Power vacuum, uncertainty looms following the death of Uzbekistan's dictator

As the grisly leader of this gas-rich Central Asian country is being inhumed, two questions linger over his wretched populace. Who will supersede him? And will they acquire a desirable deal?

Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan for a long period of 25 years, was sepulchred and inhumed in his native city of Samarkand on Saturday, casting off a power lacuna in a country that acts as a palisade for countering Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. A joint statement by the cabinet of ministers and Parliament divulged the demise of Karimov, saying he had a stroke that led to multiple organ failure. On September 3, thousands of people lined the streets of Tashkent for Karimov's burial cavalcade, hurling flowers at the cortege, as he was taken to the airport to be flown to his home town Samarkand, where he was inhumed. His funeral service was held at Registan Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As the padrone of an autocratic regime, occasionally compared to North Korea, Islam Karimov was known to be unrelenting and callous. The president of Uzbekistan whose demise became public Friday was blamed, and held answerable, for having his political adversaries imprisoned, exiled or even killed. After nearly a week of distraught and frenzied conjectures about his well-being, state television publicized late on September 2 that Mr Karimov had died from a stroke, six days after he was hospitalized and four days after unconfirmed reports surfaced of his death. The surreptitiousness that concealed the president’s malady and demise was representative of the bizarre regime that Mr. Karimov contrived and directed for more than 2 decades. The fact that Turkey’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, divulged Mr. Karimov’s demise hours before his own government did exhibits how hesitant and uncertain Uzbekistan’s potentially new autarchs, whoever they might be, are about the vicissitude that has now commenced.

As the grisly leader of this gas-rich Central Asian country is being inhumed, two questions linger over his wretched populace. Who will supersede him? And will they acquire a desirable deal? The regime under which they have endured agony for so long could hardly be worse. Of the five post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s is widely regarded as the most obnoxious, its leader the most barbarously paranoid.

Karimov was lampooned and disparaged by Western political establishment as an autocrat who infringed and transgressed human rights, but for many people in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim ex-Soviet state which borders Afghanistan, he is the only head of state they have ever known. With no perceptible successor, Karimov's demise has engendered an outburst of anguish, laced with qualms about the future. The annunciation followed a lengthy, aberrant respite during which Uzbek officials abstained from confirming the death even while the leaders of Turkey and Georgia conveyed commiserations, mosque imams were debarred from offering prayers for the president’s well-being, and funeral arrangements were being made very publicly. A revered opposition website posted pictures of cemetery workers in Samarkand, the president’s hometown, digging a fresh grave in a prominent location. The most probable impetus for the official reticence was that top government officials had been ineffectual to determine the succession and did not want to announce that Mr. Karimov was dead until they could also say who would replace him, at least temporarily. Mr Karimov had not publicly contemplated for a transition from his rule, which began in 1989 when the Kremlin appointed him as communist padrone of Uzbekistan. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he became president of an independent state. On 31 August 1991, 10 days after the attempted coup in Moscow, Karimov declared Uzbekistan to be an independent republic, the second of the Central Asian republics to do so (after neighboring Kyrgyzstan); 1 September was declared Uzbekistan's Independence Day. The Uzbek Communist Party (UCP) changed its name to the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (PDP). In the December 1991 Presidential Election, 86 percent of the public cast their votes for Karimov and 12.3 percent for his rival Muhammad Salih, chairman of the Erk (Freedom) Party.  He clung to power by allegedly rigging elections—last year he was re-elected with supposedly 90% of the vote—and by mercilessly quashing opposition. This was his third term under Uzbekistan's current Constitution. The election was widely denounced by the western media and observers as being rigged even though monitoring missions sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which include nations from the former USSR and China, deemed the election open and democratic. The international community repeatedly criticized the Karimov administration's record on human rights and press freedom. In particular, Craig Murray, the British Ambassador from 2002 to 2004, described widespread torture, kidnapping, murder, rape by the police, financial corruption, religious persecution, censorship, and other human rights abuses. This included the case of Karimov's security forces executing prisoners Muzafar Avazov and Khuzniddin Alimov by boiling them alive in 2002. The United Nations found torture "institutionalized, systematic, and rampant" in Uzbekistan's judicial system. For several years, Parade magazine selected Karimov as one of the world's worst dictators, citing his tactics of torture, media censorship, and fake elections. In 2005 his security forces gunned down demonstrators in the turbulent city of Andijan. According to Ikram Yakubov, a major in Uzbekistan's secret service who defected to Britain in 2007, the government had "propped up" the Islamist organization Akra mia, which the Uzbek government blamed for fomenting the incident that led to the protests. He believes that the attacks were a pretext to repress dissenters. According to Yakubov, President Karimov personally ordered government troops to fire on the protestors. Islam Karimov "placed blame for the unrest on Islamic extremist groups, a label that he has used to describe political opponents in recent years and that his critics say is used as a pretext for maintaining a repressive state." Torture is “endemic in the criminal-justice system”, says Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitor, which describes the country’s record under Mr Karimov as “atrocious”. Tales of prisoners being boiled alive surfaced in 2002. Political opposition and independent media are banned. Some 10,000 political prisoners languish in jails. According to the Uzbek Constitution freedom of expression in the media is nominally guaranteed; indeed, Article 67 explicitly states, "Censorship is not permitted." However, under the Karimov government, all media publications had to be "held accountable for the reliability" of the information released. This "accountability" actually introduces an opportunity for government censorship, as the definition of "accountability" is left to the Karimov administration's discretion. Banned publications under the Karimov administration included Mustaqil Haftalik and Erk, the respective publications of the Birilik and Erk opposition parties. The Karimov government charged each publication on the grounds of being "disloyal to the current regime". In December 1995, Karimov was quoted in describing local journalists as "toothless". Though most Uzbekistanis are secular-minded and practise an easy-going brand of Islam; extremism is decaying thanks to the stifling of any type of religious opposition. Karimov had originally cultivated Islamic symbols after independence in order to coopt religious opposition. In May 1999, as a response to the threat of Islamic radicalism, the Oliy Majlis revised the 'Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations' to impose new restrictions on religious groups. The construction of mosques, for example, required permission and specific documentation. An assassination attempt on Karimov in 1999 prompted even more quashing of Islamic groups. Karimov mobilized against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, two Islamist organizations that have been designated as terrorist by his government. The Uzbek government sentenced Tohir Yoʻldosh and Juma Namangani, leaders of the IMU, to death in absentia.

