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Qishloq Ovozi

A Bad Sign From Karimov's Inauguration Speech

Autumn of the patriarch? President Islam Karimov at a Norouz celebration in March
Autumn of the patriarch? President Islam Karimov at a Norouz celebration in March

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, what were you talking about?

Karimov was sworn in for a fourth term on April 10, and there were some disturbing signs during his inauguration speech. For those of you familiar with Uzbekistan, I have a good idea what you're thinking and it's worse than you think.

As one would expect, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, paid close attention to the Karimov speech and noticed that the 77-year-old president appears to be showing signs of age (here and here).

State print media featured copies of the the written version of the speech from which Karimov read. That version was 1,295 words in length. But the speech as delivered ran more than 2,000 words, and in those moments when he chose to stray from the script, to ad lib, he often rambled.

The following translations of excerpts of his speech are as faithful to Karimov's precise language as possible.

Karimov has often spoken of the unseemliness of boasting. It's been a theme of his speeches for years and usually follows comments about how well the country is doing.

"We never brag. The growth of our GDP is 8 percent. For that there were preparations, every day preparations since we became independent, we've been making plans. Only in our five principles, we never and nowhere, from a big or small tribune, never showed off. If needed, I'll say it again and again, bragging, whoever is bragging, bragging is about just a country, which just has its name and we don't go that way."

Scared? You haven't heard anything yet.

Addressing members of parliament as "My Dear," Karimov continued, "Today I'm meeting with you and if you ask why -- first of all, you became partners and if needed today in such an open manner, if the president is revealing secrets and if you become the holder of these secrets, you become closer to me."

There was thunderous applause after Karimov finished this confusing sentence, but it was never clear what "secrets" he meant.

Turning to the diplomats attending the inauguration -- nearly all of them ambassadors, since the inauguration had only been announced some 24 hours before the event -- Karimov said: "I'm always surprised with diplomats, they have a way, they are taking respect out of me and never, never say good-bye in a bad mood. First of all these diplomats, ambassadors, when they finish their terms a person feels like he's saying good-bye to an old friend because in these two or three years they've become friends. This has become a rule because no ambassador wants to say good-bye. If needed, I would convey the respect of my people to all the ambassadors working now, and second, if someone asked me what to you want when we say good-bye, what if we issue a medal and call it 'I Love Uzbekistan.'"

The audience applauded enthusiastically. Personally, I'm trembling writing this and I'll probably be sleeping with the lights on tonight.

Karimov continued, seemingly meandering in out of his script, speaking of a telegram from U.S. President Barack Obama that everyone "already read" and that all the newspapers published.

He repeated many times that the future of country was in the hands of Uzbekistan's young people. He spoke of a "need to introduce democracy" -- strange words since Karimov has been president of independent Uzbekistan for nearly 25 years, just won a constitutionally illegal fourth term, and is now saying "don't be behind others in this sphere and I urge you all to this."

He told his countrymen that "foreign investment is good, we must leave our prejudices behind."

Karimov went back to the youth topic. "If we say the future generation is deciding the future, we will never be behind."

I can't decide if that's a Zen saying or what.

And among his closing remarks he exhorted everyone: "The president tells you now, don't be afraid!"

An ironic finish since Karimov, his corrupt officials, and brutal security services are the greatest sources of fear for the people of Uzbekistan.

This is a bad sign. Karimov has just been reelected to a five-year term. While print media confined themselves to the official speech (accompanied by photographs of Karimov in much younger days), state TV and radio were in a quandary about whether the comments not included in the official speech were incoherent babbling or the product of some wisdom only Karimov seemed to see clearly. State TV reran the entire speech, no doubt for fear Karimov might watch and wonder why his unique insight had been edited out.

There have been many rumors about Karimov's health, and lately they are coming more frequently. Most assume Karimov's presidency will expire when the man himself expires.

Constitutionally, that would be the easiest way to transfer power to someone else.

But there is another option, and it requires certifying that the president is no longer fit to execute the duties of the office of president. However, there are few actions more dangerous than trying to declare a longtime dictator incompetent to remain head of state.

-- Ozodlik director Alisher Sidikov helped to prepare this report​

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: TheSaucyMugwump from:
April 16, 2015 17:53
Amusing article, but isn't it really a silly dictator story? Karimov's comment, "if the president is revealing secrets and if you become the holder of these secrets, you become closer to me," actually makes sense when you think about it, especially in a totalitarian state. It's far more lucid than Obama's off-teleprompter gaffe comparing Daesh to a JV team or Putin asserting that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. Karimov's probably better suited to the Russian equivalent of Leisure World, but I do hope you post a follow-up and include snippets of past, off-the-cuff remarks so we can judge for ourselves the level of Brezhnev-style decrepitude.

