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Orphaned Dictator: The Making Of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov

Islam Karimov in 1991, the year he won independent Uzbekistan's first presidential election
Islam Karimov in 1991, the year he won independent Uzbekistan's first presidential election

A prisoner thrown into a pot of boiling water; the army opening fire indiscriminately on protesters packed in a city square; parents notified of their imprisoned sons’ deaths by police who show up at the door with the bodies, sealed in bags labeled “remains nonviewable,” and told to bury the deceased quickly with minimum attendance by mourners.

For many, those are some of the first things that come to mind when Uzbekistan is mentioned.

The man who has been president while all of this happened, who created the political climate that makes such outrages possible, is Islam Karimov.

And he’s about to be reelected on March 29.

Karimov has been called a dictator, and among Central Asia’s “strongmen,” he is likely the strongest, or at least the most ruthless. He rules a country of 31 million people, nearly half the entire population of Central Asia, and he exerts strict control over his country.

He seems to have no close friends. He has not even interfered as his eldest daughter, Gulnara, has been kept under house arrest. He once had Gulnara and his grandchildren ejected from the presidential residence at gunpoint, and he did not move to prevent his nephew Jamshid from being arrested and confined to a psychiatric hospital, despite appeals from his sister-in-law.

My friend Peter Sinnott is about to publish a book of biographies of all of Central Asia’s post-Soviet leaders. Peter and I were students of Professor Edward Allworth, one of the world's leading authorities on Central Asia. Peter asked me to write the chapter on Karimov.

It required many months of research. I had already written hundreds of articles either about or prominently featuring Karimov, including Freedom House reports on Uzbekistan. I knew about him and I knew about his government. But I was aware of the need for objectivity if I was to truly learn about the man.

What I found out explains a lot about the making of Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov.

The Uzbek government website provides a brief biography for Karimov. He was “was born on January 30, 1938, in Samarkand into a family of civil servants.” From there, it jumps to 1960 when Karimov “began work…at Tashselmash (Tashkent agricultural machinery factory).”

One article I found referred to a 1995 authorized biography of Karimov, since removed from government websites, which added that “Karimov “grew up in a poor family, the sixth of seven children…his father was a day laborer and his mother a housewife."

But past that, there is nothing available on Uzbek government websites about what happened between 1938 and 1960, so from here the story is based mainly on unofficial sources.

Karimov takes part in Nouruz celebrations in Tashkent on March 21.
Karimov takes part in Nouruz celebrations in Tashkent on March 21.

When I was working in Uzbekistan in 1992-93, people there told me that Karimov was brought up in an orphanage, like Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

That seems to be true, but not because Karimov’s parents had died, which was the case with Niyazov.

Karimov’s father (at least according to official documents) was Abdugany, who was jailed some two years before Islam was even born. It is unclear what offense Abdugany Karimov committed. Karimov's biological father, according to various sources, was either Tajik or Jewish; his name is not known. Political opponents, both secular and religious, have used these claims of parentage in their propaganda against Karimov.

After Abdugany Karimov was released from jail, Islam Karimov was put into an orphanage. He was 3 years old. When World War II broke out, the Soviet Union’s orphanages quickly became overcrowded. Natural parents who were still alive were asked by the authorities to reclaim their children and Abdugany and Karimov’s biological mother did so.

However, Islam had become unruly and when the war ended his parents returned the 7-year-old child to the orphanage. He would stay there until he was legally an adult.

In between, there are only scattered bits of information from unnamed former friends or acquaintances. Some claimed Karimov was an outstanding student, while others said he was a well-known watermelon thief at Samarkand bazaars and had a bad temper.

As mentioned, the official biography picks up in 1960 when he started work.

He was married in 1964 to Natalya Petrovna Kuchmi, and they had son, Petr. Not long after Petr’s birth, the couple divorced. Petr is believed to have lived in the Moscow area for decades now. There is no information he has ever been in Uzbekistan since independence.

Karimov’s fortunes took a turn for the better in 1966 when he got his first job at Gosplan. He married again in 1967, this time to Tatyana Akbarovna, a researcher at the Institute of Economics at the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan whose family was well connected.

