Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov this April at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Uzbekistan on Tuesday, inserting himself into an ongoing presidential succession after the death of President Islam Karimov, the only president Uzbekistan has known.
Putin will stop over in Samarkand on his way back from China, where he attended the G20 summit (and as a result missed Karimov's funeral; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev represented Russia). "I think I have to stop over tomorrow to pay my respects," Putin said. Putin's spokesman later emphasized that Putin's visit would be personal, but there will certainly be more to it than that. A report on the Uzbekistan news site anhor.uz initially said that Putin would also meet there with "possible successors," though that was subsequently edited to say he would meet with "the leadership of the country."
Most analysts, and this blog, are skeptical that whoever succeeds Karimov will do much to change Uzbekistan's foreign policy, which was characterized by isolationism bolstered by playing various powers off of one another. So it's unlikely Putin believes he can tip the scales on the ongoing succession process.
"Putin's visit is symbolic, to show that Russia will be highly involved in Uzbekistan's future, but also an attempt to reset relations," said Erica Marat, , an assistant professor at the National Defense University and Central Asia expert, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "I don't think the Kremlin is able to influence the succession process itself, but this is an opening for Russia nevertheless."
It was Tajikistan’s presidential press service, of all people, that provided some of the most interesting glimpses into the funeral of Uzbekistan late President Islam Karimov.
Predictably, most photos featured the Tajik leader front and center. Quite literally. In one of the many photos published on the presidential press Facebook account, Emomali Rahmon is seen striding purposefully in between Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is touted as the likely future president, and deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, another potential contender to the throne.
Azimov’s presence at the funeral, as confirmed in the photos, would appear to put paid to rumors that emerged shortly after initial reports of Karimov’s death that he has been placed under house arrest. Far from being arrested, Azimov was one of the pall-bearers leading from the front of Karimov’s coffin, along with a weeping Mirziyoyev.
This is where it is necessary to indulge in some old-fashioned Kremlinology.
The presence of the entire current Karimov elite at the funeral would suggest that a zero-sum bout of infighting, as some have expected, is not in the offing for the immediate future.
Perhaps that much should have been clear from the list of the names underneath an early post mortem encomium.
At five in the morning on September 3, people began forming lines in Uzbekistan’s capital along the route of the funeral cortege of the late President Islam Karimov.
Cars drew out of the president’s official residence and drove toward the airport. As with most other mass public events in Uzbekistan, the crowds were organized by government workers, students and activists with neighborhood committees.
Mobilization efforts were spearheaded by the Tashkent city hall, whose employees were tasked with bringing out the numbers.
As cars passed through the crowds in the capital, people threw flowers under the wheels and women cried.
“Islam Karimov was a great man and will always be so for us. He was in charge in the 1990s, when it was so difficult. In other countries [in Central Asia] there were wars, revolutions, ethnic conflict. But Karimov didn’t allow any of this,” Sherali Kudratov, a university teacher, told EurasiaNet.org.
At nine in the morning, Karimov’s coffin was loaded onto a plane and flown to Samarkand, his native city, for burial.
The entire spectacle was broadcast in full on state television. Television announcer Alisher Badalov read a lengthy and emotional tribute listing Karimov’s life achievements over the images.
“The bright memory of the first president of the republic of Uzbekistan, the great son of the Uzbek people, Islam Abduganievich Karimov, will forever remains in the hearts of our people and in the grateful memories of our compatriots,” the announcer read.
The funeral ceremony took place in the afternoon on Samarkand’s historic Registan square with several international dignitaries in attendance, including the presidents of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, and the prime ministers of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.
Uzbekistan has landed more police helicopters at the disputed Ungar-Too mountain on the border with Kyrgyzstan in a sign of Tashkent looking to cement its position in an ongoing standoff.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said that on September 2 that the helicopter brought drinking water for around 15 to 20 Uzbek policemen stationed at the mountain, which is the site of a relay station for Kyrgyz communications companies.
An Mi-8 helicopter carrying Uzbek policemen first landed on Ungar-Too on August 22. The police officers shortly afterward detained four Kyrgyz citizens working at the relay facility, accusing them of being there illegally.
