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Commentary | 14 September 2016

A smooth transition? Uzbekistan without Karimov

Image of Stanislav Pritchin

Stanislav Pritchin |Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Science, Head of The Expert Center for Eurasian Development (ECED)

Central Asia Uzbekistan Euro-Atlantic Security

The last day of summer 2016 was to be an important date for Uzbekistan, as it celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence. Solemn official events, as well as festive concerts, were scheduled across the country. Instead of celebrating however, Uzbek officials and ordinary people were waiting for news about the health of president Islam Karimov who, according to an official statement, was admitted to hospital on 28 August.

As it turned out the end of summer became the end of the Karimov’s era in Uzbekistan. Officially, he died on the night of the 2nd September and was buried in Samarkand the next day. Thousands of people came to say goodbye to their leader;  the funeral procession through Tashkent and Samarkand was greeted with tears and flowers.

Karimov was the leader of Uzbekistan for more than 27 years. Interestingly, 27 years is the average age of citizens of the 32-million-strong republic. Thus the entirety of the first post-independence generation has been born and raised without knowing any other president. The Uzbek political establishment and wider society is now faced with a completely new challenge, as they begin the process of choosing a new leader.

In 2011 Karimov initiated a constitutional reform that turned out to be an important stage of preparation for the transit of power. According to Article 96 of the new Constitution, presidential elections have to be arranged not later than 3 months from the date of the death of the president or since an official recognition of his inability to lead the country. The speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament) should act as an acting head of the state for this period. Thus, the speaker of the Senate Nigmatilla T. Yuldashev should have become the interim head of the Republic until the time of the elections.

Due to the nature of the political system of Uzbekistan, the main struggle for power takes place behind the façade of procedure. It is impossible to imagine that the contenders for power would compete for the presidency through elections. The main methods of solution for such a dispute will be through informal negotiations and covert struggle. Due to the deficit of information, we are compelled to analyse the language of official documents and compare which of the contenders for power stood closest to Karimov’s coffin during the funeral.

The most likely scenario for the short-term future of Uzbekistan would be the nomination and victory of a candidate agreed by all the main political groups, while a few nominal opponents would be his competitors in the presidential race. The list of potential successors of Karimov is not very long. His eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova was excluded from the presidential race long before it began. Her absence at her father’s funeral only confirmed this. The influential head of the National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov is too old to run and has no political ambitions. For a long time he has been the second most powerful person in Uzbekistan, and being an “éminence grise” is a more usual and familiar role for him.

Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and vice Prime Minister Rustam Asimov were seen as the most likely candidates for the post of the second president of Uzbekistan. Today, we can see that Mirziyoev has become the obvious leader in the fight. In the beginning, his leadership was largely symbolic. Thus, according to a decision of the Uzbek parliament, he was appointed as the head of the committee organizing the funeral. Later, during the private visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Samarkand, Mirziyoev accompanied him to the Karimov’s grave. But afterwards, he and his team decided to act more resolutely. On 8 September, a joint session of the two chambers of parliament took place. The speaker of the Senate Yuldashev announced that he declined to take the position of the interim head of state, and the Prime Minister was appointed to the post instead. Yuidashev’s decision seemed to have been made under pressure from Mirziyoyev’s group. The Prime Minister and his circle decided to keep all processes in the republic under tight control during the election period.

At the same session parliament decided that early elections will take place on 4th December. Thus, Mirziyoyev, a native of the Jizzakh region, the head of the government since 2003, is the most probable candidate to become the second president of Uzbekistan.

In the first days without Karimov, Uzbekistan has demonstrated a sufficient degree of stability under political system he had created. However this does not exclude the possibility that problems will surface in the short or mid- term.

Most importantly, it is easy to envisage an aggravation of tensions between the leading political groups in the country. During his presidency, Islam Karimov tried to control the political struggles between various clans and balance their influence. The most likely future president, Mirziyoyev, represents the interests of one of the most powerful Samarkand clans. His coming to power jeopardises other groups, first of all the Tashkent clan headed by his competitor Rustam Azimov. Prior to the presidential elections we may see a government reshuffle in which the latter is dismissed. It is possible that the redistribution of influence in the Uzbek economy will follow, as the Samarkand clan will try to assume control over the most profitable sectors.

However, any aggravation of internal political tensions should not lead to any serious destabilisation of the republic. In the political struggle for the succession Mirziyoyev secured for himself the support of the law enforcement agencies, first of all the SNB. As the new president he will try to keep the existing political model with a rigid power-vertical and strong intelligence agencies. The strict line concerning the role of Islam in the republic will also be continued.

For the time being, we should not expect any serious changes in the foreign policy of Uzbekistan. For the new president, the main priority will be to get support and recognition from the key players, such as Russia, China and the US. Only after all internal political issues are resolved and his official status secured, corrections of Uzbek foreign policy priorities can possibly be addressed.



The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.