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Qishloq Ovozi

Interim Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand on September 6.

For those accustomed to watching the slow movement of Uzbekistan’s government over the years, this month has already been a shock.

On September 1, the country marked 25 years of independence. The next day, the government announced that the only president the country has ever known, Islam Karimov, was dead. Karimov was buried on September 3, a three-day mourning period ended September 5, and the next day Russian President Vladimir Putin flew in to pay his respects. Putin met with Karimov’s presumed successor, Shavkat Mirziyaev, who on September 8 was made acting president at a joint session of Uzbekistan’s parliament -- even though the constitution says presidential responsibilities go to the Senate chairman in the event of the president’s death.

The chairman, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, requested that parliament hand over those responsibilities to Mirziyaev. Parliament approved, naturally, and then called on the Central Election Commission to prepare for a presidential election within three months. It is scheduled for December 4.

On the day Putin arrived in Samarkand to visit Karimov’s grave and meet with Mirziyaev, RFE/RL convened the Majlis podcast to discuss Uzbekistan’s power transition. During the discussion, Mirziyaev was already the odds-on favorite for the presidency, so the panelists’ comments hold up, even with Mirziyaev’s appointment as acting president.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From St. Louis, Sarah Kendzior, author of many articles about Central Asia, including the annual report on Uzbekistan in Freedom House's Nations In Transit, joined the talk. From the United States, but usually based in Central Asia, Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch (HRW) also took part. The head of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, Alisher Sidik, participated. And some of you might have noticed I’ve been writing some things about Uzbekistan, so I had something to say also.

Sidik started by reviewing how Uzbek authorities knew early on that Karimov was essentially brain dead after he had his stroke on August 27 but was kept on life support until after Independence Day. Sidik said that publicly, in the days after Karimov’s death, there seemed to be strong and positive sentiment among some people in Uzbekistan for their deceased leader. Sidik said Karimov opposed “the idea of being [the subject of] a cult of personality when he was alive. After he’s dead, there’s no longer anything to stop people to turn him into this cult.”

Not everyone might feel that way about Karimov, but it should be admitted that there are many in Uzbekistan who are saddened by the death of their leader for the last 27 years (counting two years as head of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan).

Despite having no experience at a transfer of presidential power, the small group of Uzbek officials who have been making the decisions since Karimov’s death have maintained an image of business as usual in Uzbekistan. Kendzior said there are no visible signs of a power vacuum.

“From the beginning, they’ve been trying to make the appearance of a smooth transition of power,” she said.

Swerdlow said his organization has received information about “document searches” being conducted by authorities in Tashkent and that “even elite families have not been left untouched by random searches.” Swerdlow said that on the part of the officials now making decisions in Uzbekistan, there is still “a lot of paranoia, a lot of questions about who could present problems for the regime.”

The panel reviewed some of the key players who are now in charge of Uzbekistan and speculated as to how some of them might act in the coming months until and shortly after the presidential election. There was agreement that solidarity among the elites now running the country was likely to last for a while but that eventually a time would come when there would be attempts to remove some of the people in government who have been close to Karimov for many years.

Kendzior pointed out it was still unclear how the people would react to Mirziyaev as president. She noted that Karimov, as “first president,” had -- for some Uzbeks -- an air of legitimacy that no future president will be able to claim.

“How does that transfer onto another person. How does another person have that same sense of authority or legitimacy, and will others challenge him?” Kendzior said.

Swerdlow recalled that when he was working in Uzbekistan, before authorities evicted HRW, he met with people who had encountered Mirziyaev.

“We know from farmers that Mirziyaev was basically an enforcer in terms of making sure cotton quotas are met across the country and that each region is delivering the cotton quota that’s required of it,” Swerdlow said, adding, “He’s known for his fiery temper. He’s known for being a very tough personality and obviously that’s not a good precedent.”

However, Sidik pointed out that while Karimov remained at the presidential palace, Mirziyaev had to go out, visit the various regions of Uzbekistan, meet with local leaders, and see for himself what was getting done and what wasn’t. So Mirziyaev should have a better idea of the current situation in the country than Karimov did in his last years in office.

The Majlis also talked about what changes might be made in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Russia, in particular, was discussed as the Russian government has many connections to Uzbekistan that are not immediately apparent. Sidik said he thought Mirziyaev will “be good for Russia.”

Swerdlow expressed the hope that Western nations involved in the security operations in Afghanistan would press Uzbekistan a bit harder now that the foreign presence in Afghanistan is winding down. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, has been a Western ally during this campaign. Karimov’s government insisted that, in return for its cooperation, Western nations should check their criticism of Uzbekistan’s internal policies.

