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Political Possibilities following Islom Karimov’s Hospitalization

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Sometime during the morning of August 28, Islom Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, was taken to Toshkent General Hospital for necessary medical care, the nature of which is not currently known. Known popularly as “Islom Amaki”, or ‘Uncle Islom’, President Karimov has been the sole ruler of Uzbekistan since he came to power in June 1989 during the breakdown of societal and international order as the Soviet Union imploded. The nation looks on in shock and terror, not out of surprise — Mr. Karimov was born in 1938 and spent most of his life in the less than salubrious conditions of Soviet factories, making some health problems look almost inevitable — but because over between 60 and 70 percent of the population has never lived when Uzbekistan was not ruled by the firm hand of the Karimov government; his ill-health raises the specter of death, which in turn opens political possibilities that Uzbekistan may slip into a political ether full of unknown terrors. Those citizens older than 30 who do have at least some memories of governments not led by Mr. Karimov may be even more anxious than the nation’s youth, precisely because they do not have to depend on imagination to conceive of an Uzbekistani political order sans Mr. Karimov.

During the late 1980s, Uzbekistan — then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, or UzSSR — was not a substantially different polity than its neighbors. While the reality of Uzbekistan as a stable and secure republic by the time the majority of the population reached adulthood, the older generations left the Soviet system not knowing the future path of their nation. To this group, Uzbekistan could have just as easily devolved into regional civil war, as did Tajikistan, or seen the intensification of poverty lead to ethnic warfare, as in the Kyrgyz Republic, or watched as formerly collectivized wealth became dominated by a entrenched elite, as in Kazakhstan. Another historical memory also looms large in the imaginations of many older Uzbekistan, that of the early 1990s, and the ensuing chaos. In was during this period, when the government was incapable of paying salaries or collecting taxes, and mass abstenteeism boomed alongside informal markets, that the worst atrocities were committed. The horror stories associated with the Karimov regime did not come from a period of strength, but when the state collapsed and strongman did as they pleased. In was during this period of state collapse, a Karimov-less gap in Uzbekistani history, that the regional President of Qoraqalpog’iston had an opposition protested tortured to death by dunking him in boiling water, that police-officers and government officials were shot or stabbed by radical Islamists, that up-and-coming professionals were beaten to death and their property seized, that the medieval pits prisoners of Buxoro (think The Dark Knight Rises) were rumoured to have been reopened. The illness of Uzbekistan’s sole leader threatens to lead Uzbekistan off of its own unique path, and into a darker past. This is not to say that Uzbekistan is not a deeply flawed country, rather its continuation of many aspects of the Soviet system has left it with an overbearing security apparatus accustomed to excessive force, profound corruption at all levels of society, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association in the name of public order, but that their are worse alternatives, and, in this time of ignorance, about the future those alternatives loom large.

For now Islom Karimov lives, and likely will continue to live and govern. This makes looking into his legacy, the successes and faults of his administration, his character and relationships with those around him, inappropriate. Rather I will take this opportunity to predict a number of possible futures for Uzbekistani politics should President Karimov die or become too ill to fulfill his duties.

Islom Karimov’s illness has not come during a period of standard politics, being announced instead only days before the 25th Anniversary of Uzbekistani independence, which will take place on 1 September to massive official celebrations and fanfare. The preparations for the celebrations, presumably undertaken by the Minister of Culture, Mr. Axmedov, have been accompanied by massive security preparations to make sure that the festivities are not spoiled by any acts of violence. The dynamics of the mobilization for these celebrations have placed some figures in relatively more powerful positions, while simultaneously degrading the relative position of other actors. The agencies primarily empowered by the intensified security environment are the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the National Security Service (referred to later by the acronym MXX, based on its Uzbek name Milliy Xavfsizlik Xizmati), the successor to the KGB that is technically subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, but operates with enough independence that it can considered a largely autonomous actor. Borders with neighboring countries have been closed down since 22 August, with foreigners allowed to leave but not enter Uzbekistan. The increased security demanded by the border closure has prompted Maj. Gen. Rustam Eminjanov, the Commander of the Border Forces and a Deputy Director of the MXX, to deploy additional forces and seize the strategic Ungar-Too mountain along a disputed border with the Kyrgyz Republic. This means that the Border Forces in particular, and the MXX in general, are more ready and alert than other branches of the security forces. An internal security cordon has also been constructed around Toshkent City, where the primary celebrations will take place, and there are rumours of other internal roadblocks and security measures. These aspects of securitization are being directed nationally by Tursunpulat Tashpulatov, the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and former criminal investigator in Toshkent City, who has conducted raids and otherwise intensified law enforcement activity and readiness throughout the country and especially in the capital. Although it is important to avoid exaggerating or exoticising the rivalry between Uzbekistani security agencies, there is very real competition between the MXX, the larger Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense, for funding and career opportunities. The unique security situation currently in place in Uzbekistan has left the Ministry of Defense in a much weaker position of readiness than its institutional rivals, allowing the MXX and Ministry of Internal Affairs a much stronger hand in determining the future of country should they decide to intervene in otherwise civilian politics.

