Uzbek President Islam Karimov is in hospital and rumors have appeared in the press about his death. The imminent departure of the perennial leaders of the Central Asian countries threatens the region with destabilization and creates a risk for Russia.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov (R) talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting of ex-Soviet leaders in Burabai, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 16, 2015. Photo: Reuters

Since the end of the Soviet Union, most of Central Asia has lived in a kind of political stasis, with three out of five republics of the region being ruled by the same man for over two decades, and another seeing a change of power only when the incumbent died in office. However, as these leaders enter their senior years, change is inevitable, bringing with it a risk of political upheaval and instability, especially given the region's vulnerability to the threat of radical Islamism.

On Aug. 29 the news broke that Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov had been hospitalized. Lola Karimova-Tillyayeva, daughter of the 78-year-old politician who has led the country for more than 26 years (since it was still the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic), posted a family photo on Instagram, writing that Karimov had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital's reanimation department.

That evening the Fergana publication, which specializes in Central Asia, reported that the aged politician had died. Tashkent officially denied this information and Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that the Kremlin believes Karimov is alive. [On Aug.31 it was reported that Russian doctors are involved in Karimov’s treatment – Editor’s Note]. However, experts note that even if Uzbekistan's president is still alive, his days in power are coming to an end.

The Stalin model

Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, compares the situation in Uzbekistan with the state of affairs in 1953 when Joseph Stalin was dying in the Soviet Union.

"The struggle for power began when Stalin was still alive, even though he was stricken with paralysis. I think something similar is happening in Uzbekistan: The elite is determining who will replace Karimov," he said.

Zatulin believes that in Uzbekistan Karimov had practically unlimited power, but he did not have a clear successor. "The main defect of autocratic regimes like Karimov's is that despite all the stability, they are vulnerable in terms of succession." 

In his opinion, this also concerns, albeit to different degrees, other Central Asian countries – namely Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Sooner or later these countries will have to face the same problem that Uzbekistan is facing: The change of elites after the departure of their "eternal" rulers.

An explosive potential

The problems that Uzbekistan will face after Karimov are serious and rather typical for the region, according to Irina Zvyagelskaya, professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), who names radical Islamism, extremism and “a high percentage of youths combined with a traditional way of life, poverty and unemployment" among the issues with the potential to destabilize the country.

Since Central Asia directly borders Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) are active, there is a danger that terrorists will take advantage of the changes that will arise after the current elites depart to infiltrate the region.

In the opinion of Zatulin, who fears that militants from Afghanistan may be able to reach Russia via Central Asia, Uzbekistan in particular happens to be the most problematic country from the viewpoint of the diffusion of Islamic fundamentalism: "The Uzbeks, who are a sedentary people, have a harsher and more radical form of Islam than, for example, the migratory Kazakhs."

Also read: "Kazakhstan finally forced to confront the threat of radical Islam"

A hope for compromise

Russian experts believe that the Central Asian countries will be able to handle the problems facing the region only with a stable government. According to Zvyagelskaya, the elites must demonstrate an ability to agree.

"I think that the elite groups will reach some kind of compromise," said Zvyagelskaya about the situation in Uzbekistan, recalling that in neighboring Turkmenistan after the death of President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006 the elites were able to quickly find a candidate who could accommodate everyone, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

Stability is everything for Russia

Zatulin affirms that Russia is extremely interested in stability in Central Asia, which is why it will support those leaders who will demonstrate the capacity to guarantee this stability. For Moscow it is not important who exactly will come to power after Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev (president of Kazakhstan since 1990) and Emomali Rahmon (president of Tajikistan since 1994), as long as these people preserve stability in their countries.

However, as Zvyagelskaya pointed out, Russia does not have many ways to influence Central Asia except for political support: "Because of the crisis we cannot boast about large volumes of investment or joint enterprises. China is the main foreign player in the region and for now we cannot compete with it as equals," she said.

In her opinion, Russia's biggest advantage in its relations with the Central Asian republics is that a large number of emigrants from these countries live and work in Russia. "This affinity must be supported and developed," she said. 

The article initially appeared at Russia Beyond The Headlines.