BERLIN – Important news rarely comes from countries whose names end with “stan,” but the hospitalization of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov after he suffered a stroke last weekend is noteworthy indeed. Karimov, 78, who has run the country since 1988, has done nothing to ensure a smooth succession; and his country is probably the strongest bastion against Islamist extremism in Central Asia.
“Fasten your seatbelts,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin who is now one of his opponents, posted on Facebook after Karimov was reported dead on Monday night. The reports, which first surfaced on the Fergana News portal — a Russian-language site that is probably the best source of day-to-day information on the authoritarian black-box state — were later denied by the Uzbek authorities. The latest available official information is from the presidential press service, which says that Karimov is in a hospital, and from Karimov’s younger daughter Lola’s Instagram account, which says he’s had a stroke and is in intensive care.
So the president of Uzbekistan is officially undead, but very likely in the twilight zone dictators enter when they are about to give up power. Even if he has died, that will not be announced until there is a successor.
According to longtime watchers of Uzbekistan’s opaque hierarchy, this is likely to be Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has held the post since 2003. He wasn’t Karimov’s closest adviser — that distinction is said to belong to Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azizov, who was in charge of more important economic portfolios — but he has patiently built a bigger regional support network, and he’s friendly with the powerful national security chief Rustam Innoyatov, who two years ago engineered the downfall of Karimov’s ambitious older daughter Gulnara.
Whoever ends up succeeding Karimov won’t be the nation’s all-powerful founder. The transition can be uneventful, like in neighboring Turkmenistan after its founding president, Saparmurat Niyazov — who renamed the calendar months and had hundreds of statues of himself erected throughout the country — died in 2006. But it could also be stormier, destabilizing the entire region.
Uzbekistan has a population of 30 million, 40 percent of it under the age of 25. There’s not enough work to go around in an economy tightly controlled by the government. Though Uzbekistan has been reporting economic growth of 8 percent a year or more for almost a decade, the statistics are about as reliable as those released by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic’s State Planning Committee when Karimov worked there in the 1960s.
Most of Uzbekistan’s wealth comes from exporting natural resources, such as gold and natural gas, much of it to China, but that wealth hasn’t filtered down to the ordinary people, especially in densely populated problem areas such as the Fergana Valley, which saw major riots in 2005. Karimov put them down brutally, but it’s unclear whether a successor would have the resolve and the authority to do it again, should the need arise.
About 3 million Uzbeks work in Russia. In 2015, Uzbekistan was the biggest source of migrant labor for Russia after Ukraine. Most of these workers are honest laborers who just want to send money to their families, but Uzbek radicals have also used Russia as a stop on their path to the fighting in Syria. They can’t go directly, because Karimov has kept Islamic radicalism tightly suppressed. In 1999, there was a major purge of Islamist organizations in which 7,000 people were jailed. At the same time, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group that operated in the south of Central Asia, was squeezed from the mountains there into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, it pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
According to the Soufan Group, about 500 Uzbek citizens were fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq late last year. That’s the highest number of all ex-Soviet republics except Russia, and it doesn’t include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan since most of its fighters have long lost any ties to Uzbekistan.
Karimov kept Uzbekistan secular by the sheer force of his security apparatus and military, which is, depending on the source, either the strongest in Central Asia or the second strongest after Kazakhstan’s. Russia has been aiding Uzbekistan, training its officers and providing its military with modern weapons, because the country is an important buffer between the boiling cauldron of Afghanistan and Russia’s sphere of immediate interest. Now that Karimov’s grip on power is weakening and succession is not assured, all the pent-up tension — some of it of the jihadist kind — may erupt in violence that could involve some of Russia’s Uzbek population. If Uzbekistan becomes unstable, Islamic State will be encouraged and empowered.
This is a tense moment for the Kremlin, whose declared goal in the Middle East, including Syria, is to keep the Islamist threat away from its borders. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, has said Moscow was in constant touch with the leadership of Uzbekistan since Karimov’s hospitalization. Putin’s interest is probably in making sure Mirziyoyev, as the man best able to keep the situation under control, becomes Karimov’s successor and changes as little as possible in how the country is run.
Beyond these obvious tactical considerations, though, the tension accompanying Karimov’s stroke is a reminder that in a large part of the former Soviet Union, including Russia’s two major allies, Kazakhstan and Belarus, there are no reliable democratic methods of power transfer. In Russia itself, should Putin fall seriously ill or die, the transition is unlikely to be smooth.
The whole vast region is kept relatively peaceful by a handful of aging men, most with Soviet leadership experience, who have turned into authoritarian nationalist leaders. Should any of them go, instability arises immediately. The bloodless revolution of 1991, which destroyed the Soviet Union, is unfinished in many ways, but perhaps primarily in this one: The current regimes are placeholders for true statehood and, as such, ticking time bombs.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of five books. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru .