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Islam 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. (file photo)

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.

Brief Statement

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:

Majlis Podcast -- Where Are We Now And What's Next?
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.”

Uzbekistan is on edge after learning that Uzbek President Islam Karimov, 78, has been hospitalized after suffering what an August 29 post on his younger daughter’s Instagram account said was a cerebral hemorrhage -- bleeding in the brain.

In Uzbekistan, and in the rest of Central Asia and beyond, many now wonder what happens if Karimov dies or is no longer able to perform the functions of president. Who would, or could, replace the only leader the country has had since it became independent in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament -- now the little-known Nigmatulla Yuldashev -- assumes the president's authority for a period of three months.

For the longer term, the list of favorites is short: It includes three people.

Many believe the heir apparent is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, 58, who has headed the government since 2003. He hails from Jizzakh Province, which is adjacent to Karimov’s native Samarkand Province, and has the backing of the Jizzakh and presumably the Samarkand clans. It could be significant that the only official statement on Karimov’s hospitalization came from the Cabinet of Ministers, which Mirziyaev heads.

Clans will play an important role in the succession process. Karimov, who has ruled with an iron hand and tolerated little dissent, has been a master at maneuvering among the various clans in Uzbekistan and playing them off one another.

Some critics have characterized Mirziyaev in no uncertain terms, describing him as a thug who is short on reason and quick to aggression. During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh Province (1996-2001), he was reported to have physically assaulted at least one farmer who dared complain about conditions in the province. His successor, Ubaidulla Yamankulov, was eventually taken away in handcuffs, by helicopter, after numerous reports of him beating constituents and allegations that he headed a local hit squad. Mirziyaev surely knew Yamankulov well.

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.” That might not stop him from becoming president, but some observers say that if he does, his government could be more repressive than that of the widely criticized Karimov.

It is worth noting that Uzbekistan has been tinkering with its constitution during the last five years. On paper, at least, some amendments have increased the powers of the prime minister. That could be a good sign for Mirziyaev, or even an endorsement.

But the Samarkand clan fell slightly out of favor in the late 1990s due the actions of the clan boss, Ismail Jurabekov. Jurabekov was instrumental in Karimov’s rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in the 1980s and was rewarded with government posts and prized business ownerships during the 1990s. But Jurabekov was far too powerful and was rumored to have been behind bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, not long after he had been sacked from his post as agriculture minister and ordered to go on pension.

Jurabekov was back in the government shortly after the bombings and remained until 2004, but Karimov’s ties to his native Samarkand clan were shaken. It is unclear how much those ties have been repaired, despite Jurabekov leaving politics and the public eye long ago.

Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.
Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.

Another favorite to take Karimov’s place is Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56. Azimov is from the Tashkent area and the Tashkent clan. He has been in the national government since 1998, always in a post connected to finance.

Azimov is seen as more sophisticated than Mirziyaev, and he has more experience dealing with the outside world. In the first years after independence, Azimov, as head of Uzbekistan’s National Bank for Foreign Activities, was the country’s point man dealing with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

A third, less likely potential candidate to take the reins is the chief of the National Security Committee (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, 72. Inoyatov is one of the most powerful people in Uzbekistan, having served as SNB chief since 1995. He is from the Tashkent clan.

Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.
Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.

Many suspect he has played the role of grey cardinal in recent years as Karimov’s health has deteriorated. Many also suspect it was Inoyatov who was behind the campaign to bring down Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara, who was once a globetrotting businesswoman but has not appeared in public since 2014, when she was reportedly placed under house arrest after her name was connected to a corruption scandal involving international telecommunications companies.

Inoyatov’s age is likely to head off any serious consideration that he would become president, though it does not rule out a transitional role.

Inoyatov is seen as a kingmaker, not a king. There is only one known photograph of him from the last 10 years -- a picture taken when he was in China to meet with security officials. He clearly does not want to be seen in public.

But without his support it would be nearly impossible for anyone to become the next president of Uzbekistan or be able to rule the country without hindrances.

Some reports suggest Inoyatov is on good terms with Mirziyaev and might support the latter as Uzbekistan’s next president. It should be noted that Inoyatov really solidified his power after Jurabekov was finally removed from politics, so the SNB chief must know something about the Samarkand clan’s weaknesses.

It would be logical to believe Inoyatov would throw his support behind Azimov. They are both from the Tashkent clan. But balancing clans is a tricky business and so far the system has been kept in check with a president from Samarkand and influential officials from Tashkent. Azimov might be passed over to keep the peace.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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