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Karimov And Nazarbaev: 25 Years At The Helm

Islam Karimov (left) with Nursultan Nazarbaev at an official welcome ceremony in Astana in September, 2012.
Islam Karimov (left) with Nursultan Nazarbaev at an official welcome ceremony in Astana in September, 2012.

The leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both marked a milestone this week -- 25 years as head of their, now, countries. They are the last of the Soviet-era leaders still in power.

On June 22, 1989, Nursultan Nazarbaev became the first secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan and the next day Islam Karimov took the same position in neighboring Uzbekistan.

They started out in 1989 with a relatively common past and, seemingly, destiny but 25 years later they and their countries are very different.

They came from humble backgrounds. Nazarbaev was from a village near Almaty (Chemolgan) and his first jobs were in steel plants. Karimov was born in Samarkand but his early days remain murky. It would be fair to say Karimov was from a broken home and appears to have spent much of his adolescence as a ward of the state. He later had training in aviation engineering and mechanics and also economics. His first job was at an airplane assembly plant.

Nazarbaev and Karimov joined the Communist Party in their respective republics during the early years of leaders (Kazakhstan’s Dinmukhamed Kunaev and Uzbekistan’s Sharof Rashidov) who would stay in their positions for more than 20 years.

From the first days of independence these two leaders fell into a competition for regional dominance. Kazakhstan had the largest territory and Uzbekistan the largest population.

At the time the Soviet Union collapsed Uzbekistan was in a much better position economically than Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan had benefitted more than the other Central Asian states from the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. Moscow poured money into upgrading Uzbekistan’s infrastructure, since it was the gateway for Soviet troops and equipment going to and coming from Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan was also nearly self-sufficient in terms of agriculture, energy supplies, and other basics, a fact that continues to allow Karimov to act more independently in his foreign policy. The countries that border Uzbekistan are weaker militarily and less populated.

Kazakhstan is agriculturally limited and for most of its years of independence was still reliant on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to supply natural gas to areas along Kazakhstan’s borders with those countries. And Kazakhstan has lengthy borders with Russia and China.

So, dealt those cards, what did they accomplish once they were running their countries?

'An Enlightened Dictatorship'

That is how Nazarbaev termed his rule in 1995 shortly after parliament was dissolved. Asked if Kazakhstan was turning into a dictatorship, Nazarbaev replied, “a dictatorship, perhaps, but an enlightened dictatorship.”

In the months after that comment Kazakhstan held a referendum that extended Nazarbaev’s term in office, another referendum that changed the constitution altering the balance of powers in the government structure in favor of the executive branch, and conducted parliamentary elections that saw a majority of pro-Nazarbaev deputies win seats.

His problems were far from over. Kazakhstan remained a poor country during the first 10 years of independence. Wages and pensions went unpaid, workers held strikes, and heating and electricity were scarce in winter months. In June 1999, the Almaty mayor launched the “Deposit Gold to the Golden Fund” campaign, asking citizens to donate their golden objects and jewelry to the government to help save the economy.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nazarbaev also faced serious challenges from opposition figures, some of them former government officials.

Nazarbaev and his government were banking on Kazakhstan’s oil to eventually turn the situation around and until that happened Nazarbaev became more proficient at neutralizing political opponents.

Kazakhstan is a much wealthier country now. Reports earlier this week said the country sold some $55 billion worth of oil last year. Kazakhstan also made billions of dollars exporting gas, uranium, and even grain. Kazakhstan has very good relations with Russia and China and there is currently no opposition figure, party, or group in Kazakhstan that could challenge him.

'Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself'

That's easily my favorite Karimov quote, especially since he said it during an address to parliament in May 1998.

The “people” Karimov referred to were “Wahhabis,” although in the years since then Uzbek officials have learned to call them the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut Tahrir, Akromiya, and more than a dozen other banned Islamic groups.

Karimov’s first months as president of independent Uzbekistan were turbulent. He faced challenges from opposition groups, political and Islamic, and even the parliament he inherited from the Soviet Union was ready to remove him. His education as head of state was necessarily fast and so clumsy.

But as mentioned above, he also inherited a country that was generally self-sustaining and even better, three of the neighboring states were dependent on Uzbekistan’s gas supplies.

Having worked feverishly in his first six months to stamp out opposition in his country and to a large degree having succeeded, Karimov turned to molding Uzbekistan into his image as Central Asia’s regional power. His mantra in the early years of independence was “first economic reform, then political reform” but at the same time he built up the country’s security force and military.

By the time Karimov made his remarks about shooting Wahhabis he was also able to boast that his country was the most stable in Central Asia. And it was prior to 1999.

Bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 demonstrated the lengths Karimov would go to in order to suppress any threat. The bombings were blamed on an unlikely alliance of Islamic extremists and secular opposition figures and during the crackdown that followed thousands of people were arrested and jailed.

It is a scenario that has been repeated several times since then.

Karimov has not been a reliable ally to any country. He clearly fears Russian presence in Central Asia though circumstances have forced him to warm ties with Moscow from time to time.

He has courted good relations with Western countries, particularly the United States, but he rejects any criticism from these countries and that has led him into conflict with those governments.

His regional politics have been a disaster. He is suspected of helping an assassination plot against the Turkmen president, of supporting an attempted coup in northern Tajikistan, and he has used Uzbekistan’s gas exports to neighbors as a foreign-policy weapon.

Despite his policy of economic reforms first, Uzbekistan is not more prosperous today than it was 20 years ago (we won’t even get into the lack of political reforms). Millions of Uzbekistan’s citizens are migrant laborers, most working in Russia or Kazakhstan. Karimov calls them “lazy” and a “disgrace” even though they sent back some $6.3 billion from Russia alone last year.

And Karimov more than any other Central Asian leader fears the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and what that could mean for his country because he cannot count on support from his neighbors or Russia.

The Twilight Years

Nazarbaev and Karimov still do have some things in common. Now in their 70s, neither is in good health and both have strained relations within their immediate families. Neither has groomed a successor but nearly all the major opposition leaders from their countries are either outside the country or dead. And still, the regimes they have established are unlikely to endure after they are no longer the leaders of their countries.

-- Bruce Pannier. Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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