Post Karimov, Uzbekistan’s place amongst the global order must be decided

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
FILE PHOTO: Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov © Reuters
Islam Karimov’s death means Uzbekistan probably needs to re-evaluate its place among the global order. This is of course, if the state itself remains stable following the transition of power.

Soviet leaders used to depart the stage like this. Leonid Brezhnev, Josef Stalin, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko all died in office. And rumors of their deaths circulated for days before the official confirmation. Meanwhile, in the background, apparatchiks plotted the succession, which was always divisive and sometimes bloody.

Given that he was one of the last figureheads who directly emerged from the USSR’s system, it’s probably appropriate that Karimov left the world in a similar manner. Yet, his demise means Uzbekistan must belatedly embrace fresh leaders, and possibly a whole new style of governance to boot. That won’t be plain sailing. And given the country’s geographic significance, the ramifications could extend far beyond Tashkent.

While he was formed by Communist structures, Karimov, was also a “strongman” of the type once common across the Muslim World. Thus, similar to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, his rule was repressive and the outside world was kept at arm’s length, but the trade-off was that Uzbekistan remained stable. Now, we face the unknown. Will the Central Asian country enjoy a seamless transfer of power or will radical Islamists become increasingly powerful?

The fact that Karimov has died of natural causes, unlike Hussein and Gaddafi who were overthrown by US led interventions, means the system he created ought to remain intact for some time. However, should his successor prove less popular, less feared or less capable, Uzbekistan could feasibly descend into chaos. And that would have a ruinous impact on this part of the world.

#uzbekistan President #karimov dies after 27 years in power.

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Turning A Blind Eye

It’s for that reason that Russia and the West largely ignored Karimov’s abuses. His desire to maintain a secular state and a strong opposition to Islamism made him attractive in a region of the world where leaders usually dance to a different beat these days. Also, the alternative to his rule always seemed far worse. But suddenly the flip-side is here and nobody feels very confident.

Uzbekistan matters. This country of 31 million people is the largest of the five Central Asian states that sprung from the USSR and the only one which borders all the other four. It also shares a border with Afghanistan. Mutual concern about the Taliban led Tashkent to acquiesce to George Bush’s request to use Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase for the American-led invasion of its southern neighbor in 2001.

Relations with Washington remained warm for a few years. US financial aid flowed in, with $500 million arriving in 2004 alone, and Karimov’s lack of interest in democratic principles was completely ignored by the Bush administration, which regularly interfered in other countries under the pretense of “democracy promotion” and spreading “freedom.”

American media and NGO’s would regularly conduct wide-ranging reports into the status of political prisoners across the former-USSR, but seemed pretty much oblivious to the fact that Uzbekistan held more activists captive than the other fifteen ex-members put together. Proving, once again, that being useful to Washington’s interests buys you a lot of breathing space.

Declining Affection

Then the Andijan massacre happened. In May 2005, at least 187 marchers, and anywhere up to 1,500, died after government troops fired into a crowd of protestors, whom Karimov claimed were Islamic radicals. He was supported in that position by Russia and China. Some, in the west, speculated that the army had acted to prevent a “color revolution” like those seen in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia around the same time.

Whatever, the reason, relations with Washington soured as a result. The US was asked to leave its airbase and NGO’s were booted out. Yet, on an official level, America continued to treat Karimov with kid gloves and cooperation never ceased. For instance, at least until 2014, Uzbekistan was used as a transit point for American troops and supplies, which was vital to reach Afghanistan, when Pakistan removed access.

It was also alleged that Uzbekistan took part in the secret rendition program during the Bush years and that “terror suspects” were detained and interrogated there. Meaning that Karimov surely had plenty of “compromat” at his disposal. Not to mention that US criticism of Uzbek justice would be blatantly two-faced in that light.

Hillary Clinton visited Tashkent as recently as 2011, and her usual rhetoric about human rights was uncharacteristically muted. Meanwhile, John Kerry showed up last November and barely mentioned the topic at all. But the New York Times did take solace in the fact that the situation with child labor - youngsters are used to pick cotton - might have “possibly" improved. 

Incoherent Signals 

From Russia’s perspective, Karimov was a complicated partner with his isolationist foreign policy making it difficult to forge security alliances in Central Asia. Moscow and Tashkent frequently disagreed on Afghanistan, with Vladimir Putin favoring a larger role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but Karimov opposed this move. 

Furthermore, Karimov’s inconsistent attitude to the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO], a Russian-led effort to offer a counterweight to NATO in Eurasia, rankled with the Kremlin. Back in 1992, Uzbekistan was a founder member, but withdrew in 1998. Karimov re-joined in 2006, following the spat with America, but pulled out again in 2012. So it’s fair to say that Tashkent hasn’t been very reliable.

This week, Moscow has adopted a cautious posture to events in Tashkent. While Russian media suggests that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, currently the Prime Minister, will soon be installed as President, the Kremlin seems happy to watch events play out.

Russia’s worst fear is destabilization of the volatile region and any eventual “Afghan-isation" of Uzbekistan would be a complete nightmare. However, the peaceful 2006 transition in Turkmenistan offers hope, as President Saparmurat Niyazov, who enjoyed a much bigger personality cult than Karimov, was replaced without any great friction.

That said, Uzbekistan is much bigger and more diverse with greater potential for strife. Unlike Karimov, mere mention of his successors name probably won’t engender fear, at least in the beginning, and Islamists may feel the moment is ripe to push their agenda. The new leader also has a few choices to make. Do they roll back Karimov’s secular platform and allow greater freedom of religious expression? And how will Uzbekistan sit in the great geopolitical game?

The choices are obvious. Continue the isolationist posture or choose closer ties with Moscow, Beijing or Washington. Ferociously vacillating between the three, as Karimov attempted, mightn’t be a viable long-term strategy.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.