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Uzbek President Islam Karimov (left) with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Shanghai in 2014. The friendly relations both countries have enjoyed in recent years could change depending on who succeeds the late Uzbek leader.

Following the death of Islam Karimov, the uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan's leadership transition has caused particular alarm in China. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

On September 2, Uzbekistan's government announced the death of longtime President Islam Karimov. While Uzbekistan has remained tranquil in the days immediately following Karimov's death, the fact that he did not publicly anoint a favored successor has increased the risk of a prolonged power struggle in Tashkent.

Many Central Asia experts fear that political instability could disrupt Uzbekistan's natural gas exports and make the country a nexus for Islamic extremism in the region.

The uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan's leadership transition has caused particular alarm in China. Chinese policymakers fear that Karimov's death could cause Uzbekistan to strengthen its security ties with Russia. This would erode China's leverage over its most important Central Asian partner.

The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbek liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to China, and increase the threat posed by Uzbekistan-based Islamic extremist movements to China's security.

Why Karimov's Death Could Weaken The China-Uzbekistan Partnership

Even though Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and exports large quantities of LNG natural gas to China, Karimov's death could weaken the burgeoning alliance between Beijing and Tashkent. Karimov's pro-Chinese foreign policy stance was rooted in his disdain for Russia's hegemonic aspirations in Central Asia. The Uzbek government also viewed China as a consistent partner, as it defended Uzbekistan when the United States criticized Karimov for egregious human rights abuses.

The extent of China's loyalty to Karimov was revealed by Beijing's handling of the 2005 Andijon massacre. After that massacre, the United States called for an international investigation into the Uzbek government's repression of Andijon demonstrators. But China refused to condemn Karimov's conduct.

China supported Karimov's claim that 187 civilians were killed in the Andijon massacre, and rejected Western media allegations that Uzbek military repression caused the deaths of 750 civilians. Karimov rewarded China's loyalty to his government over the Andijon massacre by supporting China's territorial claims to Taiwan and strengthening counterterrorism cooperation with Beijing.

The absence of personal loyalty bonds between Chinese officials and Uzbekistan's new leader might cause Tashkent to drift away from China's orbit. The likelihood of a China-Uzbekistan rift would grow significantly if Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- who is serving as interim president until a December 4 election -- emerges as Karimov's successor.

Mirziyaev's rumored alliance with Rustam Inoyatov, the former KGB officer who heads of the Uzbek Internal Security Service, has caused some analysts to predict an imminent improvement in the Uzbekistan-Russia relationship.

The growth of Uzbek nationalist sentiments and Russia's economic recession make Uzbekistan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) an unlikely scenario.

However, enhanced Tashkent-Moscow security policy coordination is more likely, as Uzbekistan was a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member from 1992-1999 and 2006-2012. If Uzbekistan rejoins the CSTO, China's leverage over Uzbekistan's security policies will dramatically diminish.

Even if Uzbekistan's foreign policy does not radically change as a result of Karimov's death, Mirziyaev's history of impulsive violence and thuggish reputation could cause alarm in Beijing. China has strengthened its relationship with Uzbekistan, in part because it viewed Karimov as a steady-handed dictator presiding over a highly authoritarian regime.

Interim Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)
Interim Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)

If Uzbekistan's international conduct were to become more unpredictable under Mirziyaev's rule, China could redirect its investments and diplomatic energies towards strengthening its budding partnerships with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A Chinese pivot away from Uzbekistan would be devastating for Tashkent, as Uzbekistan stands to benefit more than any other Central Asian country from China's One Belt, One Road funding.

If Mirziyaev's erratic conduct was to cause a schism within the elite that prevented him from maintaining complete dominance over Uzbekistan's political life, as Karimov did, Uzbekistan's relationship with China could suffer. Uzbek political analyst Anvar Nazirov recently told Eurasianet that Karimov's absolute control over the Uzbek media has restricted coverage of winter fuel shortages caused by excessive Uzbek gas exports to China.