The men empowered by the present security situation are, if anything, even more important to understand as how they use the greater relative power endowed by circumstances will ultimately determine the national future. First and foremost among these men — despite the continuation of Soviet attitudes and policies which generally support the political and professional ambitions of women, they are all men — is Mr. Tashpulatov, the effective security tsar responsible for the safety of the anniversary celebrations and therefore in effective administrative control of all police forces and security battalions nation-wide. Mr. Tashpulatov has risen quickly in the ranks over the past few years after distinguishing himself as exceptionally capable, being promoted directly from a second-tier regional position as head of criminal investigation for the City of Toshkent to First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, responsible for crime-fighting nationally and right-hand man of the Minister, Lt. Adxam Axmedbaev, in June 2015. Simply put, Mr. Tashpulatov has not had the time in office to acquire extensive connections or truly express strong political motivations. There is nothing in his record to suggest that he is anything other than a competent and ambition young man who has and will continue to act within the remit of his official duties. Should a crisis develop, I would predict that Mr. Tashpulatov will behave as a force of stability and defend the constitutional order against anti-democratic behaviors.

 

Lt. Axmedbaev, despite popular rumours about the ‘hidden power’ of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is of a similar cast to Mr. Tashpulatov; a hardworking and competent official from Toshkent City who distinguished himself due to capability and advanced through the bureaucracy on merit. Although now in the awkward position of having lost effective control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’s massive security apparatus to his employee, there is not a good reason to believe that this situation will cause any tension in the future, as both Minister and First Deputy Minister appear to respect rank, regulations, and the Constitution. I predict that should President Karimov die or the situation otherwise deteriorate, Lt. Axmedbaev and the Ministry of Internal Affairs will continue in their mission to preserve domestic stability and uphold the constitutional order.

Maj. Gen. Eminjanov, the second figure empowered by the present security situation, is cut from a very different cloth. He is a considerably older man than Mr. Tashpulatov, lacking access to official records I would guess around 42 years-old, and appears to have transferred to his current position in the MXX from the Armed Forces — again speculation since records on security officers are sealed. Maj. Gen. Eminjanov has served in his current position since at least 2012, and established himself as a powerful figure within the MXX and Ministry of Internal Affairs. He has been involved in, and indeed initiated, a number of border altercations with the Kyrgyz Republic over the roughly 300 km of territory not fully demarcated over the past few years. This behavior singles him out as a maverick within the Uzbekistani government, and identifies him as significantly more nationalist than the government line. These traits were again demonstrated during the shutdown of external borders, as his forces captured — unnecessarily in my opinion — the disputed mountain of Ungar-Too overlooking the Kyrgyz village of Kerben and detained the 7 Kyrgyz citizens operating the radio and television station on the mountain. This showboating of national power, almost certainly undertaken on personal initiative, is indicative of the sometimes thuggish behavior of security officers in the former Soviet Union and certainly not encouraging for the country’s future should a calamity strike during a period when Maj. Gen. Eminjanov is particularly powerful. I would predict that should President Karimov be unable to continue in his duties, Maj. Gen. Eminjanov is liable to manipulate the subsequent elections using coercion or corruption in order to install a leadership that is more forcibly nationalistic, an Uzbekistani Vladimir Putin. I would believe that should the MXX, or another security apparatus, attempt to seize power in a coup, Maj. Gen. Eminjanov would support their initiative.

