Written by Boyan Chukov; Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
In principle, there isn’t much talk about Uzbekistan in the world’s media, even though the country has a key position in Central Asia from a demographic and geographic point of view. Uzbekistan is constantly in the focus of serious experts observing events in Central Asia. The reason is the recent systematic “creeping in” of radical Islam in the region. News about terrorist activities in Central Asia is becoming more frequent. If the situation in Uzbekistan becomes destabilised, the country might turn into a “detonator” in the whole region and the Islamic State might cover all the neighboring countries, including Russia and China. Until now, the guarantor for stability in Uzbekistan was the President of the country, Islam Karimov. He is the founder of the Uzbek state. On 29 August 2016, the younger daughter of Islam Karimov, a UNESCO Ambassador, Lola Karimova-Tilyaeva, confirmed that her father had suffered a stroke. Five days later, it was announced that the President of Uzbekistan had passed away. Islam Abduganievich Karimov was buried on 3 September 2016 in the historic Shahi-Zinda graveyard in Samarkand, the city where he was born. His burial was attended by all, except his elder daughter Gulnara, who is under house arrest. No one had been buried in the Shahi-Zinda for the last 20 years. Islam Karimov was an exception. The name Shahi-Zinda translated means “a living tsar.”
From a geopolitical point of view, Uzbekistan is unique. To reach the global ocean from Uzbekistan’s territory, one must cross a minimum of two state borders of two countries. In the 70s of the last century, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan had the same number of citizens. Today however, Uzbekistan employs the most powerful army, the strongest security services in the region and has a population of 30 million. In a historical plan, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent have been historic centres of culture and science in Central Asia. Nearly all the noble families in the region have Uzbek roots. That is why they look at Kazaks, Tadjiks and Kirgises condescendingly. They were usually servants in the noble Uzbeks families. In all the countries neighbouring Uzbekistan, there is a considerable Uzbek diaspora. In Afghanistan, every tenth citizen is Uzbekistani. In the past and today, the Uzbek ethnicity is the impulse of Central Asia. The glorious history of the region is centred in Samarkand. In 1369, the city became the capital of the then Central Asian Empire led by Timur. The city experienced a golden century and became the architectural pearl of Central Asia, with palaces, astronomical observatories and Islamic colleges built by Timur and his successors. Today in Samarkand, every fifth citizen is a student. Besides the humanitarian higher institutions in Samarkand, the technical universities are recognised as very prestigious all over Asia. At the time of Stalin, the dissident scientific and technical intellectuals of the USSR were relocated mostly to Uzbekistan. This is one of the reasons for relocating the manufacturing of Soviet aircraft to Tashkent during World War II. Uzbekistan has at its disposal a highly technically-literate local staff. The country has its own engineering schools. They have a well-developed auto industry, which exports vehicles to neighboring countries. Islam Karimov tried to save the national aircraft manufacturing but did not succeed. However, Uzbekistan maintains a number of high-tech industries. It has its own military complex. Surprisingly for many people, Uzbekistan is far from being an “agrarian despotism with a poor population.” In the 90s of the last century, the Uzbeks managed to avoid the mass hooliganism, hunger and poverty typical for most in the post-Soviet space. The population of Uzbekistan at the time of Islam Karimov has always had bread and pilaf on its table.
During the time of the USSR, Russian was main language for communication in Uzbekistan. Islam Karimov learnt Uzbek fluently in adulthood. Like all the other big leaders of the USSR, the first part of his biography is not clear. There is no specific information about the nationality of Islam Karimov. There are four versions of this – Uzbek, Tadjik, Persian or Jew. In his official biography, he is described as an active and excellent student. The local rumours describe him as an uncontrollable hooligan and a poor student. As a child, he lived in an orphanage. The official work experience of Islam Abduganievich is clear. Before the age of 30, he was a mechanical engineer, he then specialised in economics, defended his dissertation and started ruling the Ministry of Finance in UzSSR and later the republican Gosplan (State Planning Department). In 1989, Islam Karimov became the First Secretary of the Central Committee of Uzbekistan. From this moment, his dual personality came to the forefront. To speak about “dualism” is too theoretical and philosophical. To say “hypocrisy” is too rude and incorrect. In the turbulent years after the collapse of the USSR, Islam Karimov held the power in Uzbekistan and managed to lead the country at the time with minimal damage from the stormy events in the region. He was the most multifaceted leader in the post-Soviet space. There is no one like him. Islam Abduganievich is a democratic dictator, ruthless savior, conservative modernist, secular Islamist. He is a friend of Russia against the United States; a friend of the United States against Russia. Uzbekistan periodically drifts towards the West and the USA. He leaves unions loyal to Moscow, like the Organisation for the Agreement for Collective Security and joins unfriendly organisations, such as GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaidjan, Moldova), but this joining of Tashkent has always had a temporary character and has never been “active.” Uzbekistan has always come back to Moscow’s orbit. Unlike the neighbouring Tajikistan, the pressure on the ethnic Russians in Uzbekistan has always been softer, which doesn’t mean that there has been no pressure or that it’s not there now. It is not by chance that periodically, in the information space, news appears about consultations between Moscow and Tashkent for including Uzbekistan in the Eurasia Economic Society.
