This was the headline from a report the Fergananews.com website carried at the end of December about the March 29 Uzbek presidential election.
“Incumbent President Islam Karimov’s Reelection Scheduled For March 2015"
It is a reliable prediction since, barring an act of God, Karimov is certain to be elected for the fourth time, or put another way, for his second unconstitutional term in office (see Article 90 of Uzbekistan’s constitution).
Karimov has been the poster boy for “Central Asia’s strongmen” for more than two decades and during that time earned a reputation as a rights abuser, an enemy of the press, and a neighborhood bully.
But he recently turned 77. He has been the subject of health rumors for some time now -- and lately those rumors have gathered more steam. Well-publicized family problems, which include his eldest daughter currently being under house arrest, have caused Karimov some embarrassment and raised questions about his control over his inner circle.
His country seems headed for some tough economic times, as migrant laborers in Russia return to unemployment in Uzbekistan and a large part of the remittances they’ve been sending home ($6.6 billion in 2013) evaporate. There are also fresh security concerns now that Afghan troops are fully responsible for security in their country, including the area bordering Uzbekistan.
And there is the huge matter of leadership succession in Central Asia’s most populous country.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a roundtable on the challenges during Karimov’s upcoming five-year term.
Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion with Sanjar Umarov, leader-in-exile of Uzbekistan’s opposition Sunshine Coalition; Joanna Lillis from EurasiaNet and author of many articles about Uzbekistan; Alisher Sidikov, the director of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik; and myself.
Figures from international financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank show Uzbekistan weathered the recent global economic crisis fairly well with GDP growth of more than 8 percent or more annually for several straight years. But Russia’s sharp economic decline is likely to hit Uzbekistan’s economy hard.
Sidikov said the economy would be a major challenge for Karimov during his next term as work becomes harder to find in Russia, remittances dry up, and hundreds of thousands of Uzbek citizens return home.Finding jobs for them will be difficult and if they remain unemployed there could be social unrest.
Uzbekistan can still count on Chinese investment but Russia is currently not in a position to sink money into Uzbekistan, a fact underscored by Moscow’s recent decision to greatly reduce imports of Central Asian gas. Until very recently, most of Uzbekistan’s exported gas went to Russia. China is building four gas pipelines to Central Asia but it is still several years until all those pipelines are finished.
Lillis pointed out “Western investors shun the country, not really so much because of political uncertainty although that is a factor, but mainly because many Western investors have had terrible experiences in Uzbekistan [some] had their businesses appropriated.”
Karimov is unlikely to have the luxury of devoting his full attention to looming economic problems.
The panelists agreed the biggest question hanging over Karimov’s next term in office is whether he’ll live through all five years and that opened the door for a discussion on succession.
Sidikov said that while deciding the succession question should be one Karimov’s priorities during the next term, the Uzbek president might spend more time ensuring an exit strategy for some of his family members after his death. Sidikov said the process has already started. “They [the Karimov family] don’t invest in their future in Uzbekistan, they don’t see themselves in Uzbekistan long term…they don’t have a long-term perspective for their stay.”
There is no member of the Karimov family who is a legitimate contender to take over once President Karimov dies. That leaves someone from the inner circle.
There has been a struggle for positioning at the top levels of the Uzbek government for years now. But it’s become more intense in the last year, since the downfall of Gulnara Karimova, the would-be socialite, musician, politician, and presidential daughter. This spectacular fall from grace of not just Gulnara but many of her associates was clearly orchestrated by someone within the Uzbek government.
Lillis said during Karimov’s next presidential term “the question of political stability is going to come to the fore much more…there's going to be a lot of questions about the unresolved succession and I think that we're going to see a lot of behind the scenes, or possibly public infighting.”
The head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, is suspected of masterminding Gulnara’s downfall. He is also mentioned as one of the likely successors to Karimov. The fact that Inoyatov, 70, has been the SNB chief for 20 years speaks volumes about the power he must have.
Umarov said he did not believe Inoyatov would succeed Karimov, pointing out that in the wake of the Andijon massacre in May 2005, Inoyatov was one of the Uzbek officials hit by the European Union with a travel ban. President Karimov was not put on that list. So Inoyatov’s odious reputation for violating rights complicates his chances for assuming Uzbekistan’s top post.
But it was noted that the SNB will have a large say in who is chosen to be Uzbekistan’s second president.
The panelists covered much more ground during the discussion, which can be heard in its entirety at:
Turkmen Service Roundtable
-- Bruce Pannier