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 Eurasianet.org, 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.

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