Opaque Uzbekistan confronts transition anxieties


Whether Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with astounding brutality for the past 27 years, is dead or alive, his era is almost certainly drawing to a close. Two questions now hover over his hapless people, The Economist writes:

Who will succeed him? And will they get a better deal? The one they have suffered under for so long could hardly be worse. Of the five post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s is widely regarded as the nastiest, its leader the most mercilessly paranoid.

According to the country’s constitution, experts report, the head of the senate should assume office from an incapacitated president and call new elections. But that has not happened.

As journalists, diplomats, and other analysts speculate about the backstage intrigues from which a new ruler will emerge, two perspectives are likely to dominate, notes Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:

One is that, in a repressive place like Uzbekistan, where political pluralism never took hold, the “power ministries”–the police, the military, the intelligence apparatus–are bound to control the succession. Bet on the guys with guns.

A second view is that traditional social identities are crucial. Sure, Uzbekistan is larger than California and more populous than Texas, has a capital bigger than Houston, is a natural-resources powerhouse, and has near-universal literacy. Even so, if you want to know who will line up with whom in the infighting ahead, look to their deepest loyalties and affiliations: clan and tribe.

The analytical focus we choose has a policy implication, adds Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

If Central Asian politics is all about identity, it may be hard for the United States to have much influence. But if institutions, especially ones with different interests, are the key, outsiders can play some role. The main actors in the Karimov succession are bound to ask what kind of relationship Washington can offer them.  The answer will matter, whatever their clan

The prospect of a transition of power comes at a delicate time for Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter as well as a top 10 producer of gold and uranium, The Financial Times adds:

The fall in oil prices and economic crisis in Russia has had a knock-on effect across Central Asia, with the International Monetary Fund predicting that Uzbekistan will see its weakest growth in 13 years. At the same time, there is growing concern about Islamist extremism, with several hundred Uzbek citizens estimated to have joined Isis fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Uzbekistan is “a place that runs on rumors,” analyst Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AP:

Uzbekistan’s opacity makes assessing the potential threat of Islamic extremism difficult, Stronski said. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan over the years has been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group and its fighters active outside the country, but how much presence it has in Uzbekistan is unclear. The government may have overstated the Islamist threat to justify crackdowns on the opposition; the 2005 Andijan protests that ended with police killing hundreds were said by authorities to have been inspired by the IMU.

“All state institutions directly depend on Karimov’s decisions,” said Erica Marat, an assistant professor at the National Defense University. “He was notorious for micromanaging any decision on security, economy and cultural life,” she told The Los Angeles Times:

Karimov’s decades-long sidelining of critics has meant day-to-day running of the state is now done by patronage networks loyal to one another.

“Anyone who succeeds Karimov will need to maintain similar level of loyalty among political leaders and engage in the same level of micromanagement,” Marat said.

Kremlin’s ‘color revolution’ fears

“This period reminds me very much of the times of Stalin and Brezhnev, when the real date of death was announced only several days later,” said Nadejda Atayeva, head of the opposition-leaning Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, in a telephone interview from Paris.

Some Russian analysts meanwhile worried that the United States could try to use a power vacuum to foment “color revolution” protests like those that drove out leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. …..He has not named a successor – at least publicly. If he dies, the head of Uzbekistan’s Senate would run the country for three months until new elections. If elections are held, the new president is expected to come from Karimov’s inner circle.

The favourite is Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country’s prime minister…. and with National Security Council chief Rustam Inoyatov, a likely kingmaker in any succession struggle. Another possible successor is Uzbekistan’s finance minister, Rustam Azimov, an adviser to Karimov on economic and international policy. Azimov regularly appears at Karimov’s side when he meets with foreign officials.

“That shows a high level of trust in Azimov,” said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political scientist in exile who formerly worked in Tashkent’s Institute of Strategic Studies. “They called him ‘papa’s favourite.’ Papa is Karimov.”

Meanwhile, Russia is pushing its own conspiratorial agenda.

In the view of Alexei Martynov, a pro-Kremlin analyst in Moscow, Uzbekistan should be on guard against another threat, The Times adds.

“U.S. political technologists who were behind the abortive coup in Uzbekistan in 2005 may feel the temptation to have another try,” he was quoted as saying by Tass. “The Uzbek security services should pay the closest attention to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, and keep an eye on what is happening there, who enters the building and who walks out of it and if the Americans are up to something.”

Writing for Foreign Policy, Nate Schenkkan, project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House details the repressive moves that consolidated Karimov’s rule.

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.”

“Nobody knows what will happen. My hunch is that the elite will consolidate around a new figure, and that the SNB will aim to manage the process,” said David Lewis, a Central Asia expert at the University of Exeter.

“The general consensus is that PM Mirziyoyev is the most likely successor at present,” he said, though he added that this is all speculation, given that Uzbekistan is one of the world’s least transparent societies

No matter who succeeds Karimov, “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,” Freedom House’s Schenkkan writes. “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.”


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