Sunday 14 April 2013

An Uzbekistan without Karimov

Karimov has been the Uzbek president since 1990

What will happen in Uzbekistan when Islam Karimov dies? This is has been a nagging question for some time. Last month, however, it resurfaced on the headlines, since reports floated around by an exiled Uzbek opposition group stated that the long-time Uzbek leader was the victim of a heart attack around the same day he was caught on video swinging his hips at a Navrus celebration on March 19th in Tashkent. Assessing future political scenarios in Central Asia is notoriously tricky, given the lack of a reliable flux of information coming from the Stans (as usual, Kyrgyzstan is the exception). But little hints help us to see more clearly what’s inside our crystal ball.

First of all, it is important to consider the news itself. The opposition group which spread the rumours is the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, which is based in Norway. Its leader is Muhammad Solih, a well known Karimov political foe – he even took part in the 1991 presidential elections, being defeated by the current president. Shortly afterwards, Solih was accused of treason and had to flee the country. In a BBC interview, Solih claims that the sources of the news about the heart attack are very reliable and come from inside the inner circles of power. He also, of course, recognised that Karimov has tried before to float false information, but Solih is adamant by saying that this time he decided to go ahead because he trusted the source. Following the news about Karimov, for several days the Uzbek state TV only showed archive footage of the president, who was only seen again on March 27th, when he received in Tashkent the Kazakh Foreign Minister. Now the president’s office has confirmed that Karimov is paying a visit to Putin in Moscow. Maybe both could exchange anecdotes about their recent trips to the doctor (Putin was also rumoured to be in bad shape in recent months).

In a country as closed as Uzbekistan, the fact that any such information surfaces is bound to be linked to political interests. For example – for Solih, it would be an interesting experiment to gauge his own political clout abroad and understand how the Uzbek political elites overseas would react to such news. Floating rumours is, in a sense, like a rehearsal. Solih indeed showed he is still a reference abroad in terms of Uzbek opposition, got a fair share of free advertising on the media and forced a reaction by the Uzbek authorities, which, of course, claimed his accusations were nonsense. But Karimov himself might have been behind the rumours. Solih might trust his source, but the Uzbek leader is a well-known ruthless centralist, who I would expect to initiate a witch hunt in order to find out who is the traitor feeding his sworn enemy with secret information. Karimov might have identified the spy and forced him to feed Solih with false information. For the Uzbek president, venting the possibility of himself being in poor health is also useful. It helps him to identify whoever entertains dreams about ceasing power, potential cracks in the political elite. Therefore he can micromanage the political environment and restore a situation in which he holds absolute control – even, obviously, regarding his own succession. Solih might trust his source, but I don’t think either he (Solih) or Karimov can be trusted here.

Notwithstanding the truth about his health, the fact is Karimov is 75 years old and is not getting any younger. Thus it is reasonable to assume there are advanced political manoeuvres taking place behind the scenes to decide who the new Uzbek leader will be. Clearer and clearer are the political ambitions of Gulnara Karimova, Karimov’s elder daughter. Not long ago she would certainly not be considered as a potential successor – she seemed more concerned about her life as a celebrity, a singer, a fashion designer and a yoga enthusiast. But in the last moths she apparently has been spending more time in Uzbekistan. This probably has something to do with the fact that she is being investigated in Europe in connection to a bribery scandal involving a Swedish company which, apparently, paid its way into the Uzbek market. Using the Twitter (her favourite tool to express her views), Googoosha (as she is known) has recently launched an attack against one of the politicians said to be a potential Karimov heir, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Asimov. Asimov, wisely, did not respond to Gulnara’s claims. Maybe Googoosha did this so following his daddy’s advice? This is not clear, but there are signs that Asimov is, now, the top contender. As can be seen in this profile, he is seen as a “brother in arms” and disciple of the president and last December was sent to an important international summit in Bishkek instead of the prime minister himself, Shavkat Mirzioev. Actually, more hearsay surfaced that he was already chosen by Karimov to be his successor six months ago. If Gulnara attacked him with the backing of her dad, probably it was a test to see if he (Asimov) can hold his breath (so he did). If Gulnara did not attack him with the backing of her dad, it was probably her trying to establish her credentials as a better choice to be president. Finally, Mirzioev is another contender that has been mentioned in the media. Apparently, he would be Moscow’s first choice, but, given Karimov’s retrospect of defiance against the Kremlin, this can be even a liability for the Prime Minister in the race.

More interesting than guessing who will be Karimov’s successor, however, is to analyse how he will rise to power. There are comparisons being made between the political scenario in Uzbekistan and the one in two of its neighbours, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan has six years ago gone through a not-so-traumatic experience with the death of its first God-leader, Saparmurat Niyazov. At the time, there was speculation that, without the Turkmenbashi, the country could be the stage of political upheaval with, in turn, could lead to some sort of democracy. Nothing could be further than what happened: the Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov took over, maintained the traditional undemocratic style of his predecessor (still flamboyant, though a little less) and there was not a single bleep of instability. I don’t think this would happen in Uzbekistan, a country in which, unlike Turkmenistan, regional elite tension is still a reality. In Turkmen lands, the Turkmenbashi managed to obliterate any meaningful challenging elites. In Uzbekistan, there is a dispute between the elites from the centre of the country (Jizzakh, Samarkand, Bukhara) and those from Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. Karimov was born in Samarkand. Would the elites in Tashkent and Fergana accept a transition without being granted more power? I think the situation in Uzbekistan is more similar to the situation in Kazakhstan (read an excellent analysis of the succession scenarios here). In both countries, we have leader that have been looking carefully for alternatives for succession, and potential successors which will face huge political challenges posed by the political elites, which will demand changes to the pact in place in their countries. A great deal of political ability from the new president will be needed to maintain stability.

Finally, only after the transition the new Uzbek leader will have to deal with the most important questions. What changes might take place when Karimov finally departs? Will we have a leader which will try to maintain Karimov’s elite pact? Will he share power with elites which now do not have a say? Will he adopt measures to take Uzbekistan towards democracy? Will he condemn Human Rights violations? I am not an optimist, but let’s hope that the transition takes place without violence and leads to a better country.

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