The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the longest serving ruler in the post-Soviet space, has triggered concern about the stability of the Central Asian country. In power since 1989, Karimov’s authoritarian rule has undoubtedly contributed to relative stability, whilst also hindering the development of a robust economy and functioning civil society. The centralisation of power around Karimov and lack of effective, independent state institutions, means there are deep concerns about domestic stability following his death. The secrecy and uncertainty surrounding Karimov’s health in the days prior to the announcement of his death (unofficially by Turkey) was characteristic of the regime’s desire to maintain its strong grip on power. The apparent absence of a natural successor raised fears that the uncertainty may lead to a struggle for power between various elite factions.
Lying at the geographical heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is crucial for stability across the region. It is the most populous state in the region, with a population of around 27 million, and also possesses the largest armed forces. Its centralised economy remains heavily reliant on cotton cultivation, as well as exports of natural gas and gold, and has not attracted the levels of foreign investment seen in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Spillover from Russia’s economic recession has taken its toll on all five of the Central Asian states, particularly as remittances from migrant workers in Russia constitute a significant contribution to GDP. Leaders of neighbouring states, as well as Russia and China, will be deeply concerned about the possibility of any internal instability in Uzbekistan, which could trigger unrest across Central Asia. There have long been concerns across the region about the possibility of a ‘Central Asian spring,’ similar to the Arab Spring of 2011, with a popular uprising leading to widespread instability.
The significance of Central Asia increased greatly in the wake of 11 September 2001 and the US-led operation in Afghanistan. Already on the map thanks to its substantial hydrocarbon reserves, the region’s key role as a staging post for coalition forces propelled it further into the spotlight. In security terms, Central Asia suffers from its proximity to Afghanistan and many of that country’s problems spill over to its northern neighbours. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s was reflected by a corresponding rise in extremism in Central Asia, manifest by the emergence of groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated goal was the overthrow of Karimov’s government. The IMU broadened its perspective after 2002 to include the whole of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region, and was declared a “terrorist organisation of particular concern” by the Bush administration. An offshoot of the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed responsibility for attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in 2004 that killed 47, and re-emerged in 2007 when three men with alleged ties to the IJU were arrested in Germany for plotting terrorist attacks against the US military base at Ramstein, as well as the US and Uzbek consulates. There are concerns that groups such as these could be re-activated and undermine stability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. According to the US State Department, whilst the government in Tashkent is confident about the security of its own border with Afghanistan, it has concerns about the porosity of the borders of its Central Asian neighbours, particularly its long border with Tajikistan. Fears were heightened again in June 2016, when it emerged that an Uzbek citizen was involved in the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk airport. Nevertheless, in reality there have been few attacks in Central Asia, where governments have adopted harsh measures to counter the perceived threat in the name of national security and maintain their strong grip on power.
Despite fears about the emergence of a power vacuum in the absence of a publicly named successor, the transition has so far gone comparatively smoothly. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been Prime Minister since 2003, won parliamentary approval to become the acting president of Uzbekistan and presidential elections will take place within three months. The coming weeks will be critical for the future of Uzbekistan, as well as the stability of the wider region.
Image: Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov during the latter’s visit to the Kremlin in April 2016, via Kremlin.ru.