President Islam Karimov led the development of an independent Uzbekistan for a quarter of a century. Now the country must embrace a new, more uncertain future.
Uzbek men pray, as they pay their last respects, during the funeral of President Islam Karimov at the historic Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 3, 2016. Photo: AP
On Sept. 2, President Islam Karimov of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan officially passed away at the age of 78, leaving behind political uncertainty both within the nation itself and in the states bordering it. In the days leading up to his death, the breaking news of the President's ill health was seized upon by Russian and foreign journalists. Hysteria broke out online and on social media.
For several days, debates took place on social networking sites over whether the country's leader was alive or dead. A Facebook group - "Health to Karimov" - was set up and gained more than 200,000 members in just a few days. Petitions were circulated, calling for the shutdown of the website (Ferghana.Ru) that initially broke the news of Karimov’s impending death. When the government maintained its silence, people were uncertain whether there was a cover-up of his death, or just a rumor planted in the media to incite panic.
The information campaign surrounding the President's health and death – in which nobody could seem to agree on the important details (including the precise moment of his death) – is indicative of the political uncertainty that now exists within Uzbekistan. While people publicly have referred to Karimov as an outstanding political figure, there is still latent criticism about the president’s crackdown on dissent within the nation and uncertainty over who will take over next for Karimov.
In the lead-up to Uzbekistan's independence day on Aug. 31, Uzbekistan television broadcast President Karimov's speech marking 25 years of the country's independence, read out, as usual, by presenters. Having survived a stroke on Aug. 29, he congratulated his compatriots on the republic's achievements in its quarter of a century of independent development.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 1, foreign media outlets reported that preparations were underway in Samarkand for President Karimov's funeral. These reports were backed up by photographs. That same day, Uzbekistan cancelled some of its independence day celebrations. On Sept. 2, foreign media outlets reported that delegations from various countries were due to arrive on Sept. 3 for President Karimov's funeral. Notably, the media in Uzbekistan also reported that heads of state from neighboring countries were due to visit Uzbekistan, but did not explain why.
On Sept. 2, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildarim expressed his condolences in the connection with President Karimov's death. Tashkent, however, maintained its denial, with state television broadcasting a program on baking pies that day. Not until the evening of Sept. 2 was President Karimov's death officially announced in Uzbekistan, on Akhborot, a news program. He was reported to have passed away earlier that evening at 8:15 pm (Tashkent time).
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev represented Russia at the funeral of Karimov, and President Vladimir Putin later visited Samarkand, the hometown of Karimov, where he laid flowers on the grave of the nation’s late leader.
Ever since the original rumors of ill health had surfaced, discussions had intensified on social media between those who believed that Karimov would recover and thanked him for his years as President and the country's secure borders, and critics of his rule, who were called "rebels" and "dissenters."
Certain Facebook users have been particularly forthright in condemning the country's ongoing socio-economic problems, as well as the violent suppression by the authorities of civil unrest in Andijan in 2005, during which peaceful protesters were shot to death.
Attempts by some people to analyze dispassionately Uzbekistan's future without Karimov have been viewed by the "patriots" as traitorous. On the other hand, critics of the President have themselves called those who have tried to assess objectively his positive and negative sides traitors. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one citizen in Tashkent commented on the mood of the nation:
"Moving away a little from the shock we felt after the first reports of the President's illness, I tried to talk with my friends about Karimov's successor. They all seemed to realize that you couldn’t rule a country after suffering a stroke. But I was attacked as a traitor to the motherland. What's more, I had said nothing to denigrate the President."
Uzbekistani experts –political scientists, economists and sociologists– have kept silent on possible future development scenarios for the country in the post-Karimov period, and have accused Russian and international experts, who have been very active in making such forecasts in the last few days, of provocation.
According to some Uzbekistani experts, who have spoken on condition of anonymity, "Constantly telling people about the President's state of health will have no effect other than to increase the public mood of panic."
After the funeral
President Karimov's funeral was arranged for Sept. 3. The state organizing committee for the funeral was headed by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has held the post since December 2003. Although, following the constitution, senate leader Nigmatilla Yuldashev has been appointed acting president, many Russian and international experts suggest that it will be Prime Minister Mirziyoyev who eventually succeeds President Karimov.
This suggestion is based on events in neighboring Turkmenistan, where Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow became the country's second president having headed the committee organizing the funeral of the first, Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006. Furthermore, Prime Minister Mirziyoyev has held the post for longer than any of his predecessors – 13 years. He was part of Karimov's inner circle, standing out, like the President, for his tough leadership style. Experts say that Mirziyoyev could continue the course set by the country's first president.
The main obstacle could be that the Prime Minister is not as authoritative a figure as President Karimov, and experts have questioned his diplomatic experience on the international stage.
Other candidates for the presidency could include Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service (SNB), and Rustam Azimov, the first deputy prime minister and minister of finance.
Islam Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara, who just a couple of years ago was seen as a potential successor to the President, stayed away from her father's funeral. It is not out of the question that this was because she remains under house arrest, a punishment imposed after her father learned about a corruption scandal involving her (she was accused of accepting around $1 billion in bribes from telecom companies for the right to operate in Uzbekistan). The business activities of Karimov's elder daughter within the country have also been questioned. In addition, Karimova has also crossed swords with Inoyatov, whose influence has probably grown following her father's death.
President Karimov's funeral was attended by delegations from 17 countries, with Russia's being headed by Medvedev. However, the farewell to the Uzbek president was notable not so much for the number of delegations or officials, but by how ordinary citizens of Uzbekistan reacted to their leader's death. Thousands lined the streets as the funeral cortège made its way through first Tashkent and then Samarkand. They came not because anyone had specifically asked them to, but of their own free will and because they all wanted to pay their last respects to their country's leader on his final journey.
During President Karimov's years in power, Uzbekistanis certainly had different opinions on his rule. There were both "patriots" and "dissenters," who had been constantly at loggerheads online in the days leading up to the funeral. On the day of the funeral itself, however, they all paid tribute and respect to the man who led the development of independent Uzbekistan for a quarter of a century.
Whoever replaces President Karimov will continue the course set by him, and Uzbekistan's relationships with its neighbors and Russia will be built primarily on a bilateral basis. Tashkent will maintain its particular stance on all aspects of regional politics and security, which could become even more uncompromising.