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There is little doubt that Uzbek President Islam Karimov will win Sunday’s presidential election—a vote in which Uzbek citizens are given no real choice. The three other candidates are insignificant politicians who pose no challenge to Karimov, a man who has ruled the country since 1989. His success at staying in power for so long is due to active state policies since the 1990s to prevent any viable alternatives from developing. This includes repeated constitutional changes to overcome the constitutional bar against serving more than two presidential terms, decimating the political opposition, tightly controlling all media space, and building a strong security apparatus. Karimov justifies these tactics both inside and outside the country as necessary to guarantee stability in a region that has seen more than its fair share of violence over the past twenty five years. To his credit, Karimov has ensured stability on his watch, albeit at high costs to civil society and at the price of uncertainty after he departs the scene. The real question looming over this election is not who wins, but what will happen to Uzbekistan after Karimov leaves power. He is 77 years old, reportedly suffers from health problems, and is the only political leader Uzbeks under the age of 35 have ever really known.
The Uzbek constitution mandates that if the President dies or becomes incapacitated, executive power should be transferred to the head of Uzbekistan’s Senate for three months until a new election is held. However, formal Uzbek political institutions are weak, as is the head of the Senate. While the letter of the constitution is likely to be observed to provide a veneer of legitimacy, the real succession process will be decided in a closed-door bargain negotiated by the real power brokers of Uzbekistan—the political elite comprising heads of its major clans, security apparatus, and most powerful ministries. Their ability to reach a compromise will be essential to ensure a smooth succession.
Instead of Western-style politics based on institutions of state and society, the governing structures in Uzbekistan are based on a careful interplay of personalities and the interest groups they represent. For the past quarter-century, the Karimov family, supported by the security services, has been at the top of the Uzbek political structure and played the role of the arbiter among the elites below it. These elites preside over vast economic, bureaucratic, and commercial interests with Karimov traditionally balancing among competing factions—similar to his more famous Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The unity of the elite behind him is one of the reasons Karimov has been able to rule with an iron fist for so long; it also stands in contrast to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where elites have been much more fragmented, allowing for greater manifestations of democratic governance, but also leading to bouts of instability.
How long this elite consensus will last in Uzbekistan remains unclear. The opaque nature of the Karimov regime, exacerbated by the lack of media freedom in the country, means that few on the outside have a good sense of the changing dynamics of political and economic power. Karimov disappeared for three weeks earlier this year, reinvigorating rumors that that he is ill and feeble. However, unlike when Putin vanished for 10 days, nobody in the West seemed to notice or care about Karimov’s absence even though Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia, has the region’s most capable military, and borders Afghanistan. Given its size, geographic location, and regional influence, instability in Uzbekistan—at a time when the United States is drawing down from Afghanistan and Russia is flexing its muscles in Eurasia—would have broader repercussions.
Events in Uzbekistan over the past year give us some clues that not all is well under the surface of Uzbek politics. President Karimov’s older daughter Gulnara Karimova, once the most powerful woman in Central Asia and believed to be a possible successor to her father, has seen her vast and reportedly ill-gotten economic empire dismantled, found herself under house arrest, and is under investigation for corruption in Uzbekistan and Europe, although no charges have yet been filed. She allegedly pocketed over $1 billion from telecommunications companies—a sector of the Uzbek economy she effectively controlled until recently, according to a March 2015 exposé by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Uzbek prosecutors now are pursuing her allies and employees on suspicion of large-scale tax evasion and corruption, an indication that her faction has been severely weakened.
Some, including Karimova herself, see her fall as part of succession struggle with powerful security chief Rustam Inoyatov, whom she accused of turning her father against her. The security services will certainly be a player in the succession process. Other contenders to succeed Karimov include the Finance Minister and Prime Minister, both little-known outside Uzbekistan. There could even be others. Given the opacity of the political system, it is difficult to ascertain the true state of intra-elite politics—the only politics that matter in Uzbekistan. But, the intrigue surrounding Gulnara Karimova suggests Uzbekistan could be less stable than many believe, particularly once her father leaves the scene. The potential for elite infighting will depend largely on whether elites come to consensus about how to reallocate political and economic resources. So far, it has been a messy process.
The Uzbek economy—still a top-down command economy—is struggling and suffers from high-levels of corruption. The country’s economic statistics are unreliable, although its economy is probably insulated from regional downturns. It is not dependent on fluctuating oil prices. But global prices for the two main drivers of its economy—cotton and gold—are down as well. Karimov has talked about the need to open up the economy to greater entrepreneurship and foreign investment, but any reform would mandate fighting corruption and creating greater transparency in the legal system—two moves that could undermine the informal power structures of the country.
More economic trouble could begin to hit the country from Russia—a country where at least three million Uzbek citizens work as migrant laborers, according to official Russian government statistics. The true number is likely much higher. Meanwhile, much of the population remaining in Uzbekistan is impoverished with many relying on remittances from Russia to maintain a quality standard of living. Those remittances—officially about 12% of GDP—have fallen in recent months as the Russian economy slowed under the pressure of sanctions and falling oil prices. If this trend continues, it could add to socio-economic grievances arising from below at a time of political uncertainty at the top.
The policies of the Karimov government, combined with the lack of a tradition of civil society participation in the Western sense, has guaranteed that Uzbek civil society remained weak and unable to influence politics in any serious way. Although extremist threats certainly do exist, one of the ways the government quashes alternative viewpoints is to exaggerate the danger of Islamic radicalism to the country. This has led the Karimov state to actively suppress popular Islamic and other movements in the country, often with brutal violence. Doing so, however, is a double-edge sword. The inability of secular or religious civil society to participate in any sort of public discourse and voice concerns about how the country is governed means that dissent goes underground. There is always the risk that socio-economic or religious dissent—or a combination of both—could break out at a time of political or economic change. One person who could have played a role in ensuring stability among the population at large during a political transition was Muhammad-Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, the most prominent and respected religious scholar in the country, who died of a heart attack earlier this month. He was a man who opposed violence and advocated for an evolutionary approach toward changing the state. His death, which led to thousands of mourners turning out for his funeral, will deprive Uzbekistan of an important voice at a time of potential uncertainty.
Finally, regional power dynamics in Central Asia are beginning to shift. Uzbekistan has had troubled relations with several neighbors—all of which have minority Uzbek populations. Instability in Tashkent could easily have fallout elsewhere in the region, particularly in the already weak states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan, the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, is probably less vulnerable, but it too could have a succession crisis on the horizon. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, aged 74, who like Karimov has been in power since the Soviet era and also is rumored to be ill, is running for re-election next month. There too the unspoken issue in the election is who will follow him.
With the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan will continue to play an important role in that country over the long term because of its geographical location as Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, its concerns about extremism spilling over the border, its capable security apparatus, and its long-standing commercial and political ties with key power players in the region.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has unnerved Central Asian leaders, Karimov included. Nonetheless, a Ukraine scenario is unlikely in Uzbekistan. Russia lacks borders with the country and only about 5% of Uzbekistan’s population is now ethnically Russian. However, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine make clear that it seeks to influence the internal affairs of its neighbors, particularly during times of political transition from one leader to another. Moscow will certainly be watching who follows Karimov and will seek to influence the process through both covert and overt means. It probably already is.
The United States has a checkered history of engagement with the region. For years, we paid too little attention to Uzbekistan and its neighbors. We criticized Uzbekistan’s human rights record when we thought we did not need the country, but later hugged it tightly, ignoring this dismal record when we thought the country was a key link in supporting our military efforts in Afghanistan. This history, combined with our decision to refocus our attention away from South and Central Asia to other hotspots, undercuts our leverage and ability to influence the upcoming succession in Uzbekistan, particularly compared to other major players—Russia and China. Their physical and economic presence in the region is much greater than ours. Nonetheless, we should use what tools we have after this election to signal our desire to be a useful partner that is interested in dialogue with a broad range of Uzbek elites about the country’s economic and geopolitical security. We also should make clear that we will be critical of the country’s human rights and reform records, but that we value the relationship, want the country to succeed, and will work with whomever gets propelled to the top of the eventual succession process.
Finally, for all his shortfalls in the eyes of the West, Karimov has managed foreign affairs quite well; he has excelled at balancing relationships between the three international players that count in Central Asia—the U.S., Russia, and China. A recent example of this is the January announcement of the transfer of excess military hardware from the U.S. to Uzbekistan, including 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, as part of the U.S’s Excess Defense Articles Program. Only a month earlier, Karimov secured almost a billion dollars in debt forgiveness from Russia, even as he resists overtures for Eurasian Union membership. Meanwhile, Karimov traveled to Beijing late last summer, where he agreed to develop a strategic partnership with China and signed trade deals worth $6 billion. Will Karimov’s successor have the skills to continue this balance? The answer is not clear.
Policymakers in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, not to mention the capital cities of Uzbekistan’s neighbors, do not need to watch this weekend’s election carefully; the results are preordained. However, they should begin planning for what comes after Karimov.
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