If Uzbek elites opposed to the Samarkand clan's political hegemony foment anti-Chinese nationalist sentiments, many Uzbeks may no longer view alignment with China as a lesser evil to Russian neo-imperialism. This change in perception would weaken the soft power foundations of China's most important Central Asian alliance and cause considerable strains in the Uzbekistan-China relationship.

How Karimov's Death Could Undercut The China-Uzbekistan Security Partnership

Even though China elevated its relationship with Uzbekistan to a strategic partnership at the Tashkent SCO summit on June 22, instability in Uzbekistan resulting from Karimov's death could threaten China's strategic interests. Chinese policymakers are concerned that unrest in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbekistan's LNG sales to China.

Uzbekistan has drastically increased its gas exports to China in recent years to take advantage of Beijing's investments in Central Asian gas pipelines and dilute China's reliance on Russian gas. Three major Chinese-funded gas pipelines run through Uzbekistan. These pipelines contribute 20 percent of China's annual natural gas consumption. According to a recent Global Risk Insights report, Chinese investors are in the process of constructing a fourth pipeline that would pump an additional 30 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan.

As Uzbekistan's gas exports to China directly threaten Russia's interests, Moscow could offer Uzbekistan's new president security guarantees that require Tashkent to slow the growth of its gas exports to China. The resolution of the 2015 Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan dispute on Russia's terms provides a useful precedent for Russian President Vladimir Putin to apply to the Uzbekistan-China relationship.

Journalist Chris Rickleton suggested in a January 2015 article for Eurasianet that Russia offered to forgive Uzbek debt if Karimov agreed to resume gas exports to southern Kyrgyzstan. This implies that, if Russia provides Tashkent with the right incentives, Uzbekistan could align with Moscow's preferences and restrict China's access to Uzbekistan's natural gas reserves.

A suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek late last month has heightened Beijing's concerns about extremism in Central Asia.
A suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek late last month has heightened Beijing's concerns about extremism in Central Asia.

Chinese policymakers are also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could strengthen Islamic extremist groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic State (IS). The August 30 attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, has heightened Beijing's concerns about the threat posed by radical Islamists in Central Asia. As Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have a long-standing border dispute, Chinese officials are worried that radicalized Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan could cross the shared border and launch terror attacks against Chinese nationals in Kyrgyzstan.

To appease Chinese policymakers and maintain Uzbekistan's secular authoritarian system, Uzbekistan's new president will likely continue Karimov's repression of Islamist movements. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to a power struggle between the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, internal discord could empower Uzbek Islamic extremist movements, which direct their animosities towards China.

According to a Eurasianet report that cited an unnamed translator at a company working on Uzbekistan's Angren-Pap railroad project, many Uzbek Islamists disdain Chinese guest workers because the majority of Chinese expats are atheists. The IMU's official alignment with IS in mid-2015 has further increased the risk of religiously motivated terror attacks on Chinese Confucian institutes in Uzbekistan.

The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could fuel Uyghur terrorism in China's Xinjiang province. An estimated 55,000 Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, and some Uyghur insurgents have a cordial relationship with the IMU. Some analysts have speculated that the IMU could militarize Uyghurs in Uzbekistan to attack Chinese-funded pipeline projects in Uzbekistan. This scenario could compromise China-Uzbekistan counterterrorism cooperation under the SCO umbrella, and undercut the security foundations of Beijing's Central Asian strategy.

Islam Karimov's death has plunged the future of the China-Uzbekistan partnership into a prolonged period of uncertainty. If Uzbekistan undergoes a smooth presidential succession to the rule of Mirziyaev or Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, Beijing-Tashkent relations will likely remain largely unchanged. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to inter-clan strife and the rising tide of Islamic extremism, China stands to lose a critical Central Asian ally.

Regardless of how Uzbekistan's political future unfolds, Chinese policymakers will be keeping a close eye on developments in Tashkent in the months and years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a freelance journalist. He can be followed on Twitter (@samramani2) and on Facebook (Samuel Ramani).
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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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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