After Karimov: Will Uzbekistan Undergo A Revolution?
The premature death of Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan and one of Central Asia’s main political actors, has created a dangerous power vacuum in the country.
The fallout from his death in September 2016 has the potential to go several ways. Uzbekistan could collapse into political turmoil as the three largest clans compete to consolidate and expand their own power. The resulting infighting would destabilise the Uzbek state and lead to wider political and economic turmoil in Central Asia. Another possibility is that the new president will lead the country out of its current stagnancy and seize the opportunity to economically and politically move beyond the hardships characterized by Karimov’s 25-year rule.
Nevertheless, Karimov’s death will create significant ripples in Uzbekistan’s political landscape. Thanks to his iron grip on the presidency, Uzbekistan’s regional clans have often been an obscured part of the political landscape. The country is divided among 7 clans.
The major clans of Samarkand, Ferghana and Tashkent are the most likely to initiate a conflict. The smaller regional clans of Jizzakh, Khorezm, Karakalpak and Kashkadarya are more subjugated to the larger clans and tend to keep their focus on their own regions.
Islam Karimov, like the Soviets before him, kept the clans at bay by balancing their power throughout his rule. Aided by his own lack of a clan, thanks to his orphancy, Karimov was considered an outsider and as such could sit above the disputes due to his lack of regional ties.
However, Karimov was not immune to the clans’ disfavor. For example, in 1999 several car bombs were set off in Tashkent after he removed one of the Taskent clan’s leaders from the Interior Ministry. Likewise in 2004, the Interior Ministry and the National Security Council (formerly the KGB), which are linked respectively to the Samarkand and Tashkent clans, appeared to have had a land dispute with bombs exploding across Tashkent and Bukhara as a result.
So far there has been little turmoil in Uzbekistan since Karimov’s death and the succession of Prime Minister Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev to the position of Interim President saw no issues.
The importance of international players in Uzbekistan’s presidential contest cannot be understated. Russia has recently pressed for a more pro-Russian leadership in Tashkent. In the past five years, Uzbekistan has been keeping Russia at arm’s length by refusing to join their plans to establish a Eurasian Union, as well as through the 2012 rejection of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
China is likewise concerned about the presidential transition but for differing reasons. Uzbekistan under Karimov was a linchpin in China’s Silk Road Initiative and Beijing has invested heavily in infrastructure in the Central Asian country. They currently use Uzbekistan as the principal gateway for the supply of liquid natural gas (LNG) with three pipelines going from Western China through Uzbekistan, and a fourth under construction. Furthermore, Uzbekistan supplies resource-hungry China with gas, gold, and uranium, and it is hardly surprising that the Chinese have sought to upgrade its diplomatic ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
A chance for revolution?
While the immediate transition after Karimov’s passing was smooth, the next few months have the potential to be very tumultuous. In Uzbekistan, the constitution decrees that an election for a new president must be held 3 months from now, and during this period rivalries could explode as political elites and their clans scramble for the greatest piece of the political and economic pie.
The house arrest of Karimov’s daughter Gulnara Karimova, a Harvard-educated billionaire and formerly the likely successor to the presidency, highlights the current power struggle in Tashkent. Then there is interim president Mirziyoyev’s rivalry with Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Asimov. Previously a trusted advisor to President Karimov, Asimov has in the past few months been slowly removed from the inner circle of power by Mirziyoyev.
The direction this rivalry will take is not clear. Certainly if Mirziyoyev decides to hold onto power by any means possible the prospect of a colour revolution, like those of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, is not out of the question.
Added into this volatile situation is the involvement of China and Russia and their different agendas. Beijing is unsure about Mirziyoyev and the current security of their assets in Uzbekistan. If they refuse to do business with him and the Samarkand clan due to his volatile reputation, there is a significant risk that other clans could use this as a means to make their own attempt to seize power.
On the other hand, Moscow has a long history of making power-sharing arrangements with the Uzbek clans, often supporting Samarkand over Tashkent or vice versa to manipulate their hold over the country. If they view China as interfering with their own economic and security interests, it will support another clan in their quest for power.
A rivalry between Russia and China’s different needs played out in the Uzbek theatre will increase clan rivalries as each group will view the economic and political advantages of garnering international support for their rise to power as paramount. If Mirziyoyev refuses to call the elections and the clans turn violent, this will destabilise not just Uzbekistan but also wider Central Asia.
by Victoria Kelly-Clark