Islam Karimov, president of the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, died last week. Many questions surround his illness and the handling of his death, but mysteries are the norm when autocrats come to the end of their lives. Typically, such leaders are loath to prepare for their own passing for fear of either encouraging the people identified as their successors or creating enemies among those who are not. Given the country’s geographic location, size and large Islamic population, the country’s next leader will be a critical player in regional politics.
Trained as a mechanical engineer and an economist, Karimov worked his way up the Communist Party bureaucracy in Uzbekistan, taking the position of first secretary of the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989, and a year later he joined the Central Committee and Politboro. In 1990, he was elected first president of the republic by the Uzbek Supreme Soviet, a position that allowed him to declare Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union just 10 days after the aborted coup there in August 1991.
He was elected first president of Uzbekistan in December 1991 with 86 percent of the vote. He extended his five-year term for a four more years in 1996 in a controversial referendum, and was then re-elected as president in 2000 with 91 percent of the vote. He won a third term in 2007, even though the Uzbek Constitution only allowed a president to serve two terms, and was re-elected again in 2015.
His disregard for legal niceties extended well beyond elections. Karimov ran a repressive state. The United Nations accused his government of “institutionalized, systematic, and rampant” torture, and other officials and organizations have accused it of offenses ranging from kidnapping, murder, rape by the police, financial corruption, religious persecution, censorship, and other human rights abuses. The media was strictly controlled and elections rigged.
Yet for all the criticism, Karimov walked a fine diplomatic line and managed to avoid outright ostracism in the international community. Many governments were prepared to hold their noses and deal with him.
Part of the explanation for that tolerance reflects geography. Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia, and its security and stability provide an anchor for neighboring countries as well as the entire region. It straddles the Silk Road, which puts it at a crossroads between Europe and Asia.
Bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been seen as a key ally in efforts to pacify that country: At the beginning of conflict in 2001, the United States was granted basing rights to support the fight in Afghanistan. Those rights were withdrawn four years later after Washington criticized Karimov’s human rights practices.
Uzbekistan is also home to significant natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. It supplies electricity to its neighbors and numerous oil and gas pipelines cross its territory. The country is also a transit point on international drug smuggling routes and instability there could be exploiting by drug traffickers.
Finally, Karimov led a stable secular state in a part of the world that is often threatened and sometimes dominated by Islamic forces. His ability to keep Islamic radicals under control made him a critical figure for governments outside the region. Beijing much appreciated the lid that Karimov provided: He tramped down on the “extremist, separatist and terrorist” forces that China fears in its western regions. However, many experts note that his repression merely forced radicals to leave the country and join the Taliban and the Islamic State radical group. After his death, they may come back and step up efforts to gain influence.
Russia’s leaders hope that Karimov’s successor will not be as skeptical of their country as he was. In 2012, Karimov withdrew Uzbekistan from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led regional military effort. Uzbekistan is, however, a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, another security and economic initiative, but it includes both Russia and China and other Central Asia nations. Karimov plainly sought to avoid over-reliance on any one country.
It is up to Karimov’s successor to be able to continue to walk that tightrope. At this point, who that will be remains uncertain. Under the country’s constitution, the head of the Senate takes over for a dead or incapacitated president until an election is held — which must be within three months. The front runners to succeed Karimov include Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the only person to give a speech at the funeral and who was shown on state television meeting Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Karimov’s balancing act may be too much for a man once described as having “a fist rather than a brain.”
It is said that real power rests in the hands of Rustam Inoyatov, head of the security service. He has been described as a “key gatekeeper” to Karimov and was thought to be responsible for pushing Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, once seen as a possible successor to her father, out of the picture. Inoyatov may have the shrewdness, instincts and hardness required to control the forces that Karimov kept well leashed. Unfortunately, that will demand yet more compromises from governments who seek to do business with Uzbekistan.