P.S. The reader tells you now, don't be afraid.
In Response

by: Bruce Pannier from: Prague
April 17, 2015 08:28
Hello SaucyMugwump and welcome back to Qishloq Ovozi.

Thanks for the comment. I can’t agree having a leader showing signs of senility is a silly dictator story, especially when it's the leader of a country of 31 million people who face economic and security problems.

It would be an interesting study to compare the texts of Karimov's previous speeches with the audio/video of the speeches themselves and see how he fared when he departed from the script. But that would require a great deal of time.

All I can say is I've been following Karimov and his comments for more than 20 years. He's said some things in public that I considered undiplomatic and ill-advised such as accusing Tajik government officials of involvement in the illegal narcotics trade or telling the Uzbek parliament that Tajik President Rahmon should remember on whose tanks he came to power, or remarking that the poor people of a neighboring country (Kyrgyzstan) with an academic (Askar Akaev) as a leader had to come to Uzbekistan to buy bread, describing former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak as the "weeping Bolshevik" (then laughing), or bringing up the very real possibility water would be the cause of war in Central Asia.

But it was always clear what Karimov meant.

These comments from his most recent inauguration appeared to be less well formulated. The Uzbek Service here told me about it and we went over what Karimov said. I would have trusted the long experience of the members of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in listening to, and interpreting Karimov's words in any case, but I had to agree, based on what I've heard and remember him saying over the years, these recent comments were uncharacteristic of Karimov. He's been much sharper in the past.

I like the P.S. also. Thank you. Qorqmayman.

Please do the same. If you questions, ask them. If you have comments, tell me. Your opinions will always be welcome at the Qishloq, I promise.
In Response

by: Aftab Kazi from: Washington DC
April 20, 2015 20:11
I saw Excellency Islam Karimov last month addressing the Navruz crowd. Despite his age, he performed normal as he usually does. Previously I have seen him speaking occasionally, written or extempore without ever repeating a single word. Reporting is biased deliberately styling so he looks bad. Obviously, his original presentation has been translated approximately four times, yet it fails to make any sense of the Uzbek/Russian proverbs he used without any intercultural sensitivity. Speaking about having each other's secrets, in fact meant that we have earned each other's confidence. It is sad that besides the report, even the indigenous proverbs have been stereotyped. Reporter fails to explains that President Karimov ran this election at the behest of his people for two reasons, election was about security and foreign policy and public trusted him to anchor. His participation was made possible only after the approval by the Members of the House of Representatives. Per the opinion of independent election observations it was conducted elegantly and efficiently. This time OSCE/ODIHR found herself without words and simply offered a an empty bureaucratic comment which had nothing to do with the election, only to allegedly malign the Honorable president who is considered the father of The modern Uzbekistan. It is unfortunate that the RFE/RL staff has once again crossed the limits of objectivity, which is further demonstrated by failing to understand the Uzbek indigenous proverbs as well as the indigenous Uzbek protocols to address the foreign diplomats. Whatever the West may call him, he is certainly better than sever corrupt monarchs and leaders we call democrats.
In Response

by: Justin from: UK
April 17, 2015 09:16
Having spent some eight years working on and off in Uzbekistan as an international consultant I have a very good idea of the national feeling towards Karimov and sympathise with the people who ARE afraid. The question that has not been posed and will affect the future of Uzbekistan is: simply who is strong enough to counter the ISIS threat that is building? I hate to say it but Karimov has the power to do this. I very much doubt that ISIS will miss the opportunity to move in the moment he, or his rule, comes to an end.
In Response

by: TheSaucyMugwump from:
April 17, 2015 14:48
You make a very good point. Of the five Central Asian countries, only Kyrgyzstan is not a one-man or one-party state, and Kyrgyzstan appears to be sending the most recruits to Daesh's killing fields in Syria and Iraq. Add to that the recent RFE-RL article (see below) which noted that Kosovo, the most European Islamic (95.6% Muslim) state and one which has been sheltered, if not spoiled, by the non-Russian world, ranks "(first per capita) among the 22 Western states with citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq." Bosnia is #2 and Albania is #4.

Report Finds Alarming Outflow Of Kosovars To Islamic State

Karimov's advisors may continue his policies until the day he drops dead, but then what? His daughter, Gulnara, has been removed from the succession plan, so has the power struggle already begun?

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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