Uzbekistan's parliament has appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev as interim president following the death of strongman leader Islam Karimov, setting the long-serving government chief up as the clear favorite to win a five-year term in an election due to held by December.
A statement on the government website said the decision was made at a joint session of the upper and lower parliament houses on September 8, six days after the announcement of Karimov's death following a stroke left Uzbekistan with no formal head of state.
Mirziyaev's appointment veered away from the system laid out in the Central Asian state's constitution, which says that the chairman of the upper parliament chamber, the Senate, assumes presidential authority for three months if the president dies or is unable to perform his or her duties.
But Senate Chairman Nigmatulla Yuldashev asked lawmakers to appoint Mirziyaev instead, citing "his many years of experience," and lawmakers supported the proposal, the government statement said.
Mirziyaev, 58, is a close Karimov ally who had served as prime minister since 2003, holding the post longer than anyone else in the 25 years since Uzbekistan gained independence in the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991.
Lawmakers supported Mirziyaev because of "the need for the preservation of stability, the provision of public security and law and order, and the effective resolution of highly important issues in the...political and socioeconomic development of the country," the statement said.
It said parliament "recommended" that the Central Election Commission organize a presidential vote "in full accordance" with electoral legislation. The constitution says an election must be held within three months after an interim president is appointed.
Critics of Karimov, who opponents and rights groups say ruthlessly suppressed dissent and preserved his power through rigged votes, said the appointment suggested Uzbekistan's leadership will thwart democratic principles and the rule of law.
"Whatever hopes observers had 4 'constitutional process' or relevance of Uzbek parliament as co-equal branch those hopes dashed w 2day's move," Steve Swerdlow, a researcher and attorney at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.
In a separate tweet, Swerdlow called on Mirziyaev to "release political prisoners," end the practice of "torture and forced labor," and allow journalists and NGOs to "function" in Uzbekistan. Many media outlets have been barred from Uzbekistan and NGOs sharply restricted.
Seen As Likely Successor
An irrigation engineer by profession, Mirziyaev has also served as provincial governor of Samarkand and his native Jizzakh, where he displayed a short temper and reports say he physically assaulted at least one farmer who complained about conditions in the province.
Observers quickly pointed to Mirziyaev as a likely successor when the government abruptly announced on August 28 that Karimov had been hospitalized with an undisclosed ailment, setting off speculation that he was already dead or dying and that a power struggle was raging behind the scenes in the secretive country of 29 million.
The government later said Karimov had suffered a stroke and was in critical condition, and then said late on September 2 that he had died earlier in the day.
He was buried in his native city of Samarkand on September 3, amid closely orchestrated mourning ceremonies.
Hints that Mirziyaev would take over included the fact that he led the organization of the funeral, state TV footage depicting him meeting foreign dignitaries, and talks as well as a visit to Karimov's grave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to Uzbekistan on September 6.
During his visit, Putin said that Uzbekistan could depend on Russia as a reliable partner. According to Russian news agencies, Mirziyaev told Putin that Uzbekistan's ties with Russia were "completely strategic" and that Tashkent would look to "continue to develop" them.
Many observers have voiced concern that his death brings little hope for substantial change.
Uzbekistan, which produces natural gas and grows cotton in abundance, is the most populous of the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and Karimov had been less receptive to Russia's efforts to restore Soviet-era ties than most of the others.
Uzbekistan has long faced criticism from the West for Karimov's intolerance of dissent and the country's poor human rights record, but the United States and Europe have also vied for influence with Russia and China in the country bordering Afghanistan.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Interfax, RIA Novosti, Gazeta.uz, Reuters, dpa, and AFP