The last few weeks of August have been marked by various days of celebration, as former states of the Soviet Union held 25th anniversaries of independence, among them Estonia on August 20, Ukraine on August 24, Moldova on August 27 and yesterday, August 31, in Kyrgyzstan.
In these countries and many others which emerged from the USSR, Independence Day 2016 saw outdoor concerts, cultural exhibits, military displays and official speeches to celebrate a quarter century of freedom. Today, the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan commemorates its 25th year of independence from Moscow but “festivities” have a different tone from preceding anniversaries – for the first time since 1991, September 1 will be observed without the public presence of President Islam Karimov, whose official speech was read out by a state television presenter.
Most credible accounts say the president died in recent days; there is no official confirmation although many of the indicators often seen with the death of authoritarian leaders are evident, including travel restrictions on citizens, silence from the presidential palace and contradictory stories about Karimov’s health. Secrecy and lack of transparency are characteristics of dictatorial regimes and Uzbekistan by any objective measure is not a democracy. There may be more, however, to the silence than authoritarian knee-jerk behavior patterns. A government which rules without the consent of its citizens has much to worry about when the strongman is suddenly gone.
The Uzbek Constitution has a succession course which is clearly articulated. The head of the Senate, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, assumes the country’s reins if the president is incapacitated and calls for elections within three months. However, Turkmenistan, the only Central Asia country besides democratic Kyrgyzstan which has undergone a similar leadership turnover, had a constitutional succession plan in 2006, when their post-Soviet leader, Sapermurat Niyazov, died after two decades of uninterrupted rule. The Turkmen elite simply threw out the constitution and within hours of the announcement of the leader’s death presented the new leader to the people.
IRI had a training program in Uzbekistan a decade or so ago, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The Karimov regime tolerated this briefly but, long before Moscow established its template for banning democracy NGOs, in the mid-2000s brought all the powers of the state to bear in shutting down indigenous and international groups committed to Uzbek freedom.
It’s clear the Uzbek people have a constitutional role and right to participate in the selection of a new leader, after 25 years of rule by one man. And while mightily beleaguered, there is a small band of Uzbek reformers who have faced repression, imprisonment and death to press for such rights. They need international support now, more than ever.