On September 2, Uzbek President Islam Karimov passed away at age 78. He was buried today in his hometown of Samarkand. The notorious dictator, who ruled the country for 27 years, had suffered a brain hemorrhage on August 27; rumors of his demise surfaced shortly thereafter. Officials in Tashkent hid all information about his condition until the end, surrounding even his death with total secrecy. According to experts, this was done to allow a trusted circle to resolve the question of Karimov’s successor and ensure a smooth power transition.
Uzbekistan seemingly began arrangements for the funeral starting yesterday morning in Samarkand, mobilizing local people to clean the streets and preparing the central mosque — all while Karimov’s death had not been officially confirmed. The Samarkand airport also issued a notice saying it would be closed to all flights on September 3 “except operations officially confirmed for this date.”
Meanwhile, early on September 2 Reuters had already quoted three diplomatic sources confirming Karimov’s death, and several news agencies picked up the story, but Tashkent officially issued only one statement that said Karimov was “in critical condition.”
The Telegraph was the first to publish an official obituary, calling Islam Karimov one of the nastiest of the dictators who rose to power in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Using the excuse of maintaining stability in a turbulent region, he set about imposing one of the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships in the world.
Then Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, expressed condolences for Karimov’s death; this proved the turning point that washed away all doubts. That demonstrates the oddity of the situation: Uzbekistan was hiding news of its president’s death, only to have the leader of another country spoil the ruse by offering condolences. The Turkish prime minister said at a televised cabinet meeting, “Uzbek President Islam Karimov has passed away. May God’s mercy be upon him; as the Turkish Republic we are sharing the pain and sorrow of Uzbek people.” One hour later, the president of Georgia expressed his condolences as well, saying that Karimov had found his own place in history.
Finally on September 2, at 9:45 pm local time, Uzbek state television officially announced the death of President Karimov. Uzbek media outlets published a medical report that stated Karimov’s death occurred at September 2, at 8:55 pm. The medical statement also shows that several leading professors from Germany, Monaco, Russia, and Finland were brought to Tashkent to fight for his life.
Who Are Karimov’s Possible Successors?
According to the Constitution of Uzbekistan, the chairman of the Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, has to temporarily fulfill the duties of president of the latter is not able to work for any reason. Then the Uzbek government will have three months to announce and hold presidential elections. Yet there is as yet no official information as to whether Yuldashev has started this new role. In fact, there have been no public comments from him or other official figures.
There are not many people who figure as a possible successor to Karimov. Who might be considered a reliable person for Karimov’s family — and if his family has still a decisive role — no one knows. One factor that might call the shots in Uzbekistan’s power transition is a fight between the two major clans, which play the most important role in Uzbekistan’s politics. According to Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former minister of foreign affairs of Kyrgyzstan, the current situation in Uzbekistan might be complicated by a standoff between Karimov’s Samarkand clan and the rival Tashkent clan, both keen to get the throne.
“I really hope that they will negotiate in order to avoid open confrontation and also not forget about security challenges, which can destabilize not only Uzbekistan, but the whole region. So they have to come to an agreement,” said Jekshenkulov. He added that the naming of the eventual successor will purely depend on an agreement achieved between two clans.
Islam Karimov does not have a son, only two daughters. His eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova, who worked as permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, was once talked about as a possible successor. She was both popular and politically active, but later she came into conflict with family members and has since been disgraced. Gulnara was accused of corruption and of looting treasures from Uzbekistan’s national museum.
Karimov’s second daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, has had only a minor role. It appears she did not have political ambitions, but worked as Uzbekistan’s representative to UNESCO in Paris. In 2013, the Western media reported a conflict within Karimov’s family. Lola spoke about her relationship with her sister, saying that they had not been in contact for 12 years. “We have neither family nor friendship contacts,” Lola said.
However, Karimov’s daughters do have one thing in common: their wealth. According to media reports, both Gulnara and Lola are rich and own real estate and businesses in many countries of Europe.
