By: Tyler Vandenberg
What We Know
On August 29, 2016, sometime in the Uzbek morning, Islam Karimov suffered a medical emergency. Karimov, 78 years old, is rumoured to have had a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage, and was admitted to the hospital shortly afterwards. The President’s grave condition was announced by his daughter on social media within hours, though she also added that he had been stabilized. Concurrently, independent Uzbek media website Fergana.ru announced that President Karimov had, in fact, died already. As of the time of writing, Fergana.ru had only revised their statement to say that President Karimov had been clinically dead before being revived and placed on life support, where he remains at the moment.
The announcement of President Karimov’s illness comes at a symbolic time for his country. Mr. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan as a de facto autocrat since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. For those keeping track, this means that Mr. Karimov has fallen extremely ill just days before Uzbekistan’s 25th Independence Day celebrations, an event Mr. Karimov has never failed to attend. A failure to attend would signal that Mr. Karimov is unable (medically or politically) to retain his hold on power, leading directly to a succession crisis or – more worryingly for the regime he has built – potential political unrest.
Karimov’s successor is unknown, though three likely candidates have emerged, each of them a senior cabinet member tied to one of the “clans” that dominate Uzbek politics. Since the Soviet era, the cooperation (or subjugation) of these clans has been crucial to running the country, as each controls a critical segment of the country and its economic and political machinery. Variously, figures like the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, and the head of the National Security Service (NSS — the intelligence services of Uzbekistan) have been suggested as likely candidates to take the reins.
Reactions to the news from Tashkent has been muted: no official statements have been registered from the governments of Uzbekistan’s neighbours. In Moscow, a joint press conference at the Kremlin with foreign and domestic Russian news outlets ended only with a statement that there was “no proof” that Mr. Karimov was dead. Some reports have indicated that Kazakh state television broadcast the news that Mr. Karimov had died, though this remains unconfirmed due to the relative inaccessibility of its broadcasts to foreigners.
Separately, but within hours of President Karimov’s illness being announced, a car bomb attack occurred in Bishkek, the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. This blast targeted the Chinese embassy and blew the heavy steel gate off its hinges, though no deaths besides the bomber were reported. Normally this would be ascribed to terrorists, as the region is a notorious hotbed for Islamic fundamentalist violence, however no groups have yet come forward to claim the attack.
What We’re Waiting On
The system that Mr. Karimov built is perhaps best described as an Uzbek take on the political mechanisms of the late Soviet Union. Therefore, the rules of Soviet-style succession apply: positioning on the dais at the Independence Day celebrations tomorrow will indicate much about the political layout of the country in the aftermath of Mr. Karimov’s incapacitation. In a political sense, Mr. Karimov is already dead; the announcement of his frailty to the public has already informed the key players that President Karimov will never return to hold the reins again. The power struggle in Tashkent has already begun. At this moment, alliances are being made and broken by those who think they have a chance to take the throne (or get closer to it).
This struggle is also the reason that Uzbekistan’s neighbours wait with baited breath to see what happens. Until a top dog emerges from this fight, Uzbekistan’s direction (and all the implications for its neighbours) is essentially unknown. For the past 25 years, Mr. Karimov has pursued a policy of strict dominance over the Fergana valley, a low-lying, densely populated region of Central Asia that Uzbekistan dominates and which it shares with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Fergana valley is Islamic, conservative, and ethnically mixed: Uzbeks form a majority in most of the valley, but in many cases this majority is slim and their lands are shared with Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Clashes over political, religious, and land rights in the Fergana often spiral into serious ethnic clashes; at various times, these clashes have claimed hundreds of lives and have involved regular army units from each of the three neighbouring nations which have committed serious human rights violations and war crimes.
Additionally, the Fergana is one of the world’s primary hubs for jihadist recruitment. In 1992, Tajikistan, the southernmost of the Fergana Valley states, erupted into a civil war between post-Soviet government forces and Islamic rebel groups. This war lasted until 1997 and was crippling to Tajikistan’s national infrastructure and economy; Uzbekistan, along with Russia, was heavily involved on the side of the government. The porous borders of the Fergana Valley allowed jihadist groups to transit the frontier relatively easily, leading to low-level clashes in the Uzbek Fergana, which, coincidentally, is also the home region of President Karimov. Since then, Uzbekistan has pursued a policy of strict border control in the Fergana, to the extent that government checkpoints and barriers have severed most of the trade routes between the three Fergana states and negatively affected the livelihoods of farmers and herders who relied on free passage across the frontiers to survive. Any loss of Uzbek control in the Fergana — particularly one in which the Uzbekistani military becomes distracted by matters elsewhere — could lead to a resurgence of jihadist or Islamist agitation that would be difficult to stamp out again.
The attack in Bishkek also further complicates matters. As with any political machinations in the former Soviet Union, the truth resembles a straight line from cause to effect far less than it resembles a spider’s web: intricately woven and tying many strands to one another. For now, it is enough to say that whoever committed the attack in Bishkek wanted the Chinese government to understand two things: the perpetrators could not only reach Chinese assets across Central Asia, but that they would also not take kindly to Chinese interference in the region in coming months. These facts alone are not enough to pin down a primary suspect – Islamists, Uzbekistani intelligence operatives, or ethnic separatists are all possible choices. In a limited sense, we should therefore recognize that this attack is proof that Uzbekistan’s future is tied inextricably to the future of its neighbours, and that whoever committed this attack timed it perfectly to grab the attention of the Chinese government.
Finally, we are also waiting for the positions of the region’s Great Powers to become clear. Russia and China have cooperated in recent years in Central Asia, integrating the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese-led One Belt, One Road (or “new Silk Road”) project into one massive infrastructure-spending project. Few real dividends have yet been paid. China is largely unable to find suitable investments to spend their money on, and Russia is running into problems getting their Customs Union and Currency Union off the ground. The fact remains unchanged that both Russia and China have much to fear from an unstable Central Asia. China’s primary concern is that any non-secular, non-autocratic unrest or revolution in the Central Asian states could negatively affect their control over their Uighur territories in Xinjiang province, which share a long, mountainous frontier with Kazakhstan. Russia, on the other hand, regards Central Asia in much the same way that the United States regards Latin America: instability and foreign intervention in the region are absolutely intolerable eventualities, and the state must go to any lengths to prevent their occurrence. Until Moscow has made clear its will – and rest assured that they are already doing so through back channels – few actors in the region will dare move independently; those who do are risking far more than those who wait.
Mr. Vandenberg is a Senior at American University, Washington, DC, USA, specializing in National Security and Foreign Policy issues in East Asia and the former Soviet Union. He makes his home in San Francisco, California. Follow him on Twitter @therealtvan
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