Kyrgyzstan says it has sent reinforcements to the area in a bid to pressure the Uzbek police to leave the site, but to no avail. Uzbekistan is reportedly holding firm until Kyrgyzstan removes its checkpoints to Kasan-Sai reservoir. That facility is a few kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan but is claimed by the Uzbeks, who point to the fact that they built the reservoir in Soviet times and continued to maintain it ever since as grounds for their position. Water from the reservoir is used to irrigate crops in villages in Uzbekistan’s crowded Fergana Valley.
The continued stalemate — particularly around the fate of the four jailed Kyrgyz men — is provoking much distress among activists and politicians inside Kyrgyzstan.
The Committee for Civic Control, a coalition 70 nongovernment groups, has appealed to the government to intensify its search for a solution to “avoid any self-initiated acts by citizens that could lead to an even greater escalation on the border.”
An announcement on the death of Uzbekistan’s president appears imminent as a host of signs suggest funeral preparations are afoot in Islam Karimov’s native Samarkand.
Reuters news agency on September 3 cited three diplomatic sources as saying Karimov had died of a stroke, the strongest confirmation so far of a fact that Uzbekistan’s government has been staunchly denying.
More subtle hints have been coming out of Samarkand. Residents in that city have told EurasiaNet.org that the city, and particularly the central and historic Registan square, is being cleaned and prepared for some major event. The word has also been put around that city’s men should have their white shirts, black suits and tyubeteika skull caps on standby. The expectation is that a funeral will take place on September 3.
Uzbekistan’s state media still perversely sticks to its line that Karimov is ill, although government newspaper Halk Suzi noted in its September 2 issue that the leader was in a “critical condition.”
In another certain giveaway, Reuters cited a source in Kazakhstan’s government as saying President Nursultan Nazarbayev is preparing to go to Uzbekistan on September 3, cutting short a trip to China. The Chinese visit was meant to last from September 1 through September 5.
Tinkering with constitutions in authoritarian nations rarely draws much attention, and understandably so. In 2011, when Uzbekistan overhauled its constitution, the reforms appeared formal and cosmetic, since whatever the changes, President Islam Karimov remained firmly in control.
At least nominally, however, the reforms were a move toward some form of democratic transition. These were different times. Kyrgyzstan had been roiled by a revolution the year before, putting the region’s hard-men on edge, and the notion of Karimov’s now-disgraced eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, possibly being made prime minister was still considered within the realms of reason.
The aim of the constitutional fix was to balance power between the offices of the presidency, the legislature and the executive, as well as to strengthen the role of political parties. Since those four branches of influence all pulled in one direction — to support Karimov — the reform seemed like a cheap way of earning international brownie points while changing little.
Specifically, the president was stripped of the right to form Cabinets and lead them, as well as the right to appoint and dismiss deputy General Prosecutors. The president would henceforth be authorized to appoint or dismiss regional governors and the mayor of Tashkent at the suggestion of the prime minister.
The prime minister was in turn to be nominated by the political party with the greatest representation in parliament or a coalition of parties constituting a majority.
Another novelty was the introduction of a no-confidence mechanism designed to resolve stand-offs between the prime minister and parliament. In that event, parliament had to vote by two-thirds to pass a motion of no-confidence that would require the president to fire the premier and his entire government.
The will he, won’t he medical drama gripping Uzbekistan and its stricken president has taken a fresh turn with suggestions from his daughter that he may be on the mend.
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva wrote in an Instagram post on August 31 that she wanted to thank well-wishers worried about Islam Karimov’s health and expressed confidence that “the enormous power of goodness coming from deep within your hear will help him get better.”
It was Karimova-Tillyaeva who revealed in an Instragram earlier in the week that the president had succumbed over the weekend to a cerebral hemorrhage.
More indiscretions about Karimov’s medical treatment trickled out of Moscow. Russian business daily RBK reported, citing sources in medical circles, that doctors from the Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute in Moscow had traveled to Uzbekistan to help treat Karimov. The news was confirmed to RBK by the head of scientific research at the Burdenko institute, Alexander Konovalov.
