Monday 12 September 2016

Will Uzbekistan get closer to Russia? Ask the new boss

it was an exciting prospect. A long due, long expected political transition in a country that had never seen a political transition before. The promise of change in one of the most repressive regimes on Earth. Speculation about succession. What is in the constitution? Will different clams have its round on the windy top? Nah. What we have seen in the week after the State funeral of Karimov, on September 3rd, matched what most political analysts were expecting, continuity, with perhaps the thinnest layer of unpredictability, which, was can be easily seen, just serves to the purpose of continuity.

Most predictions (mine as well) were that power in Uzbekistan would go either to the prime-minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev or to the finance minister Rustam Azimov. Shavkat soon appeared to be the heir to the throne. During the funeral, it was him who led the tributes to Karimov. He shaked the hands of the very few foreign dignitaries present (among them, surprise, surprise, Tajikistan's Emomali Rakhmon, with whom Karimov had a "difficult" relationship, to say the least). It was Mirziyoyev who received Putin when he rushed to Samarkand to visit Karimov's tomb right after the G20 summit in China. And it was Mirziyoyev that, on a joint session of the Majlis (Parliament) on September 8th was anointed as interim President until the elections called for December 3rd. That was all very predictable. Even if Rustam Azimov were the one leading the tributes, it wouldn't have been strange at all. Basically, what happened in the days after Karimov suffered his stroke and was brain dead and before the official announcement of his death was an intensive round of negotiations between the elites to decide who would best play the role of guardian the continuity of their political privileges. Mirziyoyev had years of experience as PM. Represented the interests of the powerful cotton industry and had the blessing of the security services. The drawback, compared to Rustam Azimov, was the lack of contact and experience dealing with the West (Azimov had worked with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development).

On the other hand, Mirziyoyev had especial connections with a key player in the region, Russia. This stems from the family level. Mirziyoyev's niece was married to a nephew of one of the most powerful tycoons in Russia, Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek billionaire whose assets include part of the Arsenal football club in England. His nephew died in a car crash, but the good relationship between the two men has apparently continued. This could be seen as just a small detail, nothing that could add weight to the assumption that Mirziyoyev will get closer to Russia than Karimov. Nevertheless, in today's Putinite Russia, most deals are sealed in the shadows, between friends and allies. It is a parallel state in which definitely mafia rules of connections, honour and loyalty to the core group apply. Though distant, Mirziyoyev has a connection with a member of this inner circle and, in Putin's world, this is key. It is the perfect bridge to push for changes that probably Karimov would have seen with great caution. And this is a surprise that came by with the new Uzbek leader. There are few indications, already, that he will align himself much closely to Moscow.

Mirziyoyev tried to turn things a little topsy-turvy though. In his address to Parliament after been appointed, he said: "The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country." That literally means that Uzbekistan, under his lead, will not rejoin the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), Russia's Military alliance with most Central Asian countries of which Uzbekistan was a member and then left. Twice. Karimov was known to be as wary of neo-imperialist aspirations of Moscow as it was of the democratizing agenda of the US. He liked to play with both superpowers, sometimes getting closer to one and, them, shifting sides. During the offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan from 2001, he allowed the US to use an air base in the South of the country. Then, in 2005, on the wake of the Andijan killings that generated so much criticism against Karimov in the US, he withdraw the authorization for use of the base and got closer to Russia. Well, apparently Mirziyoyev would be like this. Hence, continuation.

But on the same speech, he devoted interesting minutes to Moscow. He said that he expected a "consistent and comprehensive strengthening of friendly relations with the Russian Federation". And noted that current treaties between Russia and Uzbekistan "met the interests of both nations and serve to bolster stability and security in the region". Here, he is saying something completely different. He is saying that expect closer ties between the two parties and that current ties serve the very core of Islamov's rule, stability and security. I see here an opening to further treaties if more effort is needed in the region to enforce stability and security. It might be the case that Mirziyoyev is trying to play Karimov, getting closer to Russia, but keeping his cards close to his chest to play as he please later. Nevertheless, I believe that, in this case, he would have been much more conservative in his comments about the links between his country and the Russian Federation. This is he announcing his way forward, not saying that he might choose one.

