With the passing of lovable, people-boiling autocrat Islam Karimov late last month, Uzbekistan has entered uncharted territory. Karimov was, after all, the only head of state the country has had since the fall of the Soviet Union. Per Foreign Affairs, the mechanics of the succession appear to be in place, and it’s fairly clear who will really be running the country now that Karimov is gone–at least for now:
On September 8, Uzbekistan’s parliament appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev interim head of state, replacing Nigmatilla Yuldashev, the chair of the parliament’s upper house. Mirziyaev will likely ascend to the presidency in the coming months after a tightly controlled national election. His speedy appointment broke a constitutional requirement that would have kept Yuldashev as interim head of state until a vote could be held. Mirziyaev, however, still is not the most powerful figure in Uzbekistan. That position belongs to Rustam Inoyatov, who heads the country’s main intelligence agency and who will oversee the transition to Mirziyaev’s presidency. It is possible that Inoyatov’s poor health and age—he is in his early seventies—prevented him from taking over as head of state. In any case, Inoyatov and Mirziyaev are political allies, and both men are former Karimov stalwarts: in the coming months, expect a great deal of continuity from the new regime. There will be losers in this new setup, particularly elites heading other security agencies, including the National Security Council, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Defense. They will be replaced by loyalists to decrease the interagency competition that was often present under Karimov’s rule.
How the purge goes will determine whether Uzbekistan smoothly transitions from one dictator to the next or does, well, something else. Uzbekistan obviously has no tradition of democratic governance (it was straight from the Soviets to Karimov, remember), so the former is more likely, and if the latter somehow occurs it’s pretty certain to be ugly.
For everything else you can say about Karimov (and none of it is good), he actually did a pretty fair job of keeping Uzbekistan from becoming anybody’s client state, and he mostly did that by playing any potential patrons–the US (which values Uzbekistan for its border with Afghanistan), China (which values Uzbekistan for its natural gas), and most especially Russia (which values Uzbekistan as part of the once and future Russian empire)–off of one another:
His isolationism extended to foreign policy: Karimov was courted by the big powers for geopolitical leverage and gas supplies, but he kept all at arms’ length, suspicious of Russia’s post-colonial aims and the US-led democratization agenda.
But given Uzbekistan’s myriad problems, it’s not clear that Mirziyaev/Inoyatov are going to be able to hold that line:
Karimov may have talked up his legacy, but in reality he bequeaths his successor an autocratic state in an economic mess, complete with a thriving currency black market and an impoverished population dependent on dwindling labor migrant remittances from recession-hit Russia.
It’s not surprising, then, that Vladimir Putin made sure to head to Uzbekistan and lay flowers at Karimov’s grave last week. Mirziyaev in particular has pretty good relations with Moscow, and though he and Inoyatov are probably going to try to maintain Karimov’s policy of avoiding international entanglements, there’s a chance the country could slide, even a little bit, into Russia’s orbit, and Putin will certainly want to encourage that.