Islam Karimov and the Dictator’s Playbook

The tyrant of Uzbekistan assassinated his enemies, jailed anyone who spoke against him, and crushed human rights. Why did America so willingly look the other way?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov gestures after greeting US Secretary of State John Kerry at Samarkand Airport on November 1, 2015 in Samarkand. Kerry is in the region as he visits 5 Central Asian nations. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read )
Uzbek President Islam Karimov gestures after greeting US Secretary of State John Kerry at Samarkand Airport on November 1, 2015 in Samarkand. Kerry is in the region as he visits 5 Central Asian nations. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read )

The as-yet-unconfirmed death of Islam Karimov, the only president independent Uzbekistan has ever known, is pushing Central Asia into uncharted territory. The most important country in the region — as measured by population and geography — Uzbekistan under Karimov became the archetypal post-Soviet police state: corrupt, brutal, and defiantly inward-looking. With Karimov’s death or incapacitation, Uzbekistan is transitioning to new leadership at a time of extreme economic distress and geopolitical uncertainty in Central Asia.

Even in a region defined by dictatorship, Karimov was known for never relaxing his iron fist. Under Soviet rule, Karimov had been the first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party, and his suppression of the earliest opposition political parties started practically with independence. Two early opposition groupings, Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Liberty), had their public assemblies banned and their leaders driven into exile in the early 1990s. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other political exiles from these and other movements left as well, clustering in Turkey, Europe, and the United States.

Violent Salafi alternatives to the government emerged by the late 1990s, a tiny fragment of the larger religious revival across the region that followed the lifting of some Soviet strictures on religious expression and inflamed by the civil war in neighboring Tajikistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) staged raids in Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s but, with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, became more enmeshed in the fight against coalition forces than in activities in Uzbekistan. Still, Karimov’s government treated all threats with equal violence.

In 2005, after people massed in the main square of the Fergana Valley city of Andijan following a prison break, Karimov’s security forces massacred hundreds of civilians. In the ensuing crackdown, the government shuttered the offices of international civil society organizations — including that of my employer, Freedom House. A new wave of repression was directed against the few local human rights groups and political dissidents who held on. The United States was expelled from its Karshi-Khanabad military base, known as K2, after it criticized the massacre, but by 2009 relations had warmed again amid America’s crisis with Pakistan that threatened supply lines to coalition forces in Afghanistan. Central Asia was an important thread in the alternative to the Pakistani route — the Northern Distribution Network — and Uzbekistan held the most important crossing into Afghanistan for goods destined for U.S. troops in the field. And so Washington slunk back, without the Karimov regime ever acknowledging its crimes in Andijan. Human rights groups never got back into the country, though, and journalists and civil society activists are still denied entry more often than not.

What remained by the second decade of the 2000s were scattered local civil society groups, a few human rights defenders, and a handful of independent journalists operating either secretly or — for those brazen enough — in open defiance of the authorities, which arrested them, imprisoned them, sexually assaulted them, and sometimes burned down their houses. Thousands of people convicted of “unregistered religious activity” filled the prisons. In 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a rare public statement of rebuke, saying that Uzbekistan’s interference with its prison monitoring had rendered visiting detainees “pointless.”

Much political science attention is now given to how authoritarian governments learn from each other and share techniques, with a disproportionate focus in Europe and Eurasia on Russia as the innovator, spreading ideas like labeling nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, “foreign agents.” But Uzbekistan was the region’s original pioneer: banning all unregistered religious activity in 1998; expelling nearly all foreign NGOs in 2005-2006; blocking access to social media platforms; kidnapping dissidents and secretly delivering them to prisons; and assassinating exiles in countries as diverse as Sweden and Turkey.

This brutal history is why few observers of Central Asia hold much hope for an “Uzbek spring” after Karimov is gone — whether that is today, next month, or next year. The political opposition exists only in exile and largely online, in a smattering of websites and dissident groupings that spend more energy feuding among themselves (and trying to stay safe from Karimov’s hitmen) than they do organizing inside the country. There is no independent civil society, not just in the international development sense of liberal NGOs, but in the original meaning — of independent bar associations, unions, mosques, even soccer leagues. One of the most insidious features of the regime has been to weave the state security apparatus into every aspect of life down to the traditional Uzbek mahalla, or neighborhood. Mahalla officials have become employees of the state, responsible for maintaining order and passing information about their neighbors’ activities up the chain to their superiors.

