This week an entire generation of people may learn that the only leader they have ever known is dead.
Since the chatter of Uzbekistan President, Islam Karimov’s sickness was publicly released yesterday, communications services in Uzbekistan have closed down and the borders have been closed. No one in the West has a clear understanding of what the situation in the country is at this moment.
A mere three days prior to the 25th Independence Day celebration, which he has never missed, President Karimov may already have died (unconfirmed). Although many Central Asian scholars have speculated that he was ill for some time, this weekend was the first time in his 27 year reign that Uzbek news services have publicly admitted that he was ill, reporting that he was taken to the hospital. On Monday morning the president’s daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, wrote on Instagram that her father had suffered from a “cerebral hemorrhage” but was now in stable condition. Though the government of Uzbekistan has yet to make a statement confirming his death, rumors began circulating Monday afternoon, and Russian language news sources seem ready to confirm that the president has in fact passed away.
This comes at a time when Uzbekistan and the entire Central Asia region face some of the most serious economic and security threats in its Post-Soviet history. Over 45% of the country is under the age of 25, 20% of whom are of working age, but the state controlled economy cannot produce enough jobs to go around. Many young Uzbeks migrate to Kazakhstan and Russia to find work, but with those two countries economies’ lagging due to low oil prices the situation is dire. In addition to economic strife, the issue of large swaths of the population being unemployed poses security concerns as well. Uzbekistan is understood to be the most susceptible country in Central Asia to Islamic radicalization and violent extremism. Karimov has kept many groups that he labeled as extremists tightly muzzled, pushing more people toward fear and discontent through a reign of terror. Many of those who are in fact radicalized have left through Russia or Pakistan to fight in Syria. Though there are not confirmed numbers on the subject, The Diplomat states that “the core of the terrorist groups like Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Tawhid wal-Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) consist of ethnic Uzbeks,” some of those, such as the IMU, have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
With such threats looming in the shadows, it is disconcerting to many, that President Karimov never named a successor. He has no sons, and his eldest daughter who was once considered a succession candidate was caught up in a corruption scandal in 2014. Speculation about other candidates to take over power include the current Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Head of the security apparatus Rustam Inoyatov or the Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Rusam Azimov, who is rumored to be under house arrest. Considering that this is the first time Uzbekistan will see a transition of power, the vacuum that now consumes it could result in one of two scenarios. Scholars suspect that there will either be a swift leadership transfer, such as that in Turkmenistan in 2006, or the country will be consumed by clan-based infighting among the elites. Regardless of the outcome over the next few weeks, the situation will be volatile, and Uzbekistan’s neighbors will be holding their breath in anticipation.
The rising popularity of nationalistic isolationism and growing fear of Islamist extremism in Western countries has led many to question the virtue of spreading democratic principles. However, the fragile state of Uzbekistan at this trying time demonstrates that maybe strong man regimes aren’t so strong after all. Scenarios such as this remind us why it is imperative that we understand and clearly emphasize the value of democracy. Although the current state of the US elections seems divisive, we can rest assured that our values and way of life will persist under a new administration. Stabilnost, as promulgated by so called “Presidents for Life” such as Karimov, is nothing compared to the stability that democracy provides.Top