After several days of speculation, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov is officially dead. On September 3, in a ceremony in Samarkand, his native Samarkand, attended by a huge crowd, he was put to rest.
Karimov was a rare politician. He came to power as the head of Uzbekistan’s Communist Party in 1989 within power struggle that marked the ruling elite in late perestroika period, and survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. He ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years. His kind of breed is becoming extinct; the last remaining head of state in power since the Soviet times is Nursultan Nazarbayev in neighbouring Kazakhstan. It is necessary to understand why such a “stable” system was possible under Karimov, where the political elite managed to keep power when everything around them was changing, in order to understand what comes next. This is important because Uzbekistan is the cornerstone of Central Asia, and developments there will be detrimental for the entire region.
First, Uzbekistan is geography; Uzbekistan is the gift of Amu Darya and Sir Darya, two rivers that flow down the magnificent mountains of Pamir and Tien Shan. On the banks of the rivers agrarian settlements have been the foundation of civilization on this land, developing a rich urban culture; while in the 19th century it was mainly peasants dominated by Khans the same social reality was called Kolkhoz under party apparatchiks, and privatized farms in the era of independence. Soviets developed monoculture of cotton, the main export of Uzbekistan, on the dry steppe, and as the rivers flow north-west are used for irrigation until exhaustion before reaching the Aral Sea. As a result, since the 1960’s the level of Aral Sea has dropped and only 10% of its surface survives today.
Karimov was a largely unknown member of the Uzbek Communist Party when he suddenly named head of party-state in 1989. This was largely because of a deep crisis among the nomenklatura, following the Uzbek “cotton scandal” where millions of rubles were stolen from the state budget by deflating cotton production. The corruption scheme involved the entire top leaders of Uzbekistan, as well as top Soviet leadership including Yuri Churbanov, Brezhnev’s son in law. The following purges within the party led to major in-fighting and finally a secondary person - Karimov, was named as head of party as a compromise figure. Yet, this provincial apparatchik soon revealed Machiavellian skills.
1989 was the height of perestroika and there were various movements emerging in Uzbekistan. First, there were Erk and Birlik, intelligentsia-driven pan-Turkic nationalists who promised to create a united Turkestan. They rightly argued that Central Asian borders were colonial (Russian, Soviet) creations, yet all neighbours feared Uzbek domination. Nationalism was a major threat at the time, as anti-Meskhet pogroms revealed in Ferghana, and inter-ethnic clashes in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Then there were Islamist groups, mainly originating in the Ferghana Valley, who would soon go to Tajikistan and fight in the civil-war there. The events in Tajikistan, the civil war that ripped that country apart from 1992 to 1997, and the never-ending wars in Afghanistan would be a major argument for Karimov: dissent creates chaos. His promise was stability, at the price of building and maintaining a police state. The objective was easy to attain, as Uzbekistan was the regional centre of major Soviet institutions, including Red Army bases and KGB offices, and therefore had inherited a strong repressive apparatus.
It is true that Karimov chose Emir Timur – the 14th century Turkic warrior – to replace Lenin as the new state symbol. Yet, he never followed an interventionist foreign policy. For example in 2010, when inter-ethnic conflict erupted yet again in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and where ethnic Uzbeks suffered pogroms, Karimov did not send his powerful army, but simply closed the border. He did not tolerate neither political opposition, nor any kind of social organization independent from his police-state. No other region in Uzbekistan suffered from his iron fist as much as the Ferghana Valley; it was here that Islamist militants of Hizbul-Tahrir were harshly repressed, as well as members of Akramiye network. In 2005, demonstrations against the repression developed into clashes, violently repressed by the army, killing over 500 people.
Unlike the Alievs of Azerbaijan, or the Assads of Syria, Islam Karimov failed to create a dynasty. This is not only because he has two daughters and no male heir, but because Gulnara, his elder daughter who for a while had a high public profile, clashed with other members of the family and ruling figures. Now, one of his close collaborators will be succeeding him, promising more stability rather than risking change.
While Uzbekistan’s elite is refusing political change in the name of stability, the country itself and the world around it has gone through a profound transformation. The most important is that Uzbekistan had 20 million inhabitants when Karimov came to power. At the moment of its death it has 11 millions more. With a stagnant economy, low wages, and hidden unemployment, will this young population be satisfied with stability?