For those accustomed to watching the slow movement of Uzbekistan’s government over the years, this month has already been a shock.
On September 1, the country marked 25 years of independence. The next day, the government announced that the only president the country has ever known, Islam Karimov, was dead. Karimov was buried on September 3, a three-day mourning period ended September 5, and the next day Russian President Vladimir Putin flew in to pay his respects. Putin met with Karimov’s presumed successor, Shavkat Mirziyaev, who on September 8 was made acting president at a joint session of Uzbekistan’s parliament -- even though the constitution says presidential responsibilities go to the Senate chairman in the event of the president’s death.
The chairman, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, requested that parliament hand over those responsibilities to Mirziyaev. Parliament approved, naturally, and then called on the Central Election Commission to prepare for a presidential election within three months. It is scheduled for December 4.
On the day Putin arrived in Samarkand to visit Karimov’s grave and meet with Mirziyaev, RFE/RL convened the Majlis podcast to discuss Uzbekistan’s power transition. During the discussion, Mirziyaev was already the odds-on favorite for the presidency, so the panelists’ comments hold up, even with Mirziyaev’s appointment as acting president.
Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From St. Louis, Sarah Kendzior, author of many articles about Central Asia, including the annual report on Uzbekistan in Freedom House's Nations In Transit, joined the talk. From the United States, but usually based in Central Asia, Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch (HRW) also took part. The head of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, Alisher Sidik, participated. And some of you might have noticed I’ve been writing some things about Uzbekistan, so I had something to say also.
Sidik started by reviewing how Uzbek authorities knew early on that Karimov was essentially brain dead after he had his stroke on August 27 but was kept on life support until after Independence Day. Sidik said that publicly, in the days after Karimov’s death, there seemed to be strong and positive sentiment among some people in Uzbekistan for their deceased leader. Sidik said Karimov opposed “the idea of being [the subject of] a cult of personality when he was alive. After he’s dead, there’s no longer anything to stop people to turn him into this cult.”
Not everyone might feel that way about Karimov, but it should be admitted that there are many in Uzbekistan who are saddened by the death of their leader for the last 27 years (counting two years as head of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan).
Despite having no experience at a transfer of presidential power, the small group of Uzbek officials who have been making the decisions since Karimov’s death have maintained an image of business as usual in Uzbekistan. Kendzior said there are no visible signs of a power vacuum.
“From the beginning, they’ve been trying to make the appearance of a smooth transition of power,” she said.
Swerdlow said his organization has received information about “document searches” being conducted by authorities in Tashkent and that “even elite families have not been left untouched by random searches.” Swerdlow said that on the part of the officials now making decisions in Uzbekistan, there is still “a lot of paranoia, a lot of questions about who could present problems for the regime.”
The panel reviewed some of the key players who are now in charge of Uzbekistan and speculated as to how some of them might act in the coming months until and shortly after the presidential election. There was agreement that solidarity among the elites now running the country was likely to last for a while but that eventually a time would come when there would be attempts to remove some of the people in government who have been close to Karimov for many years.
Kendzior pointed out it was still unclear how the people would react to Mirziyaev as president. She noted that Karimov, as “first president,” had -- for some Uzbeks -- an air of legitimacy that no future president will be able to claim.
“How does that transfer onto another person. How does another person have that same sense of authority or legitimacy, and will others challenge him?” Kendzior said.
Swerdlow recalled that when he was working in Uzbekistan, before authorities evicted HRW, he met with people who had encountered Mirziyaev.
“We know from farmers that Mirziyaev was basically an enforcer in terms of making sure cotton quotas are met across the country and that each region is delivering the cotton quota that’s required of it,” Swerdlow said, adding, “He’s known for his fiery temper. He’s known for being a very tough personality and obviously that’s not a good precedent.”
However, Sidik pointed out that while Karimov remained at the presidential palace, Mirziyaev had to go out, visit the various regions of Uzbekistan, meet with local leaders, and see for himself what was getting done and what wasn’t. So Mirziyaev should have a better idea of the current situation in the country than Karimov did in his last years in office.
The Majlis also talked about what changes might be made in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Russia, in particular, was discussed as the Russian government has many connections to Uzbekistan that are not immediately apparent. Sidik said he thought Mirziyaev will “be good for Russia.”
Swerdlow expressed the hope that Western nations involved in the security operations in Afghanistan would press Uzbekistan a bit harder now that the foreign presence in Afghanistan is winding down. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, has been a Western ally during this campaign. Karimov’s government insisted that, in return for its cooperation, Western nations should check their criticism of Uzbekistan’s internal policies.
This discussion focused more closely on these issues and ranged into other areas that will provide key challenges for the second president of Uzbekistan and his government. Sidik even provided an update on the whereabouts of Karimov’s elder daughter, Gulnara, who has been under house arrest and unseen in public for some two years now.