Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, leaves a legacy of political and religious repression, Human Rights Watch said today. His death provides a moment for concerned governments to press for concrete human rights and democratic reforms, and accountability for past abuses.
Long criticized by the West and human rights groups for his authoritarian style of leadership, Karimov had ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, first as the head of the local Communist Party and then as president of the newly independent republic from 1991, Reuters adds.
“Islam Karimov leaves a legacy of a quarter century of ruthless repression,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Karimov ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: torture, disappearances, forced labor, and the systematic crushing of dissent. In terms of a single event in the last 27 years, he’ll be defined by the Andijan Massacre.”
There is little prospect that the country of 31 million will democratize, after a quarter of a century characterized by repression, the boiling of prisoners, and unflinching authoritarian rule, The Guardian notes. Even by the standards of the region, Karimov treated manifestations of dissent harshly.
“It’s like the dark days of Kremlinology. We’ll have to see who is standing where and who says what at the funeral,” said Deirdre Tynan, central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group, based in Bishkek in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan:
“If it goes to plan it will be as smooth as it was with Berdymukhamedov,” Tynan added, referring to the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The former dentist and minister of health took over from the longstanding dictator Saparmurat Niyazov after the latter’s death in 2006, and went about establishing a personality cult every bit as overblown as that of his predecessor. However, few people have insight into the real tensions in the opaque nation’s inner circle.
“Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of tension and horse trading behind closed doors,” Tynan told The Guardian.
Karimov’s enduring legacy is to leave his successors and neighbours a comprehensive playbook on how to uncompromisingly wield power on all fronts, according to Columbia University’s Alexander Cooley and the University of Exeter’s John Heathershaw, co-authors of “Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia” (Yale, forthcoming):
[A]s Karimov’s Uzbekistan became an exemplar of internal political repression and economic autarky, Karimov’s security services exported repression globally and his cosmopolitan family members pursued personal profit. Uzbek security services actively cooperate with Russian counterparts to monitor and forcibly return Uzbek migrants and political opponents, while Uzbek security services have been implicated in extraterritorial assignation attempts of regime critics from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan all the way to Sweden.
Karimov’s death would “mark the end of an era in Uzbekistan, but almost certainly not the pattern of grave human rights abuses. His successor is likely to come from Karimov’s closest circle, where dissenting minds have never been tolerated,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
Uzbekistan’s ruling structure remained highly opaque, amid a general lack of transparency across the region, said Paul Stronski, a Eurasia analyst with the Carnegie Endowment.
“Owing to this fact, often, outside observers have little insight into the internal dynamics of how the country is run. The first test of the next leader assuming power will be to exercise tact, skill and diplomacy and authority to balance different competing interest and factions in the country,” Stronski said.