Uzbekistan president Karimov dies aged 78 after 27 years in power
Karimov died in hospital, where he was admitted on Sunday after suffering a stroke. Rumors of his death started circulating days before the official announcement, stoked by local and international media citing various anonymous sources and one of Karimov's two daughters.
On Friday morning, the Uzbek government website published a notice that the president's condition had worsened and was critical. Later in the evening an official statement announced his passing.
Karimov will be laid to rest on Saturday in Uzbekistan's second-largest city Samarkand, where he was born. On the same day, three days of national mourning will begin.
Tributes began to pour in for one of the firmest fixtures of post-Soviet regional geopolitics.
Vladimir Putin said that the death of a "true leader" whose "name was inextricably linked to every major landmark in the country's independent history" was a "heavy loss."
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is due to represent Russia at the funeral.
“I am the one who pushed for Karimov to be promoted to become the head of the then-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax. “He was a capable man with a strong character.”
“It is now up to the people of Uzbekistan to choose their path, and we are all interested in the continuation of good neighborly relations and cooperation with his successor.”
Death of strongman leaves vacuum in Central Asia
Karimov's departure leaves in question the stability of Uzbekistan, a country that shares a southern border with Afghanistan and struggled against jihadism in the 1990s. Uzbekistan’s traditionally neutral stance in world affairs may also change under a new leader.
Under Karimov, Uzbekistan kept its distance from world powers, never committing fully to the interests of the US, Russia or China, focusing more on domestic issues. The late leader supported the US invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by granting the use of Karshi-Khanabad Air Base for transit. The deal was terminated in 2005, when Washington lashed out at Tashkent’s heavy-handed response to a mass uprising.
The episode was arguably the low point for Uzbekistan under Karimov. It happened in the city of Andijan, when mass protests and rioting were cracked down on by Uzbek police and the national security service. The clashes claimed 187 lives, according to the official tally, while unofficial sources put the death toll as high as 1,500.
Amid the criticism from the West, Karimov claimed that the rioting had been instigated by an Islamist group that received foreign assistance and that its goal was to topple the Uzbek government. Some Central Asia watchers suggested that the events resulted from a struggle between rival Uzbek clans and signaled a failure of the Karimov government to balance the interests of the clans.
The threat of radical Islamism, however, was and is quite genuine for Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country. Since the 1990s, jihadist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir gained traction in the country and were a major security challenge.
Karimov steered away from a fully-fledged civil war like the one in neighboring Tajikistan, and preserved Uzbekistan’s secular nature, although critics accuse him of using the threat of extremism to cement his power. The president was targeted by an assassination attempt in 1999, which Karimov blamed on radical Islamists.
Apart from the Andijan protests, Karimov was regularly accused of violating human rights, attacking press freedoms and undermining political opposition. International rights groups criticize Uzbekistan for using child labor to gather cotton, one of its traditional products, while Tashkent promised to get rid of the centuries-old practice. Western governments routinely described elections in Uzbekistan as neither free nor fair.
With Karimov dying in office, Senate Speaker Nigmatullah Uldashev will act as president until a snap election is conducted. The succession order was changed in late 2010, apparently as Karimov’s health problems started to become more serious. A career prosecutor and lawyer, Uldashev is expected to be a placeholder figure, who would keep the transition of power within the boundaries of legality.
With Uzbek politics conducted predominantly out of public view, it’s difficult to predict who the next leader could be. Security chief Rustam Inoyatov, cabinet chair Shavkat Mirziyoev and his deputy Rustam Azimov are some of the possible successors.
Karimov is one of several post-Soviet leaders in Central Asia who promoted themselves from Soviet communist officials to heads of independent states and kept power for decades. Tajikistan remains under Emomali Rahmon, while Kazakhstan is led by Nursultan Nazarbayev. Their Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006. Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian former Soviet republic where the head of state changed several times in almost three decades, thanks to two successful uprisings.
Born in 1938 in Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, Samarkand, Karimov became the head of the Republic of Uzbekistan in 1989, and went on to become Uzbekistan’s first and so far only president in 1991. He has since extended his time in office by prolonging the term and getting reelected in 2000, 2007 and 2015.