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Obituary: Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Who Long Ruled With Fear, Dead At 78

Islam Karimov
Islam Karimov

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who ruled Central Asia's most populous ex-Soviet republic with an iron fist for a quarter-century, has died at the age of 78.

Uzbek state television said on September 2 that Karimov died at 8:55 p.m. local time in Tashkent, five days after his daughter reported he was in intensive care after suffering a "brain hemorrhage."

A former Communist Party boss, Karimov maintained his grip on power with the backing of a feared security apparatus accused of widespread rights abuses, a geopolitical balancing act between Russia and the West, and an unremitting expansion of presidential authority.

He presided over what activists said was the systematic suppression of political dissent, forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton fields, and the frequent use of torture by law enforcement and security forces.

Karimov's death invites uncertainty over succession in a country where one man has been in power since before the Soviet collapse, encouraging a system of opaque government and a lack of experience with democracy and the rule of law.

Born in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand in 1938, Karimov was trained as an economist. He rose to political preeminence in 1989, when he was elected first secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1990, amid his shift to the still-Soviet republic's presidency through a rubber-stamp vote, Karimov laid out the vision that would dominate Uzbek politics in the emerging state and for decades to come.

"If you elect me president tomorrow, then I need the right to dissolve parliament. Then I would have the final word," he said.

INFOGRAPHIC: Karimov's Lengthy Reign (click to expand)

Karimov declared Uzbek independence on August 31, 1991, as the Soviet Union lurched toward collapse, and subsequently won the country's first presidential election.

Each of his landslide reelections over the next two and a half decades -- with around 90 percent of the vote -- was dismissed by the West as neither free nor fair, and two were disputed by critics citing a constitutional ban on Uzbek presidents serving more than two terms.

A wily political operator, Karimov consolidated power in the newly independent Uzbekistan, eventually used dubious public referendums, neutralization of the political opposition, and elimination of critical media to keep potential rivals -- and the public -- at bay.

Allegations Of Torture

In its annual human rights report in April, the U.S. State Department said that in Uzbekistan "the executive branch under President Islam Karimov dominated political life and exercised nearly complete control over the other branches of government."

Karimov's tenure saw the Uzbek judicial system come under frequent criticism from international watchdogs for its allegedly routine use of torture against detainees.

In 2007, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report titled Nowhere To Turn: Torture And Ill-Treatment In Uzbekistan.

HRW's Geneva director, Juliette De Rivero, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service at the time that "the main point of this report is to show that [torture] is a systematic practice [and] to show that at all stages of the judicial process detainees are put under pressure and put in situations in which they are likely to be tortured."

Karimov was accused by some of using the threat of Islamist militancy to justify ruthless security practices. Brutal crackdowns on Islamic groups followed bombings in 1999 and 2004 and twin incursions by the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1999 and 2000.

Berating lawmakers for a perceived laxity in combating Islamist radicals in the late 1990s, Karimov told parliament: "If you don’t have the will to do it, give me a gun and I'll shoot them in the head myself."

In May 2005, large protests in the eastern city of Andijon were brutally suppressed by Uzbek security forces and reportedly led to hundreds of deaths.
In May 2005, large protests in the eastern city of Andijon were brutally suppressed by Uzbek security forces and reportedly led to hundreds of deaths.

Karimov also leveraged Uzbekistan's location to build ties with Washington, offering logistical assistance for U.S.-led military operations across the border in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks blamed on Al-Qaeda.

Rights activists accused U.S. officials of turning a blind eye to the Uzbek president's abuses in return for transit privileges, a charge Washington rejected.

In May 2005, large protests and lawlessness in the eastern city of Andijon were brutally suppressed by Uzbek security forces, reportedly leading to hundreds of deaths.

Karimov refused to allow an international investigation and continued to allege that the unrest was fomented by Islamic militants who had been trained abroad.

Regional Hegemon

Uzbekistan -- which borders each of the region's post-Soviet republics, as well as Afghanistan -- is Central Asia's most populous country with its largest armed forces. It also sits atop considerable oil and gas reserves.

Under Karimov, the country sought to mold itself into a regional hegemon -- sometimes leading to adversarial relations with its neighbors and breakdowns over border and water issues in particular.

Tashkent has repeatedly cited an Islamic extremism threat in closing Uzbek borders, complicating life for residents at home and in adjoining states in the culturally kaleidoscopic Ferghana Valley.

Uzbek gas exports gave Karimov considerable leverage over poorer neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and there have been frequent gas cutoffs over unpaid bills and other disputes.

Neighboring states accused Karimov's security forces of masterminding attacks on their soil or crossing their borders to seize people sought by Uzbek authorities.

Despite criticism of its human rights record, Uzbekistan's location and energy resources have generally led Russia and Western powers to seek closer ties.

But Karimov's policies have variously created friction between Tashkent and Russia, the United States, the European Union, and international financial institutions.

Islam Karimov's two daughters, Gulnara (left) and Lola (right), are believed to have flourished under their father's rule, with both featuring on a list of Switzerland's wealthiest residents published in 2011 by the Swiss business magazine Bilan.
Islam Karimov's two daughters, Gulnara (left) and Lola (right), are believed to have flourished under their father's rule, with both featuring on a list of Switzerland's wealthiest residents published in 2011 by the Swiss business magazine Bilan.

During the 1990s, Tajikistan fell into civil war while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were paralyzed by protests and standoffs between presidents and parliament, and many of Central Asia's emergent states were dependent on international aid for their survival.

Uzbekistan, however, avoided major instability and was able to provide its people with basic goods and services, including utilities like electricity and natural gas.

But observers say the combination of ruthless repression and poor living standards has provided fertile breeding ground for violent resistance.

Uzbekistan has been criticized for a perceived lack of economic reform and condemned as riddled with rampant corruption and nepotism. It has also faced repeated criticism from international rights group for forced labor in its large cotton industry.

A Family Affair

Karimov's two daughters, Gulnara and Lola, are believed to have immensely benefited from the system. In 2011, the Karimova siblings were both included in the list of Switzerland's 300 wealthiest residents published by the Swiss business magazine Bilan.

Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara -- a prominent socialite and businesswoman once seen as a potential successor to her father as president -- has not appeared in public since 2014 amid reports that she had been placed under house arrest in Uzbekistan amid a corruption scandal.

A day after the Uzbek government announced in a rare statement on August 28 that the president had been hospitalized, it was Lola who communicated with the world about her father's condition.

"At the moment it is too early to make any predictions about his future health," read the August 29 post on Lola Tillyaeva-Karimova's Instagram.

The post, written in Russian, Uzbek, and English, said her father was admitted to the hospital on August 28 and that his condition was "considered stable."

Tillyaeva-Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to UNESCO, called for people to "refrain from speculation" and to respect her family's privacy.

With contributions from Antoine Blua, Bruce Pannier, and Carl Schreck

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