On the evening of July 27, the high and mighty of Uzbekistan gathered for a dinner in Tashkent to honor the memory of the country’s first president, Islam Karimov, who died last year.
The choice of date itself was interesting because, in accordance with Uzbek custom, it appeared to mark 11 months since Karimov’s death. This would seem to indicate he died on August 27, the day he had his stroke, and not September 2, when his death was officially announced.
In any case, President Shavkat Mirziyoev; the head of the security service, Rustam Inoyatov; Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov; and others, including leading religious figures, assembled in Tashkent to offer one last round of praise to the man to whom many of them owed their careers and their success.
The next day, they started to tear Karimov’s legacy apart.
The first salvo came at the weakest link in Karimov’s family: his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
The would-be international socialite had fallen from grace several years before, as her connections to illegal business deals started to become public.
Apparently too dangerous and embarrassing to be allowed to roam free, Gulnara was detained and placed under house arrest in Uzbekistan in 2014. Early photographs showing her incarceration at home were the last images ever seen of her.
The Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office officially placed her under arrest only recently, on July 28, and for the first time it became known that Gulnara had been under investigation in Uzbekistan since late 2013 and had been convicted in August 2015 and sentenced to five years of “limited freedom” -- meaning, in this case, house arrest.
A statement from the Prosecutor-General's Office said Gulnara’s illegal activities had cost Uzbekistan some $2 billion and that investigations were still “ongoing to track down other assets belonging to [Gulnara’s] criminal group ensuring their return to Uzbekistan.”
OK, most people in Uzbekistan knew about Gulnara. In one of the cables posted by WikiLeaks, a U.S. diplomat purportedly described her as “the most hated person in Uzbekistan.” Demonizing Gulnara is easy for Uzbek authorities.
But on July 30, Uzbekistan’s new round-the-clock television channel -- Uzbekistan 24 -- aired a program that essentially praised President Mirziyoev but mentioned that he was battling difficulties he had inherited.
The program never mentioned Karimov by name but contained phrases such as: “The announcement, from the first hours of [Mirziyoev’s] rule, that relations with close neighbors were not a battle for dominance, but on the contrary, sincerity and trust for one another...”
Uzbekistan’s ties with its immediate neighbors were strained, to say the least, when Karimov was president.
Great credit should go Mirziyoev for the progress his government has made in less than one year in its relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. The program on Uzbekistan 24 mentioned that “problems...were resolved not by asserting claims, emphasizing superiority, and acting like a gamecock, but by a single kind word and unceasing work...”
Uzbekistan’s economy is having a hard time and is reflected in the black-market rate, which is now about twice the official rate, of around 4,000 Uzbek soms to one U.S. dollar.
The program noted this also, describing the economic policy as “disgraceful” and saying: “All the criticisms toward Uzbekistan from leading economic organizations, all the accusations of unprofessionalism by all specialists, were voiced only because of the hard-currency policy.”
And again, according to the program, “all these problems are gradually being resolved thanks to the reforms started by [Mirziyoev].”
Uzbekistan certainly does have problems, and it is true these problems originated during Karimov’s time in power.
Since Mirziyoev took over as Uzbekistan’s leader, many authorities on Central Asia have been watching to see how much Uzbekistan’s second president would resemble Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Berdymukhammedov started out with fair words and some efforts at improvement, but after a year or two he settled into the style of rule his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, had practiced -- one characterized by the notion of an infallible, omnipotent leader.
One big difference here is that Berdymukhammedov came to power when Turkmenistan was becoming richer from its gas sales, which in turn were helped by higher world prices and the appearance of China as a gas customer.
There was a knock-on effect on the standard of living in Turkmenistan.
Berdymukhammedov had no need for a scapegoat.
Mirziyoev came to power at a time when Uzbekistan was facing a serious economic crisis. Inevitably, he needed to find something, or someone, to blame for the poor situation in his country.
He has found someone, and the case of Gulnara and veiled criticisms of Uzbekistan’s first president are probably only the start of a campaign that portrays Mirziyoev as bringing Uzbekistan to its feet after his predecessor brought the country to its knees.