One hypothesis holds that Islam Karimov might have already chosen a successor within his close circle. However, Eric McGlinchey, associate professor at George Mason University in the United States, told The Diplomat that he doubts Karimov chose a successor. “To do so would have undercut his power. Were elites to have known the successor, Karimov would quickly have become a lame duck,” explained McGlinchey.
McGlinchey considers a more likely possibility to be something like the Turkmenistan scenario, where political elites have a strong incentive to work together to arrive at a successor who can preserve the status quo. “The Uzbek ruling class… has a strong incentive to maintain the autocratic regime that is the wellspring of financial wealth. Pressures for regime liberalization, as a result, will remain low in Uzbekistan,” he said.
Kemel Toktomushev, associate professor at American University of Central Asia, told the BBC‘s Kyrgyz service that there are only a few candidates to be Karimov’s successor, and one of them is most realistic. “Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been working as a prime minister since 2003, is the most possible [successor] at this moment,” said Toktomushev. “He is very close to Karimov’s family, especially to Karimov’s wife, who is considered the most influential figure. He also has a good relationship with the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who is ethnic Uzbek. So that said, Shavkat Mirziyoyev can replace Karimov.”
Lessons for Uzbekistan’s Neighbors?
Over the last five years, there has been much speculation in the media about whether longtime leaders in Central Asia had solidified their succession plan or not. Another long serving president in Central Asia is Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in office for 25 years. Like Karimov, Nazarbayev, who is turning 76 this years, also does not have a son. Although he has placed other daughters and their husbands in the country’s most important sectors, his oldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, enjoys the most remarkable career, having been promoted to deputy prime minister.
The Kazakh president expressed his condolences to Uzbekistan saying, “I grieve for the loss of a friend whom I worked with side-by-side for 30 years.” The sudden death of the Uzbek president might push other aged presidents to think more seriously and immediately about their succession plans.
Aidos Sarym, a political scientist in Kazakhstan, told The Diplomat that the death of Karimov should be a lesson for Kazakhstan. “We have to understand that one day we are also going to pass through this kind of situation. There are many lessons that Kazakstan should learn here,” he said. “First, how dangerous it is that the future of the whole country depends on the will and the health of one person. How it is dangerous when legal norms and the Constitution are empty words and decide nothing. And when power has been concentrated in hands of one person and his circle, the whole country and its leader have become hostages.”
“Now we have to discuss all possible scenarios openly and make pressure in order to avoid any manipulations,” said Sarym.
Any Hope for a Change?
Karimov’s Uzbekistan was one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, where the government imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges and killed protesters. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch said that Karimov’s death provides a moment for concerned governments to press for concrete human rights and democratic reforms, and accountability for past abuses.
“Islam Karimov leaves a legacy of 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.”
Many experts are pessimistic about whether changes will come to Uzbekistan. In Central Asia there is precedent already for a continued dictatorship, when Turkmenistan had a very calm and smooth power change after Turkmenbashi Niyazov’s sudden death. “Many believed that democratic changes would take place in Turkmenistan after the death of Niyazov. However, the system built by Turkmenbashi has been still working. The change did not happen” Ivar Dale, senior advisor and representative to Central Asia of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, told The Diplomat.
“I’ll admit that it’s difficult to be optimistic about democratic development in Uzbekistan, but of course, anything is possible, and we should support any signs of the country opening up,” Dale added. “Whoever takes over, it is important that the international community takes the opportunity to raise the human rights situation and try to bring an end particularly to the widespread use of torture, the lack of freedom of expression, and political rights.”
Modern Uzbekistan has never had democratic elections; in 25 years of an independent Uzbekistan, there was not a single election that Karimov did not win. The delay in the announcement of the Uzbek leader’s death is a clear sign of fear amid the struggle to maintain the status quo. Many things depend on the next president of Uzbekistan, from the country’s human rights record to regional stability in Central Asia. Although it is clear that next leader will continue many of Karimov’s policies, the successor should make efforts to resolve border conflicts and water disputes with neighbors. On the question of human rights, the least the new leader can do is to release all imprisoned politicians, activists, and journalists.
Cholpon Orozobekova is an expert on Central Asian issues based in Geneva. She holds two Master’s degrees from Geneva-based universities.