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.
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:
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.