This discussion focused more closely on these issues and ranged into other areas that will provide key challenges for the second president of Uzbekistan and his government. Sidik even provided an update on the whereabouts of Karimov’s elder daughter, Gulnara, who has been under house arrest and unseen in public for some two years now.

Majlis Podcast: Uzbekistan Without Karimov
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Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) talks with Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian in 1991

A lot has been written about the now deceased Uzbek President Islam Karimov this past week and more will appear in the coming days.

Uzbek state media have played up what they have portrayed as Karimov’s achievements for years and those tales have only gotten taller in recent days. In Western accounts, a more common picture is of a cruel dictator who had prisoners boiled alive and ordered the massacre of civilians in Andijon in May 2005.

I’ve met some of the Central Asian leaders but never Karimov. I have been persona non grata in Uzbekistan for more than a decade and haven’t set foot there since the early days of this century.

But for more than 10 years, starting in 1990, I roamed all over the country. During the course of that decade I met with people everywhere and I remembered what they told me. I continued to travel around and watch as the country changed under Karimov’s rule.

As media and various worthy authorities and authors recall Karimov’s life, it seems a good time to remember his image, among the people of his country, in the first years of his leadership. It’s a story I saw with my own eyes.

In the summer of 1990, I was a student at Tashkent State University, studying the Uzbek language. I wasn’t the only American studying there that summer, but we were few. To the local students, we were exotic animals, so it was easy to meet people and make new friends.

I don’t remember Karimov’s name coming up even once in conversation, though by that time he had been president of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan since March of that year -- and first secretary of the Communist Party there since June 1989. I knew who Kazakhstan’s leader was -- Nursultan Nazarbaev -- because I had seen him many times on Soviet television with Mikhail Gorbachev. But Karimov, no.

When I left Uzbekistan in August 1990, I still had no idea who was running the republic.

When I returned in the spring of 1992 and got to Tashkent, I got my first news about Islam Karimov. That was just a couple of months after the student riots in Tashkent. Officially, only a few people were killed when students in Tashkent protested on January 16-17 over the rise in prices for basic goods, but the people I met told me stories that indicated the number of dead was far higher -- “more than 100,” “more than 200.”

A lot of students at Tashkent State were being sent back to their homes in regions around Uzbekistan. People believed Karimov gave the order to crack down on the students, but they saw this as simply a typical Soviet reaction to unrest.

Tohir Yuldash
Tohir Yuldash

Strangely, when I passed through the Ferghana Valley, no one ever told me about Karimov’s humiliation in Namangan in December 1991, when Tohir Yuldash, later to be a leader of the infamous Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), had forced Karimov to sit and listen as Yuldash lectured him on proper governance. I found out about that much later -- in 1994 and 1995 -- from local rights activists.

The years 1992 and 1993 were a confusing time, not only in Uzbekistan but around Central Asia. No one knew how independence was supposed to work. There was an endless shuffle of local officials as one after another proved incapable or too greedy to be allowed to remain in their posts. I would meet the head of a village, but when I came back three or four months later it was almost always someone different. People in the villages were very unhappy, a bit scared, and already wondering if independence was a big mistake.

The first time I remember seeing Karimov was in the summer of 1992. I was with three Uzbek friends at one their flats and we were watching a session of parliament on state television. They were debating the important matter of whether deputies should stop addressing each other using the Russian word “tovarishch” -- comrade -- and switch to the Uzbek equivalent “yoldosh.” Karimov took the podium and started talking, and I was immediately confused.

“My Uzbek is worse than I thought,” I told my friends. “I can’t understand what he’s saying.”

They all started laughing.

“It’s not your Uzbek, it’s his. He can’t speak it,” they replied.

Uzbek media would later portray Karimov as having led Uzbekistan and its people out of the repressive Soviet Union. But the fact is he could only speak to his people in Russian at first. Karimov did learn Uzbek eventually, but he always seemed more comfortable speaking Russian.

During those times in 1992 and 1993 when I would be at a hotel in Tashkent or Samarkand, I noticed a growing emphasis on television programs about the military. Karimov had been the first in Central Asia to order Russian soldiers out of the country and call Uzbek soldiers in Soviet units in other former republics to come home. It seemed clear enough that Karimov wanted his country to be the military power in Central Asia. I think that was one of the reasons Karimov resented the presence of Russian troops or border guards in the neighboring Central Asian states: It prevented his country from being the dominant power in the region, as he envisioned.

A woman prays as a motorcade carrying the body of President Islam Karimov passes by in Tashkent on September 3.
A woman prays as a motorcade carrying the body of President Islam Karimov passes by in Tashkent on September 3.

I was surprised Karimov refused to allow refugees from the Tajik civil war into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was letting them in. I would even see them in the Almaty area and I encountered them in Turkmenistan, too, though I have no idea by which route they arrived there. But not in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek-Tajik border was the first closed border in Central Asia because that was what the Uzbek government wanted.