If this prediction is correct, Central Asia's geopolitics would be shaken. China, especially, would have to reassess its especial relationship with Tashkent (here is an excellent analysis) in a key moment. The recent bomb attack against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek suggests that Uyghur separatists might be expanding its operations to targets overseas in the region. This has never happened before. And, so far, China has avoided strengthening military and security ties with Central-Asian countries weary of Russian interests in the region. What would happen next? Could a new pro-Russia Uzbekistan be a source of tension between Beijing and Moscow?

Wednesday 31 August 2016

The long silence about Karimov's health - and its risks

The silence about the "ilness" of Islam Karimov (his daughter announced in the 29th that he suffered a brain haemorrhage and not much was revealed afterwards) might be an indication that there is some sort of dispute or lack of consensus among the leaders about who should lead the country in his absence. This is bad news for the stability of the country. The longer there is no clear information about his health and about a successor, the more likely it is that there is some sort of unrest, encouraged by the perception that the country is suddenly without a guardian. reports that a shopper was attached in a bazaar in Tashkent for suggesting that Karimov is dead. On Tuesday, during an interview to the BBC, Ahmed Rashid, a prolific writer on Central Asia, reminded us that, although subdued, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - an Islamism militia which attacked the country in the beginning of the 2000s - is still alive in Pakistan and might take advantage of this moment of uncertainty to lauch some sort of offensive. I believe that probably the IMU is too weak to represent a real threat, however, after clashes with the Taliban since it declared its allegiance to the Islamic State.

The greatest risk comes from elite fragmentation. When the leader of Turkmenistan died back in 2006, it was also sudden, but a new heir was clear shortly after. And the country remains pretty much the same until today., an Uzbek oposition news agency based in Russia, today has an interview with a Tajik political scientist talking about the apparent struggle between the two men most often quoted to replace Karimov, the prime minister Shavkat Mirziyaev and the Finance Minister Rustam Azimov. "If the forces between them are equal, then it is possible that this could lead to some instability, but this is unlikely. It is more likely to be quite a smooth transition of power in the coming months. One of the main contenders will take control in their hands. " Nevertheless, I have to agree with a different view, in, which analyses the also likely scenario of Karimov being alive but temporarily incapacitated. "Non-death actually presents a difficult predicament for a government used to operating in complete obscurity. Does a physically and possibly mental frail Karimov pursue the Cuban scenario, handing over power to a handpicked successor (although not necessarily a member of his family)? And if Karimov is unable to do even that, do contenders to his job begin jostling while he lies prone in a hospital bed? Authoritarian states like Uzbekistan are not well equipped to deal with such ambiguity and like their leaders to be either dead and venerable or alive and virile — not something in between."

Suggestions that a struggle behinds the scenes is taking place have gained momentum with one rumour which reached the western press on Monday that Rustam Azimov was placed under house arrest. Of course, no confirmation on this. Also, there are rumours that the celebrations on the 25th anniversary of the independence were not cancelled after all and will be led by Mirziyaev, which would them be on its way to coronation. The arrest of Azimov would moreover indicate that the all powerful National Security Committee and its leader, Rustam Inoyatov (considered by most analysts a kingmaker, not a serious contender to replace Karimov) might be supporting Mirziyaev.

Important to mention that reports from Tashkent indicate life as normal. No increase in the number of policemen on the streets. The government is clearly quite keen on keeping an illusion that life goes on as normal, as if the only president this country has ever known is not (half?) dead.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

The "second Tamerlane" who created an independent Uzbekistan

Islam Karimov was one of the great survivors among the long-time leaders of former Soviet Central Asia, holding to power since the very beginning of Uzbekistan as an independent nation, in 1991.

A controversial leader, he was able to crush the opposition in Uzbekistan, the country with the largest population in the region, which he claimed as his personal fiefdom. No dissent was tolerated under his rule.

