What’s Next? Politics in Uzbekistan post-Karimov

Another student guest post, this one covering Uzbekistan’s current leadership scare, and the questions it brings!

Late in March of this year, rumors began circling that President Karimov of Uzbekistan had suffered a debilitating heart attack.  This rumor began on  Muhammad Solih’s website.  Solih is the exiled leader of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, an opposition group, who currently resides in Norway.  Solih cited two “unnamed” sources in the capital who simply claimed the president had suffered a heart attack.  The state has vehemently denied all allegations that the president is in anything but perfect health, citing a recent video of him dancing to show that he is in prime condition.  Karimov’s daughter even took to her twitter account to dispel the rumor, calling people “crazy” for doubting the president’s health.  Now, the state claims that Karimov met with foreign officials a few days ago, once again trying to dispel the rumors.  Information in Uzbekistan is already strictly controlled, but no one seems to know whether or not the President actually suffered a heart attack.  The population is anxious to know the fate of their leader and to understand why his health has become such a state secret.  The real test of Karimov’s health will come in April when he has a scheduled visit to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin: if Karimov cancels the trip, it will be seen as an admission of his failing health and leadership ability.


To see Karimov dancing: http://www.rferl.org/media/video/24940525.html


These rumors raise the question of what will happen when he is gone.  Karimov has been the leader of Uzbekistan since 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Karimov became first secretary of Uzbekistan in 1989, and upon Uzbekistan’s independence was declared president.  He has been successful at maintaining his unchallenged reign: there has been no opposition in Uzbekistan for over fifteen years.  All opposition movements operate outside of the country’s borders.  Everything in Uzbekistan is under Karimov’s control; all state actions are executed in his name.  There is no formative chain of command or hierarchy of power: everything comes back to Karimov.  Once he is no longer in office, either because of health concerns or because of old-age, who will succeed him as leader of Uzbekistan?

Three names are emerging as the leaders in the struggle for post-Karimov power: his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, the Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirzayev, and the deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Azimov.  Prime Minister Mirzayev is seen as having the support of Moscow: his nephew married the niece of Russia’s richest man, who is of Uzbek origin and has close ties to the Kremlin.  Rustam Azimov has the support of the people, specifically the support of the urban population in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.  He is the deputy prime minister and the leading finance minister.  Gulnara Karimova has no political position, but she manages the family’s billion dollar assets.  She has been linked to several shady business deals.  Her most recent endeavors include becoming a fashion designer and pop-star.   It appears that she is trying to improve her image as the “most hated person” in Uzbekistan, and many are speculating that this latest stunt by Gulnara is suggestive of her father’s decision to begin grooming his daughter as his successor.

Because of the secrecy of Uzbekistani politics, no one knows if Karimov is ill, and no one knows what to expect when a leadership change is necessary.  Will there be an internal struggle for power between political elites?  Or will Uzbekistan follow North Korea’s example and have a dynastic succession with the dictator’s daughter taking over?  Whether or not Karimov had a heart attack, Uzbekistan will face a leadership change in the near future as the president ages, and it is not hard to imagine the ensuing struggle for power escalating to violence as the different players grapple for power. In the meantime, it appears that the people of Uzbekistan, neighboring countries, and the rest of the world have no choice but to wait for news of President Karimov’s health before looking to the future.

Update: Karimov did make several public appearances during his recent trip to Moscow.  During this meeting, the future relations between Russia and Uzbekistan remain unclear; however, his health, at the moment, seems fine.



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