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Uzbekistan's 'Big Papa' Karimov Marks 20 Years Of Iron-Fisted Rule

With his health said to be declining, the question now is, "Who comes after Karimov?"
Uzbeks call him "Big Papa" or, less flatteringly, "Yurtbashi" -- the head of the yurt-dwellers.

Nicknames aside, Islam Karimov is possibly the most feared man in Central Asia.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Karimov's selection as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. He has remained in power ever since, transitioning to become the president of independent Uzbekistan in 1991. During that time, he has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist and forced his will on neighboring countries at every opportunity.

Under his rule, Uzbekistan has emerged as the region's dominant military power. His country -- the region's most populous, with 28 million people -- borders each of the other Central Asian states, as well as Afghanistan, and its relations with its neighbors has been fractious at best.

But it has always been Karimov's unique personality that has dominated headlines coming out of Uzbekistan.

'Give Me A Gun'

An economist by training, the Uzbek leader is known for his less-than-diplomatic rhetoric and his zeal for propelling his country in the direction of his choosing.

"If you don't have the will, give me a gun and I will shoot them in the head myself," he once famously announced to lawmakers, exhorting them to crack down on Islamic extremists.

Karimov meets with Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) in Moscow in 1991.
As far back as 1990, on the eve of his election as president of the Uzbek Soviet republic, Karimov was uncompromising in his vision of how the country should be led.

"If you elect me president tomorrow, then I need the right to dissolve parliament. Then I would have the final word," Karimov said. "But right now, I do not differ from you."

At 71, Karimov, who was born in the ancient Silk Route city of Samarkand, is the oldest of the Central Asian presidents.

Together with Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is also marking 20 years in power, Karimov is also the only Central Asian president to have survived the Soviet collapse and created an entrenched political regime.

Early on, Karimov showed a fondness for overriding constitutional restraints in order to clean house, sacking a member of Uzbekistan's Soviet-era parliament after the country gained independence.

The move was a sign of things to come, and prompted one lawmaker, Shukrat Nusratov, to make this appeal to his fellow parliament members.

"You have gone beyond the bounds of the highest electoral bodies of the country and are delivering power into the hands of one man. This doesn't make any sense; it is impossible," Nusratov said. "Don't let this happen, friends, or the same fate awaits us as those in the 1930s and 1940s. You cannot even predict the consequences.

"It is impossible to see the consequences, especially considering the unrestrained character of our president. If the constitution is violated in this regard, then the Constitutional Committee must recognize this. And recognizing this, the president must leave [office]. All of us sitting in this hall must make a choice today -- democracy or dictatorship. There is nothing in between."

Neutralized The Opposition

Karimov did rid himself of the troublesome parliament, installing a more compliant body in its place. By the mid-1990s, he had succeeded in neutralizing the secular political opposition. Most opposition leaders fled the country; the activities of those who stayed were tightly restricted.

Severe crackdowns on Islamic groups followed bombings in 1999 and 2004 and twin incursions by the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The repressions sent militants fleeing to neighboring countries, to the chagrin of local leaders.

Karimov with his wife, Tatyana, in 1995
In May 2005, a large demonstration in the eastern city of Andijon ended violently after government troops fired on the crowd. The Uzbek government said 187 people were killed in the incident, including troops and militants. But rights groups said the death toll was higher and included mainly innocent civilians.

Uzbekistan has come under frequent criticism from international rights monitors for its prison system and documented use of torture against detainees. Karimov has also effectively eliminated all opposition media from the country, leaving no room for public dissent.

Like Kazakhstan's Nazarbaev, Karimov has frequently manipulated the electoral system, twice using public referendums to extend his term in office and finally violating constitutional restrictions by running for -- and easily winning -- an unprecedented third term in 2007.

Up until the end of the 1990s, Karimov put economic reforms before democratic ones, arguing an economically stable country would be better able to make the adjustment to a democratic system.

Considerable Leverage

For most of the 1990s, his idea seemed to work. Tajikistan fell into civil war, and Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were paralyzed by endless protests and standoffs between the presidents and parliament. Most of the Central Asians states were dependent on international aid for their survival. But Uzbekistan remained stable, while seemingly able to provide its people with basic goods and services, including electricity and natural gas.

Local residents pass by the bodies of victims from the clashes between government forces and protesters in Andijon in May 2005.
Uzbekistan is the sole supplier of gas to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This has given Karimov considerable leverage over his neighbors, and there have been frequent gas cutoffs due to unpaid bills and other disputes -- as when Kyrgyzstan in 1993 became the first Central Asian state to issue its own national currency, or when the Tajik government reached a peace deal with Islamic opponents in 1997.

Karimov has also appeared to enjoy taunting his neighbors. In 1995, he berated Nazarbaev's Kazakhstan for constantly changing its constitution and failing to prevent people from protesting in the streets.

A few years later, he expressed sympathy for "the poor people of the country led by an academic" who were forced to cross into Uzbekistan to buy bread -- a clear reference then-Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

Following a reported assassination attempt on former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2002, Turkmen security forces raided the Uzbek Embassy in search of conspirators.

Dushanbe has likewise accused Uzbekistan of masterminding attacks in Tajikistan. Neighboring states have also accused Karimov's security forces of crossing into their territories to seize people wanted back in Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contacted some of the leaders who remember Karimov from Soviet times. Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he and Karimov had enjoyed a "friendly relationship" 20 years ago.

But comparing Karimov's actions in Andijon to his own in Georgia during the 2003 Rose Revolution protests that led to his ouster, Shevardnadze suggested the Uzbek leader had shown complete disregard for the safety of his citizens.

"In order to prevent bloodshed, I had no other choice. Either there had to be bloodshed or I had to leave office," Shevardnadze said. "I chose the second path and left office, and I am still out of politics. As concerns these events [in Andijon], history will be the judge."

Former Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkevich also said he had once liked Karimov and appreciated "the logic of his thinking." But Shushkevich indicated his opinion of Karimov has since changed.

"People who have a bad conscience come out in favor of moral, spiritual principles," Shushkevich said. "They talk about it, but they themselves do not behave in such a manner."

After 20 years of one-man rule, some analysts have raised concerns about what comes after Big Papa, whose health is reportedly deteriorating.

Karimov's system has been set up to serve Karimov -- and there is no heir apparent. There are fears that the country could fracture after his departure, a scenario that would have grave repercussions for all of Central Asia.

Shukrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report