Here is how the NGO Human Rights Watch describes the situation in Karimov's Uzbekistan: "Thousands are imprisoned on politically-motivated charges. Torture is endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities continue to crackdown on civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists. Muslims and Christians who practice their religion outside strict state controls are persecuted, and freedom of expression is severely limited. "

But, while accused of blatant human rights violations, many Uzbeks never knew other president and he had a following as well. On Twitter, the news of his apparent death was followed by messages of sorrow from youngsters who admired his leadership.

Indeed, no one can argue with this: Karimov managed to keep relative stability in a country at the gates of Afghanistan during all these years of Taliban rule and then military intervention from the West. Also, cunningly, he was able to manoeuvre among the different political clans in Uzbekistan and create a strong consensus.

And this is the reason that his apparent death generate so much unease.

Building a nation

Born in Samarkand in 1938, Karimov was already at the top of the Communist Party hierarchy in Uzbekistan in 1991, when, suddenly, the country found itself independent with the fall of the USSR.

Being the chosen leader, he was faced with the task of building an identity for a country which, since it was came into existence as an Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, always had understood itself as part of the Soviet dream. Uzbeks, hitherto Homo sovieticus, needed to become Homo uzbekus. Perhaps this is Karimov's biggest legacy.

Follow to the letter the roadmap of ethnosymbolism, Karimov sought the development of myths and a history that linked the Uzbek people to its land for centuries, in a process that had already started during the Soviet times. After independence, he encouraged the adulation of an obscure 14th century Turkic conqueror, Tamerlane, as an example of a leader benevolent and wise, but also strong.

"A man cannot be a creator and a barbarian simultaneously... can (a villain) craft such a wise saying as 'the strenght is in justice", said Karimov about Tamerlane. A museum dedicated to the conqueror opened in downtown Tashkent in 1998 and whoever visits the country today will be amazed to see his image virtually everywhere.

There is a theory that the statues of Tamerlane that sprouted around the country replacing those of Lenin represented a "cult of personality by proxy" in which Karimov was actually assuming the role of Tamerlane. Who, historical references show, was a brutal murderer of thousands during his military campaigns.

Karimov, also presenting itself as strong and wise, vowed above all to guarantee the stability of the land of the Uzbek people. Regardless of the price.

IMU and the Islamist threat

There were perhaps two key events which, if not "created" Karimov, made all his convictions stronger. Convictions about the need to maintain strict control over all aspects of society - especially those that could offer an alternative to his own rule, could offer a escape valve to his mismanagement, chronic poverty and unemployment. Convictions about developing Uzbekistan as a fiercely independent nation, seeking a multivetorial foreign policy which would bring it at times closer and away from the biggest powers seeking to use his country for its own interests.

The first event was the rise of radical Islam in Uzbekistan in his first decade as president.

Right after independence, an Islamist group, Adolat, assumed the control over the city of Namangan in the Ferghana Valley, a region in Eastern Uzbekistan where conservative Islam took root. Although initially Karimov tried to establish a dialog, later he saw no other alternative but force them out to retake the city.

The leaders of Adolat fled to a neighbouring country, Tajikistan, which faced at the time a Civil War (1992-1997). They fought the war and, after it ended, entertained the dreams of going back to Uzbekistan and ousting the president.

In 1999, a series of explosions shook Tashkent, blamed by Karimov on the group they had formed, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The IMU eventually invaded Uzbekistan and was a huge headache for Karimov, who saw the group lose its clout during the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. As a result of all this process, since the formation of Adolat, Karimov significantly tightened the grip against practicing Muslims and embraced once and for all Uzbekistan as a country in which the slightest sign of religious extremism would not be tolerated.

The Ferghana Valley was in fact occupied by the army, which still has a strong presence there. Many people were arrested just because they were suspected of being islamists and remain behind bars.

Andijan and foreign relations

The second factor reflects what happened in 2005. Karimov was taken by surprise, again in the Ferghana Valley, when a peaceful protest in the city of Andijan quickly turned into a bloodbath, with the police killing hundreds (some say up to 1,500).

If public dissent, with Islamic undertones or otherwise, were already heavily repressed in the previous years, the incident just made things worse to all those who displayed public criticism against the government.

