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Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is considered a likely candidate to succeed the late Islam Karimov as the country's president. (file photo)

In a country whose government kept silent for four full days after revealing that its only post-Soviet leader was in the hospital with an undisclosed ailment, it's tough to read the tea leaves about who might come to power in the wake of President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced by Uzbek state TV on September 2.

There have been hints, however, that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev could be the most likely candidate.

Experts outside Uzbekistan spoke of Mirziyaev as a main contender for the helm in the first days after the government's August 28 announcement. There were further indications later in the week when Mirziyaev led a procession to lay flowers at the Independence Monument in Tashkent on August 31, the eve of Uzbekistan's Independence Day. That task had previously been reserved for Karimov.

And on September 1 -- a day before the government announced that Karimov was in critical condition after a stroke -- Mirziyaev abruptly flew to Samarkand, the president's native town. Reports from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, showed there was frantic activity under way cleaning streets and digging in the cemetery where Karimov's mother and one of his brothers are buried.

Mirziyaev, 58, has been in his post since 2003, making him the longest serving prime minister in Uzbekistan's 25-year history as an independent country. Prior to that he was the governor of the Samarkand Province (2001-03), and the Jizzakh Province (1996-2001).

He was reportedly born in the Jizzakh area. His parents were doctors. In his university years Mirziyaev trained in irrigation and mechanized farming. He became a local leader in the Komsomol, the Soviet-era youth group.

'Hot Temper'

Mirziyaev has spent his time as prime minister in the shadow of Karimov, drawing little attention despite what some who have known him say is a hot temper and a stubborn streak.

Sharaf Ubaidullaev, who served as Karimov's spokesman during the 1990s and is no longer in Uzbekistan, described Mirziyayev as an "unpredictable" man and one "who always believes he is right."

During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh, Mirziyayev was reported to have beaten up a farmer who dared complain about the situation in the province.

Ubaidullaev told RFE/RL that this happened to more than one farmer, and that it was known that people who failed to meet state production quotas were likely to be punished once Mirziyaev found out.

Asked whether he thought Mirziyaev would be a better or worse president than Karimov, Ubaidullaev was quick with his answer: "Worse."

He also expressed doubt that Mirziyaev could lead Uzbekistan effectively on his own, saying: "He is not independent like Karimov."

ALSO READ: Analysis: The 'Day After' Has Arrived For Uzbekistan

Ubaidullaev suggested that made it all the more probable that Mirziyaev would lead an "oligarchy," granting informal power to tycoons in what he said would be one of the worst scenarios for Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president dies or is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament assumes the president's authority for a period of three months, and a new election is held.

The current head of the upper chamber, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, is not widely seen as a likely contender for the presidency.

In addition to Mirziyaev, others viewed as potential successors of Karimov include Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56, and National Security Committee (SNB) chief Rustam Inoyatov, 72.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service and Reuters
Islam Karimov has been president since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 and for most it is now difficult to imagine life without him at the helm. (file photo)

Despite a series of rumored illnesses in the past and his advanced age, the news that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was suddenly hospitalized after suffering what his daughter said was a brain hemorrhage was a shock to people in Uzbekistan and further afield.

Uzbek authorities have long had a reputation for saying nothing in times of crisis and the current situation with Karimov's health has proven no exception to this established habit of silence.

But it does appear clear enough that Karimov, 78, will no longer be able to serve as president, a thought that pleases the many who feared him for years but at the same time raises questions about what Uzbekistan will look like under a new leader.

Like him or hate him, Karimov has been president since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 and for most it is now difficult to imagine life without him at the helm.

