Uzbekistan is going through the most peculiar set of circumstances in its history, with its longtime leader officially announced dead. Islam Karimov who consolidated power following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has kept a tight lid on Uzbekistan’s population, media, and civil society. A soviet era apparatchik, Karimov has extended his own term through staged elections since 1991.
With Karimov at the helm, the country has been run by an exclusive cadre of elites, cherry picked by the leader himself. Additionally, the information on inside power dealings is zealously controlled and very little is known on the likely negotiations that are taking place in Tashkent.
Although some are predicting unrest, the transition is likely to be peaceful. Ordinary Uzbeks are not going to have any say in who takes over the nation and many simply don’t wish to. Free elections and uncertainty as to the potential winner are foreign concepts for the populace of Uzbekistan. The legacy of the Soviet era and the authoritarian rule of Karimov are the only political conditions under which Uzbeks have lived. Many simply wish for stability and continuity.
That said, with all eyes on Uzbekistan’s internal power dealings and the transition of power, we should also ask ourselves what the transition would mean for the region and the balance of power in the post-Soviet sphere. The most likely benefactor of the current situation is Russia at the expense of the United States.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has promoted the ability of Central Asian countries to look after their own interests and for the most part Uzbekistan has proven its ability of independent decision making not only vis-à-vis Russia, but also the United States. However, this shift was not sudden. In the early 1990s Uzbekistan demonstrated a high level of dependence both on Russia and the West as it struggled to be recognized as a full player in the international system.
With the imminent changes in Uzbekistan’s leadership, the selected individual is likely going to look for a partner nation that will offer unconditional support and an echo of legitimacy — a nation that would not question the fairness of new elections and a financial partner that will work with Uzbekistan’s heavy reliance on remittances sent by its citizens from abroad. The answer to all of these is Russia.
Uzbekistan’s new leader is not likely to be preoccupied by the nation’s strategic challenges in the first years in office. Institutional challenges will play a far greater role in the new leader’s decision making process and the United States will be seen as a natural challenger on the institutional level rather than a partner. Free and fair elections, human rights, and freedom of the press are all built-in cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy in Uzbekistan and will present an institutional challenge to the newly formed government and its legitimacy. And when this happens, it will be Russia that will close its eyes on all of the institutional shortcomings and offer its support for the consolidation of power within Uzbekistan’s borders.
What will Russia get in return? Uzbekistan’s leniency and cooperation on strategic issues. Uzbekistan will likely fall in line with most of Russia’s economic, political, and military agendas in the region, perhaps even including a shutdown of the NATO liaison’s office in Tashkent. Uzbekistan will once again fall into the power orbit of Russia as those mostly likely to inherit the post of the president have already signaled their closeness to Russia and Putin.
Uzbekistan is venturing into a post-Karimov future, but it is likely to be a future that sees the nation heavily dependent on Russia for the legitimacy of its regime and strategically subservient to Putin’s goals in the region.
Dmitriy Nurullayev is a PhD Candidate at Louisiana State University and Former Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.