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Brittle Uzbekistan Hopes for a Controlled Succession
Brittle Uzbekistan Hopes for a Controlled Succession
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov inspects an honour guard during a 26 April 2016 visit to Moscow, Russia. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Brittle Uzbekistan Hopes for a Controlled Succession

A stroke suffered by Uzbekistan's long-serving authoritarian leader on 27 August has propelled the country into the unknown, but his inner circle will try to preserve their power and minimise disruption as the transition starts. 

Uzbekistan will most likely celebrate its 1st September independence day without long-serving President Islam Karimov, marking a potentially dramatic first for this strategic Central Asian country since it broke free of the former Soviet Union 25 years ago.

The 78-year-old leader has ruled with iron fist since 1991, but suffered a brain hemorrhage on 27 August. The Uzbek authorities have broken their taboo about discussing the president’s health, saying he has a serious problem that may take time to treat. After years of speculation and anticipation, Central Asia’s most populous state may now face a tense transition, a prospect that is deeply unnerving for its neighbours.

According to the constitution, if the president cannot fulfil his duties, the chair of the Senate acts as caretaker until an election. Nigmatilla Yuldashev, a former justice minister, was handpicked by Karimov for the post in January 2015. He is a loyalist and owes his position to the president’s patronage, but adhering to the constitution – relentlessly amended to consolidate Karimov’s position – has little precedent in Uzbekistan.

While Karimov is temporarily incapacitated, however, the prognosis remains unclear. According to his daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, his condition is stable.


What is likely when the time comes for a transition is that executive power would be exercised by Karimov’s inner circle, including Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and the feared head of the National Security Service (NSS), Rustam Inoyatov.

All these players will want a smooth handover, with no dirty linen aired in public. If they manage to avoid in-fighting, they are expected to manage the stakeholders and patrons who make up an opaque system of governance and privilege. It is likely that a script has been in place for some time and that each member of the inner circle knows his or her role.

While this is not a democratic process, it may well minimise immediate instability; Uzbekistan’s neighbours – especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – would welcome that. Underlying security threats to the region, including from the spread of transnational threats like Islamic State, were underlined by a 30 August suicide bombing that injured three guards at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Neighbouring Turkmenistan may have set an example. Its late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was a far more mercurial ruler than Karimov. Yet within two months of Niyazov’s death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was declared head of state with no obvious disturbance to the country’s despotism. A similarly stage-managed transition is unlikely to lead to a reform of Uzbekistan’s deeply authoritarian system, but chaotic change in a fragile region would widely be considered dangerous.

Uzbekistan is a clannish, ethnically diverse country with regions that were rival khanates for centuries and still have conflict potential. Karakalpakstan in the north west is a resource-rich, environmentally degraded, autonomous republic that has never been allowed to hold a referendum on its future. Karakalpak dissidents, most in exile, complain of a movement of ethnic Uzbeks into their region, prejudice against its culture and an ever-present network of police informants. Some felt invigorated by Russian actions in Crimea and have grown more vocal, hoping for similar support for their ambitions. They and other Uzbek politicians in exile, however, have more bark than bite.

The densely populated Ferghana Valley is haunted by the legacy of a 2005 government crackdown that left hundreds dead, mainly in the city of Andijan. Incomes across the country have declined in the past year, and mass arrests of alleged Islamic extremists have contributed to a sense of fear and distrust.

Karimov’s foreign policy has shifted repeatedly over the years, producing turbulent relations with Russia, the U.S. and the European Union. China seemingly treats Tashkent more cautiously than other Central Asian states. A U.S. airbase was closed after Washington criticised the 2005 violence. Uzbekistan has flip-flopped in and out of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and refused to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-dominated trade group. Nevertheless, Russia has considerable leverage as host to some two million migrant Uzbek workers whose earnings are vital to Uzbekistan’s economy. Russian diplomats say privately there is little love for Karimov in Moscow.

Karimov’s daughter Lola is regularly touted as a potential successor, but professes disinterest in a high governmental post; his other daughter, Gulnara, is in disgrace from financial scandals. The most pressing concern of whomever from the circle around the president ultimately steps into the leadership role – even as caretaker – will be to maintain the status quo.

Stability that papers over the country’s potential to fracture is also the approach Uzbekistan’s near partners will likely approve of, at least in the short term. Their hope will be that the Tashkent clan honours its backroom deals in order to stave off what could otherwise become a violent crisis with regional implications.

Tombs in a Muslim cemetery are silhouetted during sunset in the village of Karateren near the Aral Sea, in southwestern Kazakhstan, April 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Briefing 72 / Europe & Central Asia

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.

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I. Overview

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problem to the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon to crack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressing multiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination between security services.

Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruption and crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states. Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political system is autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas. Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harsh methods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with a challenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedom while safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European or Asian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find themselves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states.

Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks are also well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers. The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the risks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence in Osh in 2010.

The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed. Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fighting with the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Taliban in Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained political order.

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through IS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organised loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian states to address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s other international partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that Central Asia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform, as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combating the problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, including their security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the response outside powers seek will likely flounder.

Bishkek/Brussels, 20 January 2015