Rumors that Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov, has fallen ill are swirling around Tashkent, yet again, as the country heads for a presidential election in March.
The gossip stems from reports on an opposition website based abroad which is notorious for planting canards about Karimov’s alleged ill health and impending demise. Nevertheless, the fact that the ageing president – who turned 77 last month – has not been seen in public for over two weeks has set tongues wagging in the Uzbek capital.
The rumors surfaced late last month, when the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a Norway-based opposition group headed by long-exiled leader Muhammad Solih, reported – citing unidentified “sources” – that Karimov had fallen into a coma on January 28.
Many observers treated the report with skepticism, since the PMU is known for reporting ill-sourced information about Karimov’s health. In spring 2013, the PMU’s report that Uzbekistan’s president had had a heart attack and was at death’s door did the rounds of the world’s media. But Karimov soon turned up safe and sound.
He may well do again – but it now transpires that Karimov has not been seen in public for over two weeks, as the Fergana News website reports – despite the fact that a presidential election campaign in which he is the only realistic candidate is supposedly in full swing.
Karimov reportedly presented his election manifesto to his party on February 6, the UzDaily news site said. But there is no documentary evidence of that meeting. Sources in Tashkent say it was not broadcast on TV, which is highly irregular, and the presidential website carries no record of his speech, which is also unusual.
The last public appearance by Karimov reported by his office was when he received the credentials of incoming US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen on January 27.
Sources in Tashkent cannot recall seeing him on TV for over two weeks, which is unusual but not unheard of.
Rumors of Karimov’s ill health have been circulating for well over a decade. But it would be ironic if the ageing president – who has been in office for over two decades – really had fallen ill just as he has been all but guaranteed another sweeping poll victory on March 29.