Nonetheless, Karimov’s incapacitation comes at an extremely precarious time for Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole. The collapse in oil prices and Western sanctions that thrust Russia into recession beginning in the summer of 2014 also sent Central Asian economies dependent either on Russia or on oil into a tailspin. Even in a region known for corrupt, state-heavy economies, Uzbekistan has stood apart for a particularly autarkic form of the region’s rent-seeking predation, with frequent and unpredictable expropriations of foreign companies and a currency that trades at an official rate roughly half the black market one. Uzbekistan’s official economic statistics are laughably cheery, but what we can glean from news reports and other measures corresponds to regional trends: a vulnerable currency, dollar shortages, and declining household incomes. Karimov’s reported death will be another shock to what has seemed to be, even in good times, a fragile system.

But the biggest change could be in undoing Karimov’s resolute isolationism. The only country to border all four other Central Asian states, as well as Afghanistan, and with by far the largest population, Uzbekistan is the heart of the region. Few regional projects can be accomplished without Uzbekistan’s participation. But Karimov made no friends among his neighbors, refusing to negotiate with Tajikistan over water rights and the proposed Rogun dam project, opting out of Soviet holdover electricity-sharing schemes and leaving Kyrgyzstan to construct expensive new solutions of its own, and taking zero action to mitigate or restore the drained Aral Sea region shared with Kazakhstan. He kept his distance from the great powers, too. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan pointedly stayed away from Russia’s favored regional schemes, whether the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Eurasian Economic Union.

At the same time, Karimov was perfectly willing to punish the West when he felt offended, as he did in evicting the United States from its military base after the Andijan massacre. Like elsewhere in the region, China’s deep pockets and open hands bought it more cooperation from Karimov than many expected, but its interests remain limited compared with the traditional geopolitical competition between Russia and the United States.

This long-standing isolationism could now be in doubt. A new leader will probably need to bring in some sources of new financing to prove his capability and to make payments to keep the security services in line. There will be significant popular dividends in lessening tensions with neighbors and undertaking economic projects that could restore Uzbekistan to its proper leading role in the region. Allowing Uzbeks to travel and trade more freely within the region would be a popular move and one that could boost the economy. With Russia too broke to act as a patron, that would mean courting additional Chinese investment at the risk of provoking local nationalism or seeking aid from Western-dominated institutions that could raise Moscow’s ire. Central Asia has been even more on edge than usual since Russia’s actions in Crimea, and it is safe to assume any new leader will retain Karimov’s paranoia about both color revolutions and “little green men.” Uzbekistan lacks the large ethnic Russian population of Kazakhstan, but the millions of migrant laborers working in Russia leave Uzbekistan vulnerable to pressure, and the Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan mean thoughts of the region’s former colonist are never far off.

Karimov leaves no clear successor behind, but a trio of men at the top — the head of the National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov; Finance Minister Rustam Azimov; and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev — are widely thought to be the top candidates to take the reins. Inoyatov’s SNB is the muscle behind Karimov’s throne; the man himself is so reclusive there has been only one photograph of him in public in the last decade (which makes him an unlikely candidate for president). Azimov is considered worldlier and possibly more open to a change in Uzbekistan’s economic policies. Mirziyoyev has been prime minister since 2003 and is widely described as a harsh leader himself, what Radio Free Europe’s Bruce Pannier called a “fist” but not a “brain.” The chatter as of Aug. 30 seems to point to Mirziyoyev, but there is nothing solid to go on yet when Karimov is not even officially dead.

No matter who it is, or if the regime chooses to settle on someone who seems to be a weak figurehead (as happened in Turkmenistan’s transition in 2006-2007), change in Uzbekistan will present major risks for the region’s dysfunctional balance of power, long held together by leaders and elites more focused on filling up overseas bank accounts than popular mobilization or economic development. One attractive option for a new leader looking to shore up his credentials might be a more assertive policy vis-à-vis the large and persecuted Uzbek minorities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — but that could easily spiral into conflict if the security services and military do not remain firmly in check.

There is never a good time for a leadership transition in a centralized system like Uzbekistan’s. Like all dictatorships, Karimov’s rule was about reducing the choice to one of stability or chaos. Now we have to see what the chaos brings.

Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.

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