Uzbekistan plunged into uncertainty by death of dictator Islam Karimov

Strongman leader of central Asias most populous country has no official successor

Uzbekistans veteran dictator, Islam Karimov, has died, leaving central Asias most populous country in a state of turmoil and political uncertainty.

Turkeys prime minister, Binali Yldrm, announced the news in a televised meeting with his cabinet, declaring: May Gods mercy be upon him. The announcement confirmed speculation that Karimov had suffered a fatal stroke earlier this week.

The Uzbek government did not confirm the reports at first but played funeral music on state channels. Later on Friday the government eventually released a statement saying the 78-year-old president had died.

According to the government Karimovs funeral would take place on Saturday in his home town of Samarkand, where his mother and two brothers are buried. Photos showed frantic preparations at the citys cemetery, with workers and diggers brought in to clear up the historic site.

Ambassadors in the capital, Tashkent, were told to turn up on Saturday morning at the railway station. Samarkands airport was shut to non-official traffic.


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Uzbek workers clean an area of the central cemetery in Samarkand in photographs posted by the central Asian news website Photograph: AP

Russias president, Vladimir Putin, called Karimovs death a great loss for the people of Uzbekistan while Russias prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is to attend the funeral.

The Tajikpresident, Emomali Rahmon, confirmed he will attend while Turkmenistans president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, was also reported to be planning to attend.

Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan all former Soviet states said they would be sending delegations headed by their prime ministers.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, who appointed Karimov in 1989, told the Interfax news agency that Karimov was a competent man with a strong character.

Karimov has no official successor. The most likely candidate to replace him appears to be Uzbekistans long-time prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Mirziyoyev is believed to enjoy support from Uzbekistans powerful intelligence chief, Rustam Inoyatov. A classified 2008 US diplomatic cable said Inoyatov had sufficient compromising information on Mirziyoyev to ensure his own interests are protected. Another contender is the finance minister and deputy PM, Rustam Azimov.

There were few official clues as to how Uzbekistans new leader may be picked. All week the state media has refused to comment on rumours that Karimov who had been in hospital since Sunday had suffered a brain haemorrhage. His daughter Lola broke the news on Instagram.

It is widely assumed that the countrys elites will agree a new president, with their own economic and business interests paramount. Mirziyoyev has flown to Samarkand to take charge of funeral arrangements, putting him in pole position.

Uzbekistan map

There is little prospect that the country of 31 million will democratise, after a quarter of a century characterised by repression, the boiling of prisoners and unflinching authoritarian rule. Even by the standards of the region, Karimov treated manifestations of dissent harshly.

In 2005 his troops shot dead hundreds of protesters in Andijan. The massacre led to a breakdown in relations with Washington, which had previously seen Uzbekistan as a strategic partner in the war against terrorism. Ties between Washington and Tashkent cautiously improved after 2007. Uzbekistan has been an important supply hub for the US-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Cultural, economic and political ties with Moscow have been close but at the same time Karimov often regarded the Kremlins intentions with suspicion. According to US diplomats, he bitterly criticised Russian attempts to carve out a sphere of influence in its near abroad and bristled at what he perceived as Russian Slavic condescension.

Uzbek opposition bloggers said the authorities appeared to be cracking down on communications channels. Internet speeds had slowed, with government officials told to switch off their phones, they said.


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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Karimov at Uzbek independence day celebrations in 2014. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Its like the dark days of Kremlinology. Well have to see who is standing where and who says what at the funeral, said Deirdre Tynan, central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group, based in Bishkek in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

If it goes to plan it will be as smooth as it was with Berdymukhamedov, Tynan added, referring to the president of Turkmenistan. The former dentist and minister of health took over from the longstanding dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, after the latters death in 2006, and went about establishing a personality cult every bit as overblown as that of his predecessor. However, few people have insight into the real tensions in the opaque nations inner circle.

Just because we cant see it doesnt mean that there hasnt been a lot of tension and horse-trading behind closed doors, Tynan said.

Nothing is known about the current whereabouts of Karimovs older daughter, Gulnara Karimova. For a long time she was considered a potential successor to her father and was a highly public figure, launching a fashion brand and a music career under the name Googoosha. She even released a bizarre love duet with Grard Depardieu.

In 2014 Karimovas son, Islam Karimov Jr, who was studying at Oxford Brookes University, told the Guardian he feared for his mothers life, and revealed an extraordinary feud brewing in the first family.

He explained how he and his mother had been kept from visiting his grandfather, the president, by armed guards, and that when they finally did get an audience there was a showdown involving the president, his wife, and their daughter. Shortly afterwards Karimova was placed under house arrest and nothing has been known of her whereabouts since.

As well as the internal situation, regional analysts say it is worth watching the situation on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Many ethnic Uzbeks live in southern Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic violence in 2010 led to more than 400 deaths. The situation on the border remains tense and in the past fortnight a standoff has developed over a disputed section of the border, with four Kyrgyz nationals detained and currently held in Uzbek jails. Kyrgyz officials fear any new Uzbek president might see the ethnic card as a good way to rally the nation.

Uzbekistan is a clannish, ethnically diverse country with regions that were rival khanates for centuries and still have conflict potential, Tynan wrote this week, giving the example of separatist tendencies in the north-west Karakalpakstan region.

The densely populated Ferghana valley is haunted by the legacy of [the] 2005 government crackdown Incomes across the country have declined in the past year and mass arrests of alleged Islamic extremists have contributed to a sense of fear and distrust, she said.

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