For most of 1992 there were no border posts on any of the other roads in Central Asia. I passed from one country into another without any sign that I had crossed. Uzbekistan was the first country to establish border posts along the roads; it started happening in autumn 1992, in the Ferghana Valley. By the time I left at the end of 1993, it was impossible to drive into Uzbekistan from any of the neighboring countries without being stopped and checked.

When I went back in 1995, people had mixed feelings about Karimov. Some had uncomplimentary names for him by then, but most felt that, despite a recent referendum extending his rule until 2000, he wouldn’t stay for many more years -- and there was some optimism that the next leader would get the country on a better, more prosperous path.

That was still the prevailing attitude when I went back in 1996.

My next trip was in 1998 and it coincided with the May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II. For the first time, I noticed the larger presence of police around Tashkent. Even in the countryside, there were more of them than was previously the case.

People talked about Karimov but they were much more cautious in their comments and they never said bad things about the president if other people were nearby.

As part of that trip, I went to meet with the grand mufti of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. I remember being led into his office and seeing a bookshelf with the Koran and a copy of one of Karimov’s books on it.

The next day I left the Hotel Uzbekistan and walked into one of the passages under the street. On both sides of the corridor people had stalls and were selling various items. I stopped at one selling books and looked at what they had. It was mostly books about how to use computers or learn English, but up in the corner of one shelf collecting dust was Karimov’s book Stability And Reform: Articles And Speeches. I told the woman working there that I would buy that and she gave me a puzzled look that said, “Why on Earth would you want that?”

I still have that book on my shelf, collecting dust just as it was when I found it. Never made it past Page 5.

I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 to cover the IMU incursion. I didn’t cross into Uzbekistan proper on that trip, though I did pass through the Soh exclave while traveling to and back from Batken, the closest town to the front line in Kyrgyzstan. I had passed through Soh a half dozen times at least before that, but on my way back in 1999 I was detained and questioned for a few hours. The Uzbek Army officials, and the man with the necktie who showed up, told me flat out that they had every right to hold me and that I had to tell them everything I knew about what was happening in Batken. They were polite enough, but they were absolutely firm about me staying until they were satisfied they had learned all they could from me.

I returned to Uzbekistan in 2000 for the same reason: an incursion by the IMU, this time into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The game then was very different than it had been. I was clearly unwelcome. The only reason I reached the places I needed to go was because I knew my way around Uzbekistan so well by then. Every official I encountered had something to say to me, usually a warning. In Tashkent, I was able to buy a round-trip plane ticket to Termez but only after I endured a lecture in which they accused RFE/RL of “giving terrorists a microphone.” (We had interviewed an IMU spokesman.)

I made it to Sariosiya, the closest place I could get to the front lines. There was a camp for refugees who’d been brought from the mountains where the fighting was going on. There were a couple hundred of them sheltering at a children’s camp near Sariosiya. They were all ethnic Tajiks.

They told me they were given a few hours to collect the possessions of a lifetime. The military told them they would never return to their villages, that the area was being seeded with land mines and it would henceforth be too dangerous to live there.

There was not much to do at the camp. In the evening, they staged some wrestling matches, and most of the men and many of the women and children gathered around to watch. There was a great moment -- a badly needed moment -- when two elderly men, well into their 70s, went out and engaged in combat in the ring. We all smiled and laughed and after about 45 seconds some young men broke up the wrestling match and the two aksakals -- whitebeards -- exited the ring to receive handshakes and pats on the back from members of the audience.

I heard a few months later that the authorities had arrested and imprisoned all of the men between 18 and 45 who were there. When the armed militants had arrived in their villages, they heeded commands to hand over some food and provide shelter to the militants. The government considered those villagers to be collaborators.

I was followed most of the time I was there. When I arrived later at the family home of IMU leader Yuldash in Namangan to speak with his mother, two cars pulled in right behind mine and four men got out and stood behind me a few meters as I tried to speak with this elderly and clearly frightened woman.

On those occasions when I felt I was not being watched and could engage in more open conversation with people, it became apparent they were scared. There was a crackdown. Authorities were looking for potential IMU sympathizers. I spoke with one pious Muslim who told me he kept a crate of vodka just inside the entrance to his flat for all visitors to see. He had been questioned by the security service several times and had taken to offering a shot or two of vodka to security service agents when they showed up.

“They don’t think I’m an extremist when they see the vodka,” he told me.

It was quite a transformation in just some 10 years. I remember the fun I had there in the early 1990s and that everyone around me, even police and officials, shared in it, too. Life was uncertain, but we had good times when we could, which was often. By the end of the 1990s, life was very certain, but the good times were few and far between.

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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