Uzbekistan in turmoil as dictator Islam Karimov confirmed dead
Funeral to take place on Saturday as veteran leader’s death brings political uncertainty
Former Uzbek president Islam Karimov: The Soviet-era strongman who had ruled Uzbekistan since before the fall of the Berlin Wall has no official successor. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via AP
Uzbekistan’s veteran dictator Islam Karimov has died, leaving central Asia’s most populous country in a state of turmoil and political uncertainty.
Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, revealed the news in a televised meeting with his cabinet, declaring: “May God’s 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.
The government said Karimov’s 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 city’s 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. Samarkand’s airport was shut to non-official traffic. Several Central Asian leaders were expected to fly in, including Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Karimov – a Soviet-era strongman who had ruled Uzbekistan since before the fall of the Berlin Wall – has no official successor. The most likely candidate to replace him appears to be Uzbekistan’s long-time prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Mr Mirziyoyev is believed to enjoy support from Uzbekistan’s powerful intelligence chief Rustam Inoyatov. A classified 2008 US diplomatic cable said Inoyatov had “sufficient compromising information on Mr 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 Uzbekistan’s new leader might be picked. All week a Soviet-like state media has refused to comment on rumours that Karimov – in hospital since Sunday – had suffered a brain haemorrhage. His daughter Lola revealed the news on Instagram.
It is widely assumed that the country’s elites will agree a new president, with their own economic and business interests paramount. Mr Mirziyoyev has flown to Samarkand to take charge of funeral arrangements, putting him in pole position.
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. At the same time Karimov often regarded the Kremlin’s 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.
“It’s like the dark days of Kremlinology. We’ll 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,” Ms Tynan added, referring to the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
The former dentist and minister of health took over from the longstanding dictator Saparmurat Niyazov after the latter’s 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 nation’s inner circle.
“Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of tension and horse trading behind closed doors,” Ms Tynan said.
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.