“Our doctors have been there for a long time, since the very beginning,” Konovalov told the newspaper.
Earlier in the day, Russian deputy prime minister Olga Golodets told reporters that although there was a bilateral agreement between Russia and Uzbekistan to provide medical treatment to the Uzbek head of state if needed, this option was not seized upon.
“We always provide assistance if they appeal to us over technologically difficult operations that cannot be performed in neighboring countries. But we have had no request,” she said.
As could be expected, the status of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov is plunged in mystery amid rival accounts of whether or not he is dead.
Moscow-based ferghana.ru reported overnight that Karimov had finally succumbed to the results of a brain hemorrhage on August 29 at 3:35 pm Tashkent time.
The presidential administration in Tashkent has staunchly denied this, however.
RIA Novosti cited a source in the administration as saying Karimov was in a stable condition.
As befits a deeply secretive, authoritarian nation, these claims and counterclaims were provided under a strict cloak of anonymity.
The drawback of combining large security apparatuses and secrecy, as Uzbekistan is now illustrating, is that information has a habit of leaking out, but in sometimes contradictory ways.
Also in the realm of unverifiable rumor is the news that deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, believed to be a leading contender for succession, has been placed under house arrest. Confirmation of that event would signal that the widely advertised for jostling had indeed started. Since the arrest could only have occurred at the instigation of the National Security Committee, by far the country’s most powerful state body, the bets might appear to have been made.
The thinking still appears to be that the authorities will wait until after September 1, independence day, before shedding some light on what is happening, but events could well speed up the plan.
New light has been shed on the state of health of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov by his daughter, who has revealed that the leader has been struck by a brain hemorrhage.
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva wrote on her Instagram page that she had provided the information to “avoid misunderstandings.”
“Due to a cerebral hemorrhage that occurred on Saturday morning, he was hospitalized and is being treated in the intensive care unit,” Karimova-Tillyaeva said. “His condition is stable.”
She said that it was still too early to make any prognostications about Karimov’s health and appealed for the public to respect the family’s privacy.
Notwithstanding those exhortations, observers of developments in Uzbekistan will now turn to speculating about the seriousness of the hemorrhage and what it could mean for the country’s future. Karimova-Tillyaeva’s vague and open-ended diagnosis for treatment suggests that Karimov is likely incapacitated and will remain so for the indefinite future.
If Karimov’s condition is at the worse end of the spectrum, the situation will raise the standard fears about potential elite instability and alarm among the population. Non-death actually presents a difficult predicament for a government used to operating in complete obscurity. Does a physically and possibly mental frail Karimov pursue the Cuban scenario, handing over power to a handpicked successor (although not necessarily a member of his family)? And if Karimov is unable to do even that, do contenders to his job begin jostling while he lies prone in a hospital bed? Authoritarian states like Uzbekistan are not well equipped to deal with such ambiguity and like their leaders to be either dead and venerable or alive and virile — not something in between.
In an unprecedented development, Uzbekistan’s government has officially announced that President Islam Karimov has fallen ill and will require treatment for an unspecified amount of time.
The unusually frank statement released on August 28 follows unconfirmed rumors that had been circulating overnight about Karimov possibly suffering of a stroke or a heart attack. Central Asia-focused news website ferghana.ru ran a report claiming Russian cardiologist Leo Bokeria had traveled to Uzbekistan to treat Karimov, only for the doctor to quickly quash that speculation.
The authorities’ hand was likely forced by preparations for independence day celebrations on September 1, which Karimov would have been duty-bound to attend. The president has at some major public events in recent years been given to performing energetic jigs in a transparent attempt to defy those predicting his imminent death.
No more information about the president’s state of health has been provided, but attention will now inevitably quickly turn to succession issues. Karimov has never indicated any clear figure he would like to have take his place, which opens up the prospect of a jostle for power among insiders.
Still, early betting is that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev could eventually claim the spot.
“Mirziyayev’s administrative heft is, among things, defined by his closeness to the presidential family and the support from the head of the National Security Agency, 72-year old Rustam Inoyatov,” Russia-based analyst and journalist Arkady Dubnov wrote on his Facebook account.