The Chairman of the MXX, Col. Gen. Rustam Inoyatov, is another figure of concern considering the present expansion of his already massive power within Uzbekistan. Before I continue I must preface this paragraph with a reservation that all information presented in based on the assumption that Col. Gen. Inoyatov is still the Chairman of the MXX and that his expansive influence remains at the levels reported in 2008. These are both critical assumptions in an environment without any official records of Col. Gen. Inoyatov since his appointment in 1995, and may both be false. If the speculation about Col. Gen. Inoyatov’s influence is true, then he already ranks amongst the most powerful men in the country and holds ambitions of replacing Islom Karimov as President. He is deeply corrupt and has a strong authoritarian streak earned during decades of working for the KGB, personality traits expressed through his management of the MXX and its ruthless reputation for hunting down political opposition — going so far as to place bounties on politicians and activists considered particularly dangerous who have flee to foreign countries. Col. Gen. Inoyatov is rumoured to have immense pull with most members of the political elite by virtue of an expansive internal spy network, thereby allowing him to use corruption to selectively eliminate challenges to his authority. Even if he has been replaced during the eight years since the last official confirmation of his existence, the legacy he has left the MXX is likely based on avarice, corruption, fear, and a general lack of respect for the laws which are supposed to govern Uzbekistan. Although numerically too weak to perform anything resembling a palace coup, the MXX  under Col. Gen. Inoyatov has the potential to be a spoiler in any post-Karimov election process, using coercion over elites to manipulate the election of a greedier and immoral candidate willing to assist Col. Gen. Inoyatov beat and rob the country; unfortunately, there are a number of willing candidates.

Unless one of the security agencies decides to take control in a coup d’état, ranging in likelihood from the MXX through the Ministry of Defense to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Uzbekistan actually has a clear structure for choosing a leader in the case of the death or incapacitation of the President. According to Article 96 of the Constitution, should Islom Karimov be determined too ill to perform his official duties, the Chairman of the Senate, Mr. Nig’matilla Yo’ldoshev, will take over his duties for a maximum of 10 days until the Oliy Majlis — the Uzbekistani parliament — can be assembled. The Oliy Majlis will then electing an acting President from among its members who can serve for a maximum of 3 months. During those three months, the acting President and the Oliy Majlis must organize a general election for the next President. The election of the next President is likely to share the sins and virtues of other Uzbekistani elections: fair expression of voter preference among the candidates, balanced by a very constrained list of candidates expressing the opinions of the four legal political parties and specifically excluding both left-wing Neoliberals and right-wing Islamists. The limitations of the current party system mean that only four candidates will be allowed to participate in the elections, one from each party. While another party could theoretically be registered, the Ministry of Justice is staffed by cadres loyal to President Karimov’s plan for guided democracy and are unlikely to allow significant changes in the short term. Three of the political parties: Xalq Demokratic Partiyasi (XDP), ‘Adolat’ Sotsial-Demokratik Partiya (‘Adolat’ SDP), and O’zbekiston ‘Milliy Tiklanish’ Demokratik Partiyasi (MTDP), have set leaders who have represented their constituencies in previous elections against Islom Karimov. The party of Islom Karimov, however, O’zbekiston Liberal-Demokratik Partiyasi (O’zLiDeP), does not have a clear candidate with Mr. Karimov out of the picture. This uncertainly, who will O’zLiDeP nominate for President, is the most pressing question about the post-Karimov political order.

Based on a survey of the present political landscape in Uzbekistan, I predict six political figures who possess the potential to become the next President of Uzbekistan if Mr. Karimov become incapable of performing his duties. The first three are the heads of the XDP, Adolat, and the MTDP, where as the others are potential nominees of the O’zLiDeP. They are, in order, Xamatjon Ketmanov, Nariman Umarov, Sarvar Otamuratov, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Elyor G’aniyev, and Abdulaziz Kamilov.

Xatamjon Ketmanov is the leader of the XDP, the immediate successor party to the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. Despite himself reaching maturity at the end of Soviet era, Mr. Ketmanov seems to have internalized many of the values of the Soviet Union, advocating  a platform greater state activity in public life and expanding some of the social protections and welfare systems which have retreated since the collapse of the USSR. Although coming in 3rd in the 2015 Presidential election, trailing Islom Karimov by 87 percent and roughly equal with the two other candidates, Mr. Ketmanov hosts the second-most active and organized political party after O’zLiDeP. Many of forms of community engagement and outreach used by the Communist Party have been continued by the XDP, and this, when combined with a history of independent existence prior to independence, makes the XDP a tough competitor in elections. A Ketmanov administration would likely see more intensive programs to stamp out poverty alongside a continuation or expansion of Soviet-style welfare programs. The structure of the state would likely remain similar to its current form.

