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. [...]
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 20 visit to Kyrgyzstan ended with half a dozen bilateral agreements and some anachronistic-sounding rhetoric about Moscow’s benevolent role in Central Asia. On the face of it, Russia won an extension of military basing rights for another generation, while Kyrgyzstan got millions of dollars in debt forgiveness and promises of investment in the construction of two major hydropower projects. But all the deals have yet to be finalized and some won’t kick in for years, with multiple strings attached.
The visit was Putin’s first to Kyrgyzstan since an April 2010 uprising toppled the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered the Kremlin by effectively misappropriating a $300 million Russian loan and backtracking on some of his promises. Moscow has been slow to warm to the post-Bakiyev leadership, expressing frustration earlier this year, for example, with Bishkek’s constant attempts to get aid while maintaining a so-called multi-vector foreign policy.
Publicly, Putin’s host, President Almazbek Atambayev, did everything he could to assure