How the power vacuum in Uzbekistan is of pressing perturbation to Russia, the United States and China, all political heavyweights with interests in the turbulent and eruptive Central Asia region, where Uzbekistan is the most populous state.

Central Asia analysts say a small circle of senior officials and Karimov family members will have been meeting behind closed doors to try to agree on anointing a new president. The funeral rites proffered hints as to who might be in the running. At the Samarkand ceremony, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 59, and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 57, were allocated spots in the front row, nearest to Karimov's coffin.

If the aristocracy is unable to concur with each other on a changeover, the ensued perilousness could be manipulated by Islamist militants who in the past have mounted savage assaults in Uzbek cities and aspire to make Uzbekistan part of an Islamic caliphate. Uzbekistan’s gens have been vying over the succession for years, zealous to maintain the economic pickings accumulated during Mr Karimov’s long reign. Unless it has been tacitly resolved already, a power grapple is likely to escalate. Outside powers will also be intriguing. Russia, the former colonial master, will be keen to aver its interest in what the Moscow sees as its backyard. China, with its more commercial and profit-oriented modus operandi, will desire to secure its gas imports. And the United States will be persistent in seeking the hand of Uzbekistan as an ally in the war against terrorism, aware of the country’s border with Afghanistan.

The president’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is an Uzbekistani diplomat, professor and businessperson. She is the founder and chairperson of The Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundations Board of Trustees and a number of NGOs focused on cultural and social aspects of life in Uzbekistan. She was once primed to inherit the crown, but a few years ago she had a sensational decline, leaving the family tarnished by scandal. In 2014 she was put under house arrest in Tashkent and may be anxiously anticipating her fortuity in a post-Karimov era. The presidency may yet be kept in the family through the president’s younger daughter, Lola, a vowed enemy of Gulnara, but she and her businessman husband, Timur Tillyaev, are not thought to be part of the ruling circle. Two long-serving insiders probably have better chances: Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the prime minister, and Rustam Azimov, his deputy, though some say Mr Azimov has been arrested. Others say that Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service, the country’s most powerful and most formidable institution, will be the final arbiter and that he may arrange for a dark horse to emerge. An augmentation in Islamist militancy in Uzbekistan would pose a threat to the United States, which is trying to contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, to Russia - home to millions of Uzbek migrant workers - and to China, which frets about Central Asian Islamists making common cause with separatists from its mainly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.

Mr Karimov leaves a legacy beset by problems. Though Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asian "stans”, with 31 million people and profusion of minerals, and was once widely considered the most optimistic, it has become an economic ninny hammer, suffused with malfeasance, payola and sleaze and run along Soviet lines. Foreign investors are dissuaded by a history of assets grabbed.

Many analysts are pessimistic. “The system that Karimov built can continue after him, self-replicating regardless of who sits at the top,” says Daniil Kislov, Editor of Ferghana News. “There will not be a thaw.”

I hope that this relatively secular and peaceful Central Asian nation Uzbekistan will not stumble down the gloomy and murky path of Islamic radicalism as Islamist militants may endeavour to manipulate the power vacuum which is being created after the death of Islam Karimov who crystallized secularism in Uzbekistan; although he was a tyrant with repression of political dissent and was also accused of carrying out violation of human rights in his country. I hope one day Uzbek nation is exposed to the rays of democratic values where they will be able to enjoy fundamental human rights and liberties regardless of their political affiliation.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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