Thousands mourn as Uzbek dictator’s funeral takes place

Uzbekistan faces an uncertain future after the death of president Islam Karimov

 

Thousands of Uzbeks, many weeping, lined the streets of the capital Tashkent on Saturday to watch the funeral cortege of president Islam Karimov, whose death leaves a power vacuum in a nation that serves as a bulwark against militant Islam in Central Asia.

At dawn, a black Mercedes van carrying the body of Karimov, who died of a stroke aged 78, drove slowly along Tashkent’s main thoroughfare.

Police officers stood at salute and people bowed down to lay roses and carnations on the road side.

Karimov, in power for more than a quarter of a century, was derided by Western governments as a dictator who violated human rights, but for many people in Uzbekistan, a mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state, he is the only head of state they have ever known.

With no obvious successor, Karimov’s death has triggered an outpouring of grief, mixed with uncertainty about the future.

“I still can’t believe it happened. I don’t know what happens now, I am lost,” said a 39-year-old Tashkent resident who declined to be identified.

How the power vacuum is filled in Uzbekistan is of urgent concern to Russia, the US and China, all powers with interests in the volatile Central Asia region, where Uzbekistan is the most populous state.

Central Asia analysts say a small circle of senior officials and Karimov family members will have been meeting behind closed doors to try to agree on anointing a new president.

Prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been designated mourner-in-chief at Karimov’s funeral, which is seen as a strong hint he might become the next president.

If the elite fail to agree among themselves on a transition, the resulting instability could be exploited by Islamist militants, who in the past have staged violent attacks in Uzbek cities and want to make Uzbekistan part of an Islamic caliphate.

Karimov jailed, killed or exiled most of the Islamist fighters inside Uzbekistan.

Many have since joined the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where they have become battle-hardened.

An upsurge in Islamist violence in Uzbekistan would pose a threat to the US, which is trying to contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, to Russia, which is home to millions of Uzbek migrant workers, and to China, which worries about Central Asian Islamists making common cause with separatists from its mainly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.

Burial

Karimov is to be buried later on Saturday in his home city of Samarkand.

In the capital Tashkent, the cortege drove to the airport. Once there, the coffin was loaded onto a waiting aircraft by six pallbearers in military uniform.

At the foot of the aircraft steps stood Karimov’s wife, Tatiana, and his younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, who was dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief.

A short while later, state television footage showed Karimov’s coffin being driven through the streets of Samarkand, also lined with people paying their respects, en route to the Karimov family home.

In a break with usual protocol, most countries were represented by prime ministers or ministers rather than presidents.

Karimov was the head of the local Communist party in Uzbekistan when it was still a Soviet republic, and he kept the job after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

While other newly-independent Soviet republics were convulsed by wars, economic upheaval and political turmoil, life for people in Uzbekistan stayed largely stable, safe and predictable - a state of affairs that Karimov’s supporters touted as his great achievement.

A canny operator, Karimov successfully played off against each other the US, China and Russia, which are all jockeying to bring Central Asia, with its oil and gas reserves and metal ore, into their sphere of influence.

“The people of Uzbekistan associate the huge achievements of the country since independence with president Karimov’s name,” a state television anchor, in a black suit and tie, said on Saturday.

But the stability came at a cost.

Elections were held but were not democratic, according to international observers.

To ensure Uzbekistan could earn foreign currency from exporting cotton, people - including children - were press-ganged into going into the fields to help with the harvest, witnesses have told Reuters.

Citing an Islamist threat, Karimov cracked down ruthlessly on anyone deemed to be a religious extremist.

Growing a beard or renouncing alcohol was sometimes enough to earn arrest.

In the Uzbek city of Andizhan in May 2005, security forces killed about 500 mostly unarmed people who had been protesting against local officials, witnesses and rights groups said.

Karimov put the death toll at 169 and said his forces had put down an armed uprising.

Karimov’s own family were not immune from the harsh treatment. His older daughter Gulnara, a high-profile businesswoman who also recorded pop songs, fell out of favour in 2013 and disappeared from public view.

A year later, in a letter smuggled to a BBC journalist, she alleged she was being held under house arrest by her father’s security officials.

There was no sign of her among family members accompanying the funeral cortege to Samarkand.

Reuters