On Sept. 2, Uzbekistan state television officially announced President Islam Karimov had died, after several days of rumors of his passing. Concerns and speculations that his death might create instability within this landlocked, predominantly Sunni Muslim country in Central Asia — and create a power vacuum in the region — may be unfounded.
Uzbekistan emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 as an independent state but could not escape its social, political and economic legacies. The most critical of these was perhaps Karimov himself. He was a Communist Party stalwart and devotee of the Soviet system who became the first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989 and served as the country’s first and only president. The official announcement of his death came several days after an alleged brain hemorrhage and widespread rumors at home and abroad that he had died.
Uzbekistan is central to stability in the region
A violent transition of power would have ripple effects throughout Central Asia and possibly beyond its borders. Uzbekistan is essential to the region’s political stability and economic integration. The country has the largest population in Central Asia and also the youngest on average: Roughly half of Uzbekistan’s 30 million-plus citizens are under 25 years of age.
Uzbekistan has been an attractive recruiting ground for radical Islamist groups, in part because of the young population and state repression. To date, it has experienced more terrorist attacks than any other country in Central Asia (except Tajikistan during its five-year civil war) and contributed more jihadists to foreign conflicts, such as the one in Syria. Karimov used the country’s large and well-equipped military to brutally repress domestic opposition, as well as routinely intervene in the affairs of neighboring countries, especially Kyrgyzstan.
Many analysts have expressed concern that a breakdown of political order in Uzbekistan would invite renewed attempts by Islamists to seize control. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan declared their intention to create an Islamic state in the region long ago and by some accounts have recently renewed this goal.
Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s largest market
A protracted or unruly succession struggle could also have serious economic implications throughout the region.
Uzbekistan is a critical access hub for the region’s main trading partners — Russia and China. Oil and gas pipelines to both Russia and China run through the country. Uzbekistan itself is an important supplier of energy within the region. It is a main source of electricity for several other Central Asian states as well as Afghanistan.
Because it borders all other Central Asian states and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan plays a key role in maintaining transit routes among the Central Asian states, though Karimov often erected trade barriers to insulate his state-dominated economy from the effects of market reform. Karimov had also resisted joining regional trade organizations spearheaded by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who would like closer relations with Uzbekistan to increase his influence over the entire region.
Many of these transit routes have been used for illicit purposes, so a primary concern among international organizations and foreign governments alike is that chaos in Uzbekistan would enable drug smugglers to accelerate the flow of opium from Afghanistan to Russia.
Violence and chaos are unlikely
Concerns about a power vacuum after Karimov’s death are based on the presumed absence of either an anointed successor or clear plan for succession. But because Karimov intended to remain in office until his natural demise, choosing a clear successor might have encouraged an assassination attempt or internal coup.
His daughter Gulnara Karimova attempted to solidify a position as heir apparent, engaging in informal political battles with other contenders for the throne. When she pursued illegitimate international business deals, Karimov cracked down swiftly. He placed his daughter under house arrest in 2014, which ended any chance of hereditary succession.
Interestingly, about four years before Gulnara’s fall from grace, Karimov had publicly acknowledged his own mortality and outlined a succession plan, perhaps with a successor in mind.
Thus far it appears that there was indeed a succession plan in place. According to revisions introduced in December 2010, Uzbekistan’s constitution calls for the chairman of the Senate to become acting head of state until new presidential elections are held. These elections will not be fair or free; no electoral outcome in Uzbekistan has ever been uncertain and there is no reason to expect this to change. Rather, the winner will be determined well in advance via informal negotiation among a small group of elites representing key institutions, including the military and internal security services.
The delay in pronouncing Karimov officially deceased suggests that such negotiations were taking place last week. Secrecy thus far should be viewed as a sign of elite unity — not internal division. After all, one of the hallmarks of Karimov’s rule — lasting more than 25 years — was the establishment of a clear hierarchy to maintain political order through an opaque decision-making process.
A smooth succession is likely
Like his Soviet predecessors, Karimov built a political system for the benefit of elites. Stability will thus ensure the continued prosperity of elites rather than, as the Russian president has professed, “the prosperity [of the Uzbek] nation.” Three principles suggest there will be few changes in the regime after Karimov’s death, as the system is self-reinforcing:
1) Regime loyalty dictates access to the country’s limited natural resources (cotton, gold, uranium and gas) from which to generate rents. Elites have a vested interest, therefore, in maintaining the status quo; a reshuffling of political power will mean a loss of economic power.
2) Regime loyalty is subject to intra-elite policing. So Uzbekistan’s elites have a huge disincentive not to accept whomever is anointed the new president. Anyone who refuses to support Karimov’s successor is likely to be purged.
3) Elites in Uzbekistan do not rely on popular support for political power, and so do not invest in building linkages with society. Even though a majority of Uzbek citizens may want regime change, the country’s elites are largely incapable of mobilizing mass opposition against the incumbent regime.
Moreover, the Karimov regime has ensured that mass mobilization from below will not be an effective tool for regime change. The government systematically eliminated independent social and political organizations, but also reacted swiftly and harshly to any signs of popular dissent.
Karimov made freedom of expression (including religious expression) a crime punishable by arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution. As a result, Uzbekistan has one of the worst human rights records in the world. This may prove to be Karimov’s most enduring legacy — and one that is likely to take generations to overcome. In the meantime, Uzbekistan without Karimov will look very much like Uzbekistan with Karimov.
Pauline Jones is professor of political science and director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan.