Islam Karimov and the Fate of Uzbekistan

3 September 2016


Islam Karimov received a grand send-off in Registan Square, a showpiece of Central Asia.

Islam Karimov received a grand send-off in Registan Square, a showpiece of Central Asia.

Islam Karimov, ruler of Uzbekistan for decades, has passed away (the date of his death is officially yesterday, 02 September 2016, but he may have passed away a day or two earlier). The fate of Central Asia hangs in the balance of the uncertainty created by his death. Karimov seamlessly made the transition from President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic to post-Soviet authoritarian, as Uzbekistan seamlessly made the transition from Soviet client to post-Soviet independent nation-state. As the Soviet model was the template for Karimov’s iron-fisted rule while alive, so too the Soviet model was the template for Karimov’s death: rumored to be in “ill-health” for several days, the state apparatus seemed to be gradually preparing the populace for the announcement of Karimov’s death. When the confirmation of Karimov’s death came, it came indirectly from a statement of condolences from the Turkey’s Prime Minister.

Central Asia during the Soviet period experienced decades of peace, at the cost of heavy-handed political repression. Those post-Soviet republics of Central Asia that managed to sustain the Soviet model after the end of the Soviet Union continued to enjoy peace, at the continued cost of political repression. Karimov followed the model of Soviet repression quite closely and was rewarded with a quiescent nation-state rarely mentioned in the news. It is easy to imagine, given the experiences of Afghanistan (never a Soviet republic) and Chechnya (never an independent nation-state), not to mention the wider disturbances of the region and the rise of terrorism as a major force in political affairs in the region, that some might be willing to openly endorse this kind of Soviet-style autocratic rule over the attempt to create open political institutions, which latter have never been successful in the region. The choice seems to one between state-sponsored repression or non-state repression.

The attempt, such as it was, to agitate for political openness and western-style democracy in Central Asia came in the form of the so-called “color revolutions” — primarily the “Rose” revolution in Georgia (November 2003), the “orange” revolution in Ukraine (November 2004), and the “Tulip” revolution in Kyrgyzstan (February 2005), though many other events are often counted as falling under this umbrella term. It is difficult to over-state the impact of the Central Asian “color revolutions” on the political elites of the region as well as in Russia, where they were perceived as an existential threat to the established political order. Visceral fear of another color revolution runs through the political class of Central Asia, and we even find the idea of a color revolution as a theme in hybrid warfare, as it is mentioned in the introduction to Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s article on hybrid warfare:

“The experience of military conflicts — including those connected with the so-called colored revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East — confirm that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”

For authoritarians, the color revolutions were a metaphysical challenge to their rule, giving the appearance of an indigenous demand for political openness, but masking the reality of foreign-sponsored political division and chaos within the country. This may sound like the purest Soviet-style political paranoia, but, in this case, the false positives of Soviet-style political paranoia has been strongly selective: those old-guard leaders most effective in the repression of civil society have managed to retain their grip on power for the longest period of time. For an authoritarian to loosen his grip was to invite a flowering of civil society which might result in a color revolution, and, again from the authoritarian’s perspective, this would be a disaster (much as old-guard Chinese communists like Li Peng feared that the Tiananmen protest might be the seed of another Cultural Revolution, once again throwing China into chaos; cf. Twenty-one years since Tiananmen).

For western politicians, Soviet-style repression in Central Asia, while generally only gently criticized (if ever), was a metaphysical challenge to liberal democracy, giving the appearance of peace and prosperity on the surface, while masking the ugly reality of political repression, imprisonment, torture, and corruption. It is no wonder that the two sides cannot communicate with each other: they have different and incommensurable political ontologies.

There is, however, one point of agreement between authoritarians of Central Asia and their supporters on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the supporters of democracy and color revolutions: no one wants to see Uzbekistan, much less the whole of Central Asia, descend into chaos and anarchy. There is an overwhelming bias on behalf of stability, and this bias for stability will play a major role in the events that will unfold in the wake of the death of Islam Karimov.

The worry now, with Karimov out of the picture, is that a color revolution will occur, or Islamic forces will come to power, or both, and the state will tear itself apart in factional conflict between Karimov-style authoritarians, Islamists, and color revolutionists. In the event of chaos, each side will blame the other, but in the final result it doesn’t matter who starts it. And the worry beyond this worry is that, once one of the central nation-states of Central Asia descends into lawlessness, it will drag down the whole region in a domino effect of anarchy. No one wants to see a domino effect come to Central Asia, with the instability of any one nation-state spilling over into its neighbor, until the entire region becomes unstable and the factions become radicalized. None of this is inevitable. Turkmenistan managed to survive the death of a more bizarre autocratic ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, who called himself “Türkmenbaşy,” and remains quiescent today. But it is unlikely that the Central Asia will remain quiescent forever.

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Uzbekistan is central to Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is central to Central Asia.

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Note Added 13 October 2016: The BBC has an interesting article about the succession in Uzbekistan, After Karimov: How does the transition of power look in Uzbekistan? by Abdujalil Abdurasulov

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Grand Strategy Annex

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