Islam Karimov knows the powerful Uzbek clans, the family connections, perfectly. In Uzbekistan, the clans play a key role. The country is extremely complicated in ethnic and confessional terms, as Islam exists in the country in many varieties. But Islam Karimov was the factor for stability. In Uzbekistan, there is a traditional “division of labour” between the regional clans. An Uzbek proverb says: “the one from Samarkant rules, the one from Tashkent counts the money, and the one from Fergan prays.” This proverb highlights the special role of Islam in the valley of Fergan. The key spiritual persons in Uzbekistan traditionally come from the Fergan valley. In the post-Soviet evolution, the power has been taken by the clan from Samarkant, from where Islam Karimov comes. The clan from Tashkent controls the economy of the country. The clan from Fergan traditionally uses the threat of Islamic terrorism as a way of increasing its influence.
Throughout his life, Islam Karimov has had incredible intuition, which has never tricked him. He is extremely flexible. At the referendum for keeping the USSR, Uzbekistan voted 93.7% for it, with 95.4% participation. After the failure of the GKCP (the attempt for a coup d’etat in Moscow on 18 – 21 August 1991), Islam Karimov was the first one to start talking about the independence of the republic. He had a referendum: 98% of the Uzbeks voted for independence. It’s not surprising that Islam Abduganievich won the first presidential elections with a killing result of 86% of the votes in his favour. At the last presidential elections in 2015, he received 90% of the votes. Islam Karimov managed to avoid the sharpening of the inter-ethnic conflicts in the country, unlike Tajikistan and Kirgizstan. After the collapse of the USSR, Uzbekistan played an important political role in Central Asia. In 1992, during the civil war in Tajikistan, Islam Karimov sent a military contingent of 50 000 for “restoration of the constitutional structure.” The Uzbek President cut off the activities of the Islamists in the region. In 1999, during the events in Batkin, he provided military help to Kirgizstan in the fight against the armed groups of Islamic radicals in Tajikistan.
In the beginning of 2000, Islam Karimov got closer with Washington and Brussels as an ally in the fight against terrorism. In the early stage of the USA’s military operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Hanabad airport close to the city of Karshi was given to the Americans as a military air base. Karshi is a city in Uzbekistan and an administrative centre of the district of Kashkadarin. The city is situated about 520 kilometres (km) south-east of the capital of the country, Tashkent, and about 335 km from the Afghanistan border. In May 2005, mass riots started in the city of Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan. According to the official version, fighters of the illegal Islamist sect, “Akramia,” attacked the prison, the police, military units, the special services and took over buildings in the district administration. On the same day, the riot was contained by the army. According to data from the Uzbekistani judiciary, 187 people died. Over 100 participants in the events in Andijan were sentenced to 10 and 20 years. At that time, Islam Karimov, like Reccep Erdogan now, suspected that the Americans were conspirators and organisers of the riots. The Uzbek authorities, after 2005, closed the offices of the international NGOs and the judicial organs went after the paid human rights activists and dissidents. In 1998, in Uzbekistan, all unregistered religious activities were banned. In 2005, Tashkent sharply changed its external political course. It decided to close the American military base in Karshi. Islam Karimov has never been afraid of radical decisions. In 2004, the British Ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, stated in a conference in the capital of the republic: “Uzbekistan is not a democracy and it does not show signs for evolution in the democratic direction. The major political parties are banned. The Parliament has not been elected democratically. There is no balance of the powers. Even worse, we believe that between 7 000 and 10 000 people are imprisoned and we believe that they are political or religious prisoners. In many cases, they have been unjustly accused of crimes for which there is no proof.” For this speech, the British Ambassador was immediately kicked out of Uzbekistan.