But the Uzbek leader, who was lending his support to the US-led military coalition attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan, could not avoid the collateral damage, being criticized by their Washington friends.

Relations between both countries soared and not long later Karimov withdraw consent for US use of airbases in Uzbek territory.

Karimov's scepticism towards foreign governments was greatly boosted after this two seminal moments. It was as if he was surrounded by potential sources of instability (Tajikistan, Afghanistan) and by superpower weasels which were quite keen to take whatever he could offer, but would not stand by him when he needed it most.

Russia was not an exception. Although drawn to integration projects such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Security pact among former Soviet countries, Uzbekistan joined and quit the organization twice, reflecting bad moments in the relations between Tashkent and Moscow and moments of reconciliation between Tashkent and Washington.

He adopted this strategy: regarding foreign powers, he draw the cards. He would approach Russia and the US whenever it suited him. He would play his own cards close to his chest.

And regarding troubled neighbours like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and especially Afghanistan, he would adopt the policies of often closed borders and pressure. Certainly not a good neighbour.


The death of Karimov therefore represents unavoidable hope for many - for the Uzbek people, above all, who yearn for more freedom and reforms that might address chronic economic problems in the country. And for other countries, keen to finally be able to establish better economic and political ties with the home of 30 million Uzbeks.

But how likely it is that the new Uzbek leader will steer the country towards a new direction? Very unlikely, according to different analysts.

First of all, Karimov was able to establish a consensus between elites, clans and economic groups in Uzbekistan. It was a remarkable feat, since Uzbekistan, up until the 1920, was still so divided that its current territory was occupied by two Soviet protectorates, nominally independent, who fought against each other for centuries.

Clan politics have always played an important role. Karimov is from Samarkand, but in order to create stability needed to make alliances with other groups, notably the Tashkent clam.

Nevertheless, now, analysts from the BBC Uzbek service say, clan politics are no longer that important in Uzbekistan. The key now are economic groups, which control the main sources of income of the country, such as, for example, the cotton industry. Karimov managed to be a common denominator for all, which, again, just proves his political abilities.

Probably his replacement will need to be a person who can provide some sort of consensus as well. This means a person that is willing not to make big changes - at least not for the time being.

In a country that never witnessed democracy and in which no significant opposition exists, after years of repression, it is also very unlikely that people will suddenly took to the streets in Bukhara and Tashkent to demand a democratic rule. More likely, people will simply be confused and ask themselves "what now"? Bear in mind, any 25 year old person or younger in Uzbekistan never had any other president, just Karimov.

Nevertheless, to avoid the risk of instability, especially due to disputes among economic groups, a successor will likely be named soon - pretty much along the lines of what happened in Turkmenistan in 2006, when in a blink of an eye long time leader Saparmurat Niyazov was replaced by a deputy prime minister, Gurmanguly Berdimuhammedow.

Most analysts believe the most like replacement is the prime minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, who has been leading the government since 2003. There are indications that, if he is indeed chosen, Uzbekistan not only will not be closer to becoming a Western-style democracy, but will be further away from it than under Karimov's rule.

An article published by Radio Free Europe analysing Mirziyaev says that he has been described as a "thug who is short on reason and quick on aggression" and that he assaulted a farmer during his tenure as governor of a province. Another article, in, says he is a "Russia-friendly figure", although it didn't explain why.

More palatable to the West, perhaps, is the second most commonly named potential replacement, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov. Unlike Mirziyaev, he has experience dealing with the outside world, being in charge of negotiations with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for a while.

Although Azimov and Mirziyaev are considered favourites, it is important to bear in mind that Uzbek politics are so secretive that the political pact which will be translated in a consensus name might take us to a complete surprise (though, again, certainly not to dramatic political changes). Pretty much like the process of choosing a new pope in the Vatican.

And, of course, no leader is the same. Uzbek analysts believe that, whoever is chosen will probably promise reforms so to galvanize popular support in the start of his journey.

And might even deliver some, probably frustrating those expecting all promises be fulfilled.