Karimov started rising through the ranks of the republican Communist Party and caught the eye of two of the most influential people in Uzbekistan at the time: First Party Secretary Sharaf Rashidov and the eventual head of the Samarkand clan, Ismail Jurabekov.

By 1983, Karimov had risen to become the finance minister for the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, but he would soon lose one of his benefactors.

Sharaf Rashidov had been the head of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic since 1959. In 1983, all the leaders of the Soviet Central Asian republics had been in the their posts since the late 1950s or early '60s.

When articles refer now to the 25 years in office of Karimov or of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev, it is worth remembering the leadership terms both saw when they were young men.

For many in Uzbekistan, Rashidov was “their guy.” He was a top official in the U.S.S.R. and he was accountable to Moscow, but there was a general impression that he put Uzbekistan’s concerns first. He was popular.

According to the Soviet leadership in 1983, Rashidov was also a thief. He was accused of overreporting cotton harvest figures and of pocketing money from state coffers.

Officially, Rashidov committed suicide on October 31, 1983, though some suggest his passage might have been assisted. In any case, he became the example of corruption for the entire Soviet Union and sparked the purge of republican leaders that followed, which saw the eventual removal of all the longtime first party secretaries in Central Asia.

Karimov had a front-row seat as he watched this once-respected figure, his personal patron, suddenly portrayed in state media as the worst sort of villain.

Karimov had Rashidov rehabilitated shortly after Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Rashidov’s daughter Sayera has been the parliamentary commissioner on human rights since August 1997.

Karimov’s patron from his native Samarkand, Jurabekov, survived the cleansing in Uzbekistan. By 1985, Jurabekov had become the first deputy chairman on the Uzbek SSR Council of Ministers. In 1986, Karimov was made head of Gosplan for the republic, a launchpad position in the Soviet Communist Party system.

Islam Karimov, president of the Uzbek SSR, in 1990
Islam Karimov, president of the Uzbek SSR, in 1990

In June 1989, Karimov held the republic’s top post, first secretary of Uzbekistan’s Communist Party. On March 24, 1990, he became president of the Uzbek SSR. In late August 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Karimov, raised by the state, was orphaned again.

With Karimov as president, Jurabekov started rising again in the government of independent Uzbekistan -- minister for civil defense affairs, agriculture minister, first deputy prime minister. Jurabekov had close contacts in Uzbekistan’s security structures and was no doubt instrumental in helping Karimov eliminate political rivals in the first years of independence.

Jurabekov’s power grew. As Karimov’s trusted confidant, he became the “gray cardinal” of Uzbek politics. As Jurabekov’s stature increased, so did the allegations of his connections to the criminal world.

In late 1998, amid reported tensions, Karimov dismissed Jurabekov. Rumors at the time suggested Jurabekov was planning to oust Karimov. When a series of bombs exploded in Tashkent on February 16, 1999, one of the theories pundits considered was that the powerful head of the Samarkand clan, Jurabekov, was behind it.

Jurabekov was powerful enough that, despite his well-publicized retirement in late 1998, he was back at work in the government at the start of 2000, briefly a deputy prime minister before being appointed a state adviser to the president, a post he kept until 2004 when he finally retired, or was pushed out.

For years, Karimov seemed odd and unpredictable to me. He was a fickle ally, potentially volatile, a bully who was condescending to fellow Central Asian presidents, brutally candid and politically incorrect, remorseless and unrepentant when confronted with evidence of the violence of his regime, easily insulted, and quick to exact vengeance for perceived slights.

He is all that. And assuming he lives, he will also be Uzbekistan’s president for another five years.

For those attempting to forecast Karimov’s moves in the months, or years, to come, it might be worth considering the portrait given above. Whatever Karimov’s actions will be, they will likely not be motivated by a sense of trust, loyalty, or sentimentality.

-- Bruce Pannier

(With great appreciation to Steve Swerdlow, the Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch, who read this over and provided valuable insight and suggestions)

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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