uzbek president.
Speculation on Karimov’s condition began on Sunday when the government of Uzbekistan issued an unprecedented statement and confirmed reports that the president, who has ruled the country since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, had been taken to the hospital. The government statement was scant on details, saying only that the 78-year-old Karimov was undergoing treatment for an undisclosed period of time. But Monday, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, the president’s youngest daughter and an Uzbek diplomat, confirmed Karimov’s poor health. She wrote on her Instagram account that the Central Asian ruler is suffering from a brain hemorrhage and that “it is too early to make any predictions about his future health.”
The public acknowledgement is a first for the reclusive and authoritarian Uzbek government, which has often dodged rumors of the president’s poor health. But Karimov’s hospitalization, and the increased likelihood of political succession in Uzbekistan, comes as the country, and Central Asia as a whole, faces some of the greatest economic and security challenges in post-Soviet history.
“There will be losers from Karimov’s demise no matter how smoothly succession takes place,” Erica Marat, an assistant professor at the National Defense University, told Foreign Policy. “With no preset procedures of succession and a complete lack of experience in holding open elections, anyone who comes to power will continue the same level of political repression or engage in even harsher methods.”
Karimov, a former Communist Party 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. Since assuming the presidency in 1991, the Uzbek leader has focused on consolidating power in the most brutal ways, including deadly crackdowns, such as the 2005 Andijan massacre, and allegedly even boiling dissidents alive. Over the last 25 years, the president and his ruling circle of former Soviet intelligence operatives have developed a vast system of repression that monitors the activities of any opponent to the regime — real or perceived.
The issue of who will succeed Karimov, seen as the founding father of former Soviet Uzbekistan, has loomed large in recent years and at times even played out in public. Gulnara Karimova — pop star, fashion designer, and diplomat, as well as being the eldest daughter of the president — was seen as a likely successor but has since fallen from grace and currently remains under house arrest in Tashkent. Her downfall began in 2012 when prosecutors in Sweden and Switzerland started investigating potentially corrupt business dealings involving the Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant Telia, which was angling to enter the Uzbek market. Uzbekistan’s “first daughter,” as she was known, has since seen her business empire dismantled and her power marginalized, in what was interpreted by Central Asia watchers as wreckage from a behind-the-scenes struggle for succession.
“When they got rid of Gulnara, they started to form a plan. The fact that [Karimov’s illness] is public means that succession is already likely decided,” Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow, told FP. “They are planning for continuity. It will be a leadership change, but not really a regime change.”
At any rate, the prospect of a political transition threatens to shake up Uzbekistan’s already delicate state. Central Asia is battered by economic headwinds from two of its biggest financial partners: Russia and China. Russia is currently in a recession aggravated by cheap oil prices, which in turn has poleaxed remittances from the 2 million Uzbek migrants working there. China’s economic slowdown, meanwhile, has cooled investment in the region.
And then there is the specter of radical Islam. With the political opposition long crushed, extremist groups became one of the few outlets for expressing discontent with the Karimov regime. Following a series of car bombings in 1999 that left 16 people dead and 120 wounded in Tashkent, Karimov blamed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant Islamist group that aimed to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan and establish a caliphate in Central Asia. Karimov responded with a sweeping crackdown against any form of the remaining political opposition and sharply curtailed religious freedoms.
The IMU has since been pushed out of Central Asia and shifted its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but following the declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate in June 2014, the IMU swore allegiance to the group, raising fears of a renewed push into the region. The Soufan Group, a security consultancy, estimates 2,000 Islamic State volunteers are from the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; in recent months, the self-declared caliphate has focused heavily on recruiting fighters from the former Soviet Union, especially Uzbeks.
“More repression, especially of religious freedoms, will lead to greater numbers of people joining extremist groups,” Marat said. “With a lack of political pluralism, religious extremism becomes a ready-made political force that unites disenfranchised groups against the ruling regime.”
Uzbekistan is set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its independence on Thursday. With Karimov’s fate unknown, it could be the first such celebration in the country’s history without the president in attendance.
This post has been updated.
Photo credit: Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images