Nariman Umarov is the leader of Adolat SDP, the most liberal and reform-oriented — and the least popular — of the Uzbekistani political parties. Mr. Umarov is grown from the same basis as liberal politicians during the Soviet Union, advocating for worker’s rights and an more efficient judiciary system. Mr. Umarov spend the first half of his life as a Communist Party member and a engineer in the mining industry, developing his political stances in reference to the treatment of mine workers and disempowered unions in central Uzbekistan. The realities of the Soviet political system in which he was raised stressed conformity to party rule, and Mr. Umarov perhaps overplays the role of loyal opposition, appearing as an uncharismatic and underfoot figure in public and behaving cartoonishly deferential towards Mr. Karimov in the 2015 elections. In the unlikely case that there is a Umarov administration, the quality and transparency of government would likely increase, although such changes would like be slow and without creativity.

Sarvar Otamuratov is the leader of the MTDP, a nationalist party with economic and cultural demands roughly equivalent to those of the nationalist movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s  — ‘milliy tiklanish’ translating to ‘national revival’. Mr. Otamuratov is an intelligent young man who attended university during that period and likely participated in the student protests widespread during that time. MTDP is the most popular party in Uzbekistan after O’zLiDeP, especially in neglected rural communities with a strong attachment to nationalism and ‘traditional values’, and Mr. Otamuratov himself is a capable leader and gifted public speaker, qualities he demonstrated in the last Presidential elections. Should a Otamuratov government come into being, it would entail an extremely different, although not necessarily negative, future for Uzbekistan. Although political savvy, Mr. Otamuratov is considerably more nationalist than Mr. Karimov and may implement laws that bring the country more in line with visions of an Uzbek nation populated by Uzbeks, not the diverse vaguely-Eastern Uzbekistan built by President Karimov.

The first and most likely candidate for the O’zLiDeP nomination is Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current Prime Minister and long-time confidant and underling of President Karimov. Mr. Mirziyoyev has long been a favorite of both foreign and Uzbekistani analysts to succeed President Karimov, as he has survived in a critical position for much longer than other ministers — who are usually swapped to another high-level position ever few years to avoid alternative power bases from developing — and has numerous connections among the political and economic elite by virtue of his position. The issues with Mr. Mirziyoyev’s candidacy are the same as the factors which allowed him such a long tenure as Prime Minister, namely his servility and political flexibility; his opponents denigrate him as slimy and two-faced, forever seeking in remain in everyone’s good graces. If Mr. Mirziyoyev wants the position as President, he probably has enough political favours to secure the O’zLiDeP nomination and would receive the support of a political establishment that he has helped to cultivate. His performance in an election is less certain. Although well known to the population and popular among many political elites, Mr. Mirziyoyev is wishy-washy on policy positions and, although charismatic, might be unable to convince voters to support him over more clearly political choices. His greatest hope for victory is to be elected as the acting President during the 3 month interim, which might give him enough authority to actually win the election. Should he be elected, a Mirziyoyev administration would likely be ideologically bankrupt and depend on the consensus of the political elite. Despite the power of the Presidency, Mr. Mirziyoyev would likely be a weak President. This would be unfortunate for Uzbekistan in the short-term, as corruption would flourish as a default and political disillusionment might result in greater societal instability, but could have potential upsides in the long-term as a weaker Presidency might force the Oliy Majlis and Supreme Court to exercise greater autonomy and help usher in new hope for democratic transition.

