- 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.
Mystery surrounded the fate of Karimov — who has ruled the country with an iron-fist for over 25 years — since the initial reports that he was hospitalized on Sunday. After Ferghana reported that Karimov had died following his stroke, Russian news agencies, including Interfax and the state-run RIA Novosti, cited sources within the Uzbek leadership saying that Karimov is still alive but hospitalized. On Wednesday, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, the president’s youngest daughter and an Uzbek diplomat, said on her Instagram account that her father was stable and that his health had even improved.
Reports emerged on Thursday that that preparations are already underway for a massive state funeral this weekend. According to the Russian-language, Central Asia-focused news site Ferghana, which first reported the possibility that Karimov had died on Monday, construction crews have been moving earth, clearing streets, and erecting barriers in the historic center of the old Silk Road city of Samarkand — where the 78-year-old Karimov was born, suggesting plans are underway for a state funeral.
Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek service issued a similar report on Thursday that preparations for a large-scale event appeared to be underway in Samarkand and that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the prime minister of Uzbekistan and one of Karimov’s potential successors, flew there Thursday night.
Thursday marked the 25th anniversary since the country gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The celebrations were originally scheduled to be a two day event starting on August 31, but the commemorations were scaled back following the public acknowledgment of the president’s poor health. A holiday speech traditionally delivered by Karimov was instead read out by a state television anchor in the first person during an evening news broadcast on Wednesday.
While Karimov was noticeably absent from the independence day festivities, the country’s state-controlled media were silent on the president’s health. Instead, TV programming this week has focused on preparations for the independence day celebrations, Uzbek athletes competing at the paralympics in Brazil, and even a recently opened a farmer’s market in Tashkent, the capital. With the president absent and the 25th anniversary festivities scaled back, Mirziyoyev led a commemorative event in Tashkent on Wednesday that marked the start of Independence Day celebrations.
Karimov has no apparent successor, and Central Asia watchers suggest such a decision would be made within the Uzbek president’s ruling circle of former Soviet intelligence officers and bureaucrats. In addition to Mirziyoyev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and National Security Committee head Rustam Inoyatov are also considered potential successors to Karimov, or at the very least will be influential in choosing who fills Karimov’s shoes.
Over the course of his rule, Karimov was considered one of the world’s most brutal dictators, infamous for jailing thousands of his detractors, hunting down enemies abroad, and using harsh punishments, including boiling dissidents alive. Karimov was an unsavory ally of the United States, giving the U.S. military basing rights in Uzbekistan for operations in the the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. However, following U.S. criticism of Uzbek security forces in the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek troops fired on unarmed protesters and killed as many as a thousand, Uzbekistan evicted the Americans from the base.
Washington and Tashkent would go on to mend diplomatic ties under the Obama administration, with Uzbekistan being used as a transport hub for the Northern Distribution Network, which allowed the U.S. military to move supplies in and out of Afghanistan for the ongoing war effort.
This post has been updated.
Photo Credit: Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images