The apparent end to the power of my old adversary Islam Karimov gives a brief moment of hope for change in Uzbekistan.
It is worth recalling that Karimov was a member of the last Soviet politburo, and was a part of the failed hard line “communist” coup against Gorbachev. His support for Uzbek independence was both a matter of self-preservation and a successful endeavour to sustain the massively corrupt system that enabled a few families to pillage Uzbekistan’s great natural wealth. Tashkent was already famously corrupt in Soviet times; Karimov increased this and concentrated the wealth in an ever smaller circle, while personal freedoms were higher in the Soviet period than now.
There is no telling if Karimov is already dead or not, but a massive stroke has with certainty ended his rule. There is much speculation on what happens next. The one thing we can be quite certain will not happen is a free and fair election of a successor.
The formal process, presided over by the speaker of parliament, is an irrelevance to the power grab that is going on and depends on control of the army, the separate Ministry of the Interior armed forces, the police and the security services. By common consent Rustam Inoyatov is a key kingmaker, and for the last two years Prime Minister Mirzaeyev has been carefully cementing this alliance. Mirzaeyev is probably the most ruthless of all the candidates – he is as cold-blooded a killer as Karimov, and I suspect this quality will bring him through.
Mirzaeyev comes from the same Samarkand power base as Karimov, but he faces a difficult balancing act in ensuring nobody else has any power to challenge him, while at the same time placating powerful Tashkent and Ferghana interests. If Mirzaeyev can gain the support of the Gafur Rakhimov/Alisher Usmanov mafia nexus he will probably be home and dry. But to emphasise how complex and vicious this will be, when the Alisher Usmanov/Mirzaeyev family relationship was due to be cemented in 2013 by a marriage alliance featuring Usmanov’s nephew and heir Babur Usmanov, the groom was killed in a “car crash” at the behest of Inoyatov. This murder was probably just a friendly reminder that Inoyatov cannot be cut out, and one Mirzaeyev seems to have heeded, but underlines the potential for it all to go violently wrong.
So how can this be hopeful? Well, quite simply things can only get better. Whoever takes over is unlikely to want immediately to rush into the arms of one of Uzbekistan’s three suitors, the USA, China and Russia. There is a reasonable chance that they will wish to portray themselves as having a reform agenda, in order to keep the USA and to some extent Russia interested. Putin never viewed Karimov as more than an embarrassment. Indeed, almost every potential President except Mirzaeyev does have an inkling that the deliberate stifling of all economic initiative and the enslavement of the country to a cotton monoculture is not a good policy.
Finally a message to Karimov, my old sparring partner. You won, you kept power and I lost, and got sacked for my pains. But then I am not dead, and when I am I shall not go to Hell. Good luck with that. Craig