For most of the last two decades, specialists on Central Asia have asked what will happen when one or another of its longtime authoritarian leaders passes from the scene. Many have made particularly dire predictions, including a descent into chaos or the rise of a Central Asian variant of the Islamic State. A year ago, one of the two longest-serving Central Asian strongmen (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev is the other), Uzbekistani leader Islam Karimov, passed from the scene. And on this anniversary, it is important to take note of what has happened, what has not, and what may still occur in the years to come.
Karimov became first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989; and he remained president of Uzbekistan after it gained its independence in 1991, until his death on September 2, 2016. In many ways, he continued to run that most populous Central Asian country in much the same way he had done before it became an independent state. Indeed, the joke about Uzbekistan was that “Uzbekistan did not leave the Soviet Union; the Soviet Union left Uzbekistan,” which then continued as a highly centralized and authoritarian regime. Karimov’s post-Soviet regime suppressed the opposition, sometimes brutally, but failed to adopt the succession plans that others in the region had. He failed with his daughters to create a dynastic system like Azerbaijan’s, and he did not—perhaps could not—allow for the grooming of a new generation of leaders.
Consequently, many expected that there would be confusion or even a civil war after his death. But that has not happened. Instead, the new president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, who had been Karimov’s prime minister, acted quickly to consolidate power and equally quickly moved to dismantle much of Karimov’s system both foreign and domestic. At the same time, however, Mirziyaev has continued to pay homage to the first president of Uzbekistan in a variety of honorific ways, including erecting a mausoleum, putting his face on stamps, and by not attacking him directly (Fergananews.com, August 27; Centrasia.ru, September 7).
Mirziyaev’s biggest moves have come in foreign policy. Of mixed Uzbek-Tajik background, the new Uzbekistani president has continued the balanced policy of his predecessor beyond the region, seeking improved relations with both Moscow, with which he has agreed to expand trade to $5 billion dollars a year, and the West, whose governments no longer are focusing on Karimov’s brutal crackdown in Andijan (Gazeta.ru, April 5). But he has moved in significant ways to end the often testy relationships between Tashkent and the other Central Asian capitals that had characterized Karimov’s time in office (see EDM, May 3).
As Russian commentator Pyotr Bologov points out, Karimov had managed to cultivate arguments “with the majority of them: with Tajikistan because of water, with Kyrgyzstan because of borders, and with Turkmenistan because of both.” Only with Kazakhstan, which was and remains headed by another former republic Communist Party secretary, did he manage to maintain reasonably close relations (Gazeta.ru, August 29). Mirziyaev has improved things in every case, although problems remain. He has opened contacts and exchanges with Dushanbe, even restoring air links between the two countries. He has signed a border agreement with Bishkek, although the problems of the ethnic-Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan and especially the enclaves are still a sticking point for both capitals (Azattyk.org, September 8).
Perhaps even more importantly, Uzbekistan’s new president has succeeded in gaining Nazarbayev’s recognition as a co-equal strategic partner in the region, something that undoubtedly reassures many in Tashkent and may have a positive impact in Kazakhstan as well—particularly after the aging Nazarbayev too passes from the scene. At the very least, it will help the economies and especially trade routes of both countries (Centre1.com, March 23).
Domestically, according to Bologov, Uzbekistan a year after Karimov’s death remains largely a police state. Nevertheless, the new president has taken “unprecedented steps to liberalize the economy and society as a whole,” although so far at least, many of Mirziyaev’s moves have been more cosmetic than fundamental (Gazeta.ru, August 29). Among the steps taken are ending the requirement that all Uzbekistanis, on pain of legal sanction, go into the fields to harvest cotton—a Soviet-era innovation that was hated by many and that disordered the country every harvest season (Sputniknews-uz.com, August 22). In addition, Mirziyaev has opened a discussions with international human rights organizations to allow them to return to Tashkent, from which they had been excluded in the wake of Andijan (Fergananews.com, August 30). He has also loosened state control over currency exchanges, which will allow the country’s residents who work abroad to convert money at more honest rates. Finally, he plans to end the requirement (again a Soviet survival) that all citizens obtain exit visas in order to leave the country (RBC, August 31).
All of these steps have been popular with the population, if not always with the bureaucracy. And one of the key issues for the coming months is whether Mirziyaev can put his mark on these government functionaries as well—something that may prove more difficult. Meanwhile, he faces the threat of Islamist extremism from Afghanistan, a population growing faster than his country’s economy, and a coterie of officials whose first impulse still is to repress rather than cooperate with people.
Nonetheless, Mirziyaev has had a good year. He has avoided the worst outcomes many had expected; and he has put in place some changes that could lead to further liberalization in the future.