To take a look at what's been happening in Uzbekistan since the announcement that Karimov was hospitalized -- and what Uzbekistan might look like in the days to come -- RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel discussion, to look at what we know about Karimov's condition, what the situation is like in Uzbekistan as people wait for news about the president, and what might come next.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Participating from Washington was Paul Stronski, senior Central Asian analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Taking part from Prague was Shahida Yakub, a producer and newscaster at RFE/RL's Current Time video news program, who grew up in Uzbekistan. Alisher Sidik, the head of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, also joined in the talk. And some of you might have noticed I've been writing a few things about Karimov and Uzbekistan over the years, so I had something to say as well.

Brief Statement

The first indication of how serious Karimov's condition was came when the Cabinet of Ministers released a brief statement on August 28 saying the president had been hospitalized and was receiving necessary medical care. It was the first time in 25 years such a statement about Karimov had ever been issued.

Sidik said, "We assume the prime minister [Shavkat Mirziyaev] is in charge at this moment."

But that was not entirely clear several days after Karimov was taken to the hospital.

Yakub said, "My sources say that he's dead and we tried to verify this information with multiple sources by joining our journalistic efforts and inside information and it looks like he's dead." According to Uzbek officials Karimov's condition is "stable" but there has been no elaboration of what that means, though these officials contend he is alive.

Karimov's younger daughter Lola was the person who said, on Instagram, that her father was hospitalized after a cerebral hemorrhage and on August 31 she posted another comment on Instagram indicating that, according to her information, Karimov was alive and might recover.

Independence Celebrations 'Forced Their Hand'

Karimov's condition is dire enough that it is already clear he will not make his annual appearance at September 1 Independence Day celebrations; an August 31 ceremony that he has attended annually was cancelled. Since this was planned to be a huge gala celebration for the 25th anniversary of independence, it is another sign Karimov's condition is serious. He has never missed an Independence Day celebration.

Stronski said, "This was the big celebration that everyone was expecting, this was the time to celebrate Uzbek sovereignty and Uzbek statehood and the fact that 25 years later it's a strong state and one of the main powers in Central Asia."

Stronski added that were it not for the impending celebration there might have been no statement about Karimov's health at all.

"I think these celebrations really forced their hand in having to announce this [his illness]," Stronski explained.

If Karimov remains unable to act as president, or if he is indeed dead, an announcement about a transfer of power -- at least temporary -- should come soon. Sidik said that "according to the constitution, the chairman of the Uzbek Senate should take over for three months and organize the [presidential] election in Uzbekistan."

However, Sidik noted that the constitutional transition process was altered in Azerbaijan and bypassed in Turkmenistan following the deaths of the leaders of those countries. Uzbekistan has already shown it can ignore its own constitution. Karimov was constitutionally limited to two terms in office but he has been elected four times, with two referendums extending his terms.

Yakub said she did not think Uzbekistan would go the way of Turkmenistan. "It's [Uzbekistan is] a different country, it's much bigger [by population], it's much more complicated. There are people who have serious financial interests as well as interests of actual physical survival."

Keeping A Close Watch

Stronski said many governments will be closely watching the course of events as Uzbekistan moves to select the country's second president. He discounted that most of these governments could or would want to try to interfere in this process though he mentioned "Russia's going to be watching very closely, hoping that whoever rises to the top is someone who is going to be favorable towards Russia, not too Western."

But important for Western countries, Stronski said, would be that the transition is "going according to the constitution." And he added it would probably be important for Uzbekistan "to show that it's a rule-of-law society."

As for what policies a new Uzbek administration would pursue, Sidik said it was likely there would be little change. "It's not only Karimov who was behind this isolation of Uzbekistan in the middle of all these countries, it's more like the model the country has chosen," Sidik said.

The big question of course was who is likely to be Karimov's successor (background on this can be found here). There were different opinions about this. Yakub said that the role of Rustam Inoyatov would not only be a decisive factor, but that Inoyatov could "surprise us and select someone else, some person that we know is in the government but we never thought would take the lead, or somebody absolutely new."

The discussion explored these issues more thoroughly and dealt with other topics concerning possible changes to domestic and foreign policy.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast -- Where Are We Now And What's Next?
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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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