MOSCOW — Three days after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, the condition of Uzbekistan’s president remained unclear Tuesday amid conflicting reports on the 78-year-old strongman who has ruled with an authoritarian grip for a quarter-century.
Islam Karimov has not been seen in public or on state television since Saturday. In a Facebook post Monday, his daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, said that his condition was stable but that “it is too early to make any predictions about his future health.”
Since then, Uzbek officials have remained silent about his health, despite a report on an influential independent news website that Karimov had died Monday at 3:35 p.m. Tashkent time. The website, Fergana.ru, correctly reported Sunday that Karimov had been hospitalized hours before the government released a cryptic statement saying only that Karimov was in the hospital for unspecified treatment. In both cases, the website cited anonymous sources.
Karimov had been expected to appear publicly this Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union. His absence from the planned celebrations may have forced Uzbek authorities to go public about his illness, analysts said, and the festivities could serve as a stage for Uzbekistan’s first transition of power.
Later Tuesday, Uzbek officials said a concert — usually attended by Karimov and other heads of state — had been canceled.
Karimov, who has ruled with an opaque clique of relatives, senior politicians and security officials, has long been rumored to be in poor health, and personal information is tightly guarded. Russian state news agencies reported that Karimov was alive and in “stable” condition, citing anonymous sources in Karimov’s administration.
In a Facebook post, Daniil Kislov, the editor of Fergana.ru, said that the “best denial” of Karimov’s death would be to “show him alive.”
“This period reminds me very much of the times of Stalin and Brezhnev, when the real date of death was announced only several days later,” Nadejda Atayeva, head of the opposition-leaning Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in a telephone interview from Paris.
Karimov has not named a successor — at least publicly. If he dies, the head of Uzbekistan’s Senate would run the country for three months until new elections.
If elections are held, the new president is expected to come from Karimov’s inner circle.
The favorite is Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country’s prime minister, Kislov said in an interview, noting Mirziyoyev’s friendly relations with Karimov’s wife, Tatyana Karimova, and with National Security Council chief Rustam Inoyatov, a likely kingmaker in any succession struggle.
Another possible successor is Uzbekistan’s finance minister, Rustam Azimov, an adviser to Karimov on economic and international policy. Azimov has regularly appeared at Karimov’s side in meetings with foreign officials.
“That shows a high level of trust in Azimov,” said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political scientist in exile who formerly worked in Tashkent’s Institute of Strategic Studies. “They called him ‘papa’s favorite.’ Papa is Karimov.”
Azimov, who has more experience with politics and politicians from outside Uzbekistan, comes from a political clan based in Tashkent, while Mirziyoyev is backed by powerful interests from the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand. But there is little reason to expect that either would radically change Uzbekistan’s internal politics, Rabbimov said.
“Authoritarianism will remain in Uzbekistan for the time being, and I think for a long time,” he said, noting that all the possible successors have played a role in Karimov’s rule. “They think that these methods are the only way to maintain the stability and the integrity of Uzbekistan’s government.”
Uzbekistan’s Finance Ministry denied rumors that Azimov was arrested Monday. It is likely that all sides have a shared interest in avoiding open conflict, wrote Deirdre Tynan of the International Crisis Group.
“All these players will want a smooth handover, with no dirty linen aired in public,” she said. “If they manage to avoid infighting, they are expected to manage the stakeholders and patrons who make up an opaque system of governance and privilege.”
Less likely to take power are members of Karimov’s family.
The younger of his two daughters, Karimova-Tillyaeva, the nation’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, has not expressed interest in the position. His elder daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who once dominated the business world in Uzbekistan and released glossy pop anthems under her stage name, Googoosha, was seen as a likely successor until she was named in an international corruption probe that reported she took hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes. She fell out of favor and has reportedly been under house arrest by Uzbek security forces since 2014.