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.

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