In Uzbekistan, the zero hour has finally come. For the first time in 25 years of independence, Uzbeks awake to a country not ruled by Islam Abdughanaevich Karimov.
This is the day that many in the diaspora and the opposition have longed for, that analysts and academics like me have been asked to game-plan for years, because it was clear that the most likely -- and possibly only -- pathway to political change in one of the world's most consolidated authoritarian regimes was that Karimov might finally succumb to the laws of nature. I have lost count of the conversations I have had with Uzbek friends over the years that trail off with "maybe after Karimov dies..." as they wonder aloud when they might see their families again, travel outside their home country, start a business, study abroad -- all things that became impossible or fraught with danger for many as Uzbekistan steadily grew more isolated, its economy and society coming under ever-tighter control.
A few weeks ago, I drove with an ethnic Uzbek friend in southern Kyrgyzstan along the tall barbed-wire fence that marks the Uzbek border and looked across at the weapons-toting guards on foot patrol. We had both lived in Tashkent for several years and both talked about how much we wished we could return. He shook his head and smiled: "After Karimov dies..."
Today is that day. The new era has suddenly arrived, but what will change?
No matter how many panels and think pieces have been devoted to predicting this moment, no matter how many dozens of articles are written following the 78-year-old Karimov's death, claiming to predict his successor and lay out the potential directions for the future of a volatile region's most populous country, the uncomfortable truth is that we have very little idea.
A scenario many pundits warned we should fear has become reality: Karimov has passed without choosing an "heir" or leaving a clear road to succession. Those who have focused their attention on him personally, rather than the system that developed under him, long warned this could have nightmarish consequences: Islamists that only Karimov's steady hand could supposedly keep in check would erupt from the ever-"simmering" Ferghana Valley; or the country would devolve into open warfare among the country's "clans" that Karimov -- an orphan raised by the Soviet state without political family connections -- had "masterfully balanced" against one another.
While there is a grain of truth in these prevailing narratives, their real commonality is that both are myths used to justify claims that the people of Uzbekistan cannot be trusted to govern themselves. These are the founding myths that justify the existence of Uzbekistan's version of what political scientist Alena Ledenova has called sistema in Putin's Russia -- another highly personalized authoritarian system that has evolved a logic of power that far exceeds the personal reach of a single man or likely the limits of his lifetime. Today Karimov is gone, but the vast security state and strict political economy that developed in the period when his portrait watched over every classroom and office is likely to survive him -- in no small part because the myths that justified them are alive and well.
As Central Asia scholars like Larry Markowitz and Scott Radnitz have described, the political economy that developed in Uzbekistan stands in marked contrast to its neighbors for the degree to which it created a centralized state and loyalty to it as the locus of the entire economy, protected by a security apparatus that could discipline and punish local actors who refused to submit. Outside that "coercive, rent-seeking state" few opportunities exist for advancement, which means the remaining elites -- with or without Karimov -- have little to no incentive to change the political economy from which they all benefit, and the overwhelming reach of the security apparatus ensures that no one else is in a position to challenge them.
Everyday life under this sistema and the coercive power of the country's dominant myths can be seen in a case that unfolded earlier this year. Aramais Avakian was a small-time local entrepreneur in the arid Jizzakh region who owned a property with two small ponds. He attempted to make his livelihood by raising fish in his ponds and had moderate success -- a small aquaculture operation with a few employees -- until his business caught the eye of his local hokim (district mayor), who exercised his authority in the "coercive, rent-seeking" state to demand Avakian sign over his land. He refused. Before long, Avakian was stopped by the police and arrested on charges of being a supporter of Islamic State (IS), after which his family and lawyers attest he was beaten and mistreated until he "confessed" that he and all of his employees were a secret IS cell that were determined to overthrow the government. Among the many problems with the narrative is that Avakian -- an ethnic Armenian and Orthodox Christian -- is not even a Muslim. For the system that has taken root in Uzbekistan, however, this was no obstacle to sending him to jail for years as an Islamist.
This, then, is the system that remains, and one that is unlikely to change with or without Karimov.
As political scientist Eric McGlinchey put it earlier this year, "The Uzbek ruling class...has a strong incentive to maintain the autocratic regime that is the wellspring of financial wealth." The security apparatus that supports this regime -- which many argue long ago grew more powerful than Karimov himself -- is predicated in no small part on the argument that without them an Islamist uprising would engulf the country and from there, overwhelm the region.
As we watch events unfold over the coming weeks -- especially if we see the hopes of so many Uzbeks dashed with little to no change in their everyday lives save the portrait on the wall -- remember the story of the fish farmer from Jizzakh as pundits and defenders sell the false dilemma of "autocracy or Islamic State." There are other choices: In 25 years, the Uzbeks have never had an opportunity to find out what they are.