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Uzbekistan: Fragile and uncertain as the curtain falls on Karimov era

Uzbekistan: Fragile and uncertain as the curtain falls on Karimov era
Published 7 Sep 2016 

After five days of confusion, the inevitable declaration of the death of Islam Karimov, the first and only president of Uzbekistan, arrived last Friday.

A day later, mourners lined the streets of Samarkand – Karimov’s birthplace – to witness a funeral procession that just a week ago few Uzbeks would have dared imagine.

Karimov’s death signifies a new era in the country he has ruled since before the end of the Cold War. The younger generation know no other leader (the average age of Uzbeks is only 27 – the same number of years as Karimov’s tenure), and the very sense of a sovereign Uzbekistan was as much tied to Karimov the man as Uzbekistan the nation.

The pace of the change facing Uzbekistan has created uncertainty over the direction of the country.

Some believe it will descend into a deeper autocracy at the hands of one of Karimov’s senior apparatchiks. Others argue that the country is destined for a period of chaos, fuelled by a surge of extremist groups striving to influence the country’s future.

But while each of these scenarios are somewhat plausible, the calm – or perhaps shock – that has gripped Uzbekistan since the leader's death suggests a more cautious transition is taking place.

While it became clearer each day after the government confirmed  Karimov had been hospitalised that he had in fact died, the delay in making that announcement demonstrated consolidated decision making, at the very least, was still taking place at the heart of the Uzbek state.

But  what should observers be looking for as a new leader emerges in Tashkent? [fold]

Power transition

The leadership transition that up until a few days ago looked like it could be  fractured and contested  now seems to have consolidated around one man: Shirzket Merziyoyev, the country's prime minister and close confidante of Karimov. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to support Merziyoyeve and the two men jointly visited Karimov's grave.

While Merziyoyev’s assumption of the leadership is not guaranteed (a presidential election will likely take place), most assume he is the only logical successor.

But a quirk in the Uzbek constitution means Mirziyoyev will have to wait: law stipulates that if the president dies the head of the upper chamber of the Uzbek parliament should assume the office for three months. This means that the presidency of Uzbekistan is, for now, in the hands of the low-profile Nigmatulla Yuldashev, about whom little is known.

Yuldashev will most likely perform the symbolic role as stipulated by law, but it is not inconceivable he could capitalise on his position and attempt to consolidate power in his own right.

Whoever does assume the leadership long term will face  some formidable challenges.

First, navigating the internal clan structures within Uzbekistan is paramount for the next leader. As an orphan with no family history, Karimov masterfully negotiated the clan-based power distribution within his country from a position of independence. His probable successor Mirziyoyev, however, is a member of the powerful Samarkand clan, and will likely face pressure from his own patronage network that will have to be balanced to ensure country-wide cohesion. The similarly powerful Tashkent clan will, if not represented in the presidency, likely seek greater concessions from the new president. This dynamic will present an ongoing challenge.

Second, Uzbekistan faces a period of economic uncertainty. While it is true that Central Asia possesses a wealth of mineral and oil resources, Uzbekistan has been unable to capitalise on its assets to the same extent as neighbouring Kazakhstan. Like much of the region, Uzbekistan relies heavily on remittances from its diaspora working in Russia. The recent collapse of the Russian rouble has significantly curtailed the dependability on this revenue source. The new Uzbek leader will have to offer a credible economic path forward to avoid growing discontent.

And thirdly, filling Karimov’s skilful diplomatic shoes will be a tough ask for any successor. Karimov was extremely successful in developing bilateral relationships with a diverse set of actors with interests in the region, but without over-committing to any one regional power. He has effectively avoided the scale of international condemnation his regime deserved by using Uzbekistan’s strategic geopolitical positioning to its advantage.

Karimov developed working relationships with Washington, Beijing and Moscow, as well as other regional players such as Iran and Turkey, offering strategic concessions when required (such as military access to US troops in preparation for the Afghan War).

Mirziyoyev has already presented himself as the next leader in the foreign policy space, publicly meeting with a South Korean delegation and the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan  as well as Putin .

The new leadership in Tashkent will be faced with pressure from all international actors to conform closer with their own respective interests in the region. How successfully Karimov’s successor navigates Uzbekistan’s geopolitical paradigm will have a real impact on the future of the country.

The potential for reform

There is also some chance this watershed moment in Uzbek history could lead to reform. While the challenges are manifest, a diverse set of Uzbek nationals might return to their homeland and assert pressure on the new regime to accommodate a more democratic and pluralist form of government.

Karimov’s reign was brutal; while he was respected by his people, has was also feared. He developed an immunity from revolt thanks to more than 25 of hard rule. His successor, however, will be starting with a comparably blank slate.

Many outside groups, civil society actors and political opponents of Karimov have been waiting for this very moment to shape the future of their country. While revolution is improbable, it might be wise for the next Uzbek leader to grant certain elements of the Uzbek opposition some concessions to avoid the ongoing transition becoming bloody.

Over the next three months - the formal period of presidential transition in Tashkent - the situation will become clearer. But the early signs are that the Uzbek government is moving forward cautiously, cognisant of its own fragility.

Photo by Bahtiyar Abdukerimov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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