The next potential nominee of the O’zLiDeP is not strictly speaking a person, but a categories of politicians within Uzbekistan who may seek the nomination. They are represented by, the very real, Elyor G’aniyev, Minister of Foreign Trade, Investment, and Commerce. Mr. G’aniyev is, without a doubt, one of the most corrupt men in Uzbekistan; his corpulence being a Dante-esque attribute for his avarice and moral degradation. Although I listed his name because his power and hunger for power makes him a real possibility for a presidential candidate, Mr. G’aniyev more properly represents a class of men in Uzbekistan who occupy positions of power for the sole sake of exploiting that post for personal, financial, and material gain. In Mr. G’aniyev’s case, his position allows him to demand enormous bribes for businesses seeking to operate in Uzbekistan and then seize their property and assets if they refuse to pay in the future. Among the selection of major actors in Uzbekistani politics, Mr. G’aniyev and his colleague, the Minister of Finance, Rustam Azimov, are the two who could potentially grease enough palms to secure the O’zLiDeP nomination. If one of them made it this far, they would then have to somehow convince the voter base to forget about their past corruption scandals, unseen in papers but widely circulated by word of mouth. I predict that their election would be unlikely, but terrifying. Should they by some fluke be elected, a G’aniyev or Azimov regime would be a blight on the country; it would put Uzbekistan in the same situation as Russia during the early Yeltsin administration, the motherland whored out to highest bidder and the profits embezzled or flatly stolen by oligarchs.

The final potential nominee of the O’zLiDeP for Mr. Karimov’s successor is another category of persons, this time represented by Mr. Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I have, again, chosen Mr. Kamilov because of his character and his power; he is representative of a group and his is the most likely member of that group to succeed Mr. Karimov. Abdulaziz Kamilov is a politician very much in the mold of Islom Karimov, holding a high position in the Soviet Union and serving loyally to advance what he perceives as the common good of the country first as Chairman of the MXX and currently as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although nearly as old as Mr. Karimov, Mr. Kamilov is a cunning and diplomatic politician with a strong public presence and widespread respect — and some fear — from the political elite. Other notable politicians like him are Anvar Alimov, the Minister of Health, and Galina Saidova, the Minister of Economics, both popular, respected, and capable politicians. I sincerely doubt that in the case of Mr. Karimov’s death, Mr. Kamilov, Mr. Alimov, or Mrs. Saidova would seek the nomination, but if they did they would almost certainly receive it, and probably win the election. A Kamilov, Alimov, or Saidova administration would be practically indistinguishable from the preceding Karimov government. It would means continuity and stability for population, but almost certainly would not resolve the issues of the previous regime, such as the repression of political opposition, retarded payment of wages and pensions, and the widespread brutality of security forces.

As referenced earlier, the unique situation of Uzbekistan at the eve of the 25th Anniversary of independence has affected the power structure, making some possibilities more or less likely. Overall a coup is unlikely. Despite instability in other post-Soviet states, the military and security forces have not intervened and civilian politics and I do not see reason to believe that such an event will occur in Uzbekistan. The danger posed by the MXX, however, remains real, not as an independent military actor, but a spoiler in the political process. Without intervention, the Presidential election to replace Islom Karimov would likely be fair and result in a leadership broadly supported by the population. The interference of the MXX could threaten this process. Most seriously, the MXX could apply pressure on the leadership of the O’zLiDeP and force them to support the nomination of a corrupt candidate backed by the MXX, perhaps Mr. Mirziyoyev or perhaps a man cut from the same cloth as Mr. G’aniyev. Although the MXX holds considerably more power among the elite, whose number is finite and could be entirely imprisoned, by coercing electorates or even bullying officials into manipulating voting figures, the MXX could change the results of the election and thereby appoint a President amenable to the parochial and anti-democratic interests of Mr. Inoyatov and other high-ranking officers. Both of these situations are possible and could have major repercussions for the future of Uzbekistan. One can only hope that the elites, including those of the security forces, will defend the constitutional order, and that the electorate will support a candidate with the will to propel Uzbekistan towards fulfilling its future as a great country.

My thoughts and prayers are with Islom Karimov and his family. Losing a loved one, even its threat, is always difficult and this is true even for presidents. Tonight, because it is night in Toshkent as I write this, the nation waits in expectation of the unknown. There are many possible futures without President Karimov, but should they come to pass, thirty-two million people will have lost an uncle, and that is a tragedy.

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Author: Sam

I study international relations and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. My research is focused on political systems and economic development in Post-Soviet states.

One thought on “Political Possibilities following Islom Karimov’s Hospitalization

  1. He was a great person, very sad to lose such great leader.

    Liked by 1 person

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