These days, most discussions of Islam Karimov’s age end up drifting to a logical end: Who, oh who will next mount the throne in Tashkent? Many fear a power struggle when the oldest leader in the former Soviet Union inevitably exits. And yet, at least publicly, Karimov goes on ignoring the obvious.
On his 75th birthday, we’ll leave thoughts of mortality to the president himself. Journalists, perhaps eagerly practicing for his obituary, are using the occasion to reflect on the strongman’s living legacy – his 24 years in power, which make him the second longest-serving head of state in the former Soviet Union. (The other Soviet relic is Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, whom Moscow appointed one day before Karimov, in June 1989.)
To mark the birthday, Daniil Kislov, the respected Uzbekistan-born, Moscow-based editor of Fergananews, posed a question in an op-ed for the Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets: "On his 75th birthday, I don't understand one thing: Is he indeed the most brutal dictator of modern times, or just a sham and useless persona on which nothing in the country depends anymore?" Kislov's conclusion: "The time of his rule will go down in the history of the [Central] Asian republic as a time of the rosiest hopes and most bitter disappointments."
Karimov understood early on, Kislov writes, that in order to stay in power he had to stifle freedom of speech and destroy his political opponents.
Result: Uzbekistan hasn't had opposition leaders for 15 years – all of them are either in prison or in exile. [...]
Uzbek censorship is total, as the country has not a single independent media outlet, hundreds of news sites are blocked, tens of journalists have had to leave the country, while those who used to open their mouths too wide are either in prison or mental institutions. [...]
Karimov is regarded as a fighter against the 'terrorism threat' and 'Islamic extremism.' This is true: An Islamist and extremist in Uzbekistan is any Muslim who disagrees with the authorities.[...]
The Uzbek president is called Islam but Islam, except for the one controlled by authorities, is practically impossible in the country. On the other hand, in the absence of political opposition, the downtrodden and uneducated people – if capable of revolting – will revolt only under the green banners [of Islam].
Kislov is not the only journalist marking Karimov’s birthday. Danish filmmaker Michael Andersen is even preparing a little present: He is translating his 2012 documentary, “Massacre in Uzbekistan,” into Uzbek and Russian, which he then plans to distribute online for free. A trailer for the 80-minute film about how Uzbek troops shot and killed hundreds of largely peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005 has been viewed online over 100,000 times.
“The level of support and interest we have had for our film shows that even in Uzbekistan, eventually the Internet will prove stronger than the oppressive regime,” Andersen said in a statement marking Karimov’s birthday.
It wasn't only critical journalists that honored Karimov, however. In Moscow, one thoughtful strongman even remembered, despite his own advancing age, to call. And he seemed genuinely eager to gab.
According to a statement on the Kremlin’s website, Vladimir Putin telephoned to deliver a gooey present that belies recent trouble in Russian-Uzbek relations.
The Russian president stressed that the name of Islam Karimov is inseparably linked to a whole epoch in the development of the Uzbek state, marked with impressive economic, social and cultural achievements, major successes on the international stage, and noted his high reputation back home and abroad and personal contribution to the development of Russian-Uzbek relations.
Putin invited Islam Abduganiyevich to come rekindle their old affair on a state visit to Russia. Perhaps all the attention has indeed made Karimov reflective. Because the Uzbek leader, shunned almost everywhere else, accepted.