After 2005, Tashkent got closer to Moscow and Beijing. In 2006, Uzbekistan renewed its membership in the Organisation for Collective Security, which he left again in 2012. Islam Karimov has always played on the confrontations between Moscow and Washington. He built relationships with China, South Korea, Turkey, India – led only by the economic and political interests of Uzbekistan. Regardless of this, Tashkent never entered any western unions and organisations. Islam Karimov has always had good relations with Russia, but the true love of Islam Karimov from Soviet times was China. This is not only a question of strategic interests. Islam Karimov simply loves China: a powerful modern country, modernised, absolutely social, with authoritarian rule and super-successful. That’s how Islam Karimov wants to see his fatherland. The first state leader who spoke at the Uzbek Medjlis is Xi Jinping. Islam Karimov was a welcome guest in Beijing, but the only alternative left today for Islam’s legacy is Islamism. A great part of the Uzbek elite, however, does not want change. It wants stability in the country.
Uzbekistan takes first place among CIS states in the number of labour immigrants to the Russian Federation. According to official data, in January 2016 there were 1.88 million Uzbek citizens on the Russian territory. Remittances from Uzbek guest workers make up 12% of the republic’s GDP. The Russian Federation is Uzbekistan’s number one economic partner. Tashkent is the fourth trade partner of Moscow among CIS countries, after Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakstan. Russia is Uzbekistan’s largest investment partner. In recent years, Russian firms have invested over US$6 billion dollars in the Uzbek economy. In 2015, the volume of Russian investments reached over US$1.236 billion. According to data from the Ministry of the Economy of Uzbekistan, in 2015, the republic took 11th position in the world in oil production, third place in exports and sixth place in cotton production. The change in the structure of exports and the shift from cotton production to energy took place during Islam Karimov’s time. Cotton’s share fell from 60% to 8%. The structure of export in Uzbekistan in 2015 was as follows: energy and petroleum products – 25.9%; food – 10.2%; ferrous and non-ferrous metals – 6.4%; cotton – 5.7%; consumer goods – 12.8%. Imports in 2015 were as follows: machines and equipment – 40.5%; products of the chemical industry – 17%; consumer goods – 12.8%.
The person who takes over the presidential post of Islam Karimov is of utmost importance. The special services in Uzbekistan are extremely powerful. They are led by the influential head of the Service for National Security, Colonel-General Rustan Inoyatov. He had worked for the KGB of the UzSSR and the FMD of the KGB (intelligence). He had worked in Afghanistan under cover as a member of the Soviet residency. He is one of eight Uzbek officials on the EU blacklist. In reality, at present, the stability in Uzbekistan depends mostly on Rustan Inoyatov. He managed to block the power ambitions of the Islam Karimov’s two daughters a few years ago, which demonstrates the degree of influence of the powerhouse in Uzbekistan. A favourite in the fight for the presidential chair in Tashkent is the Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyaev, who is also from the society of the special services. The other favourite is the Vice Prime Minister, Rustam Azimov, who is an Oxford graduate. It’s quite possible for Rustam Inoyatov and his supporters to choose the Algerian plot – the ruling power group in the country to lead in reality under the name of a civil president. In three months’ time, there will be presidential elections in Uzbekistan and the picture will finally clear up. Shavkat Mirziyaev, under the old Soviet tradition, was “appointed” to organise the funeral of the dear leader. Andropov buried Brezhnev. Chernenko buried Andropov. Gorbachov buried Chernenko…
Why is the death of Islam Karimov more important than the presidential elections in the USA? Why are the “specialists” complaining that the official death of the Uzbek president was delayed by a few days, but accept as a norm the political show of the presidential elections in the USA? There are two types of attitudes towards the power and its bearers – eastern and traditional; western and post-modern. In the first case, the attitude to power is sacred. The leader bears full and personal responsibility for the fate of the nation. The death of Islam Karimov, regardless of what kind of leader he had been, is not simply a shift in the face of the presidential chair, but the disappearance of the person responsible for the country. This calls for a reconsideration of the powerline as a whole, and while this has not taken place, the death of the leader must not be announced because it will create a vacuum in the power. It is probably more correct to make it fast and to avoid delays, but this method is not a whim or wildness but a justified necessity deriving from the traditional understanding of a leader. Islam Karimov was the power and his death is significant as the power in Uzbekistan was sacred. That’s why the people wept on Saturday, as they carried the body of Islam Karimov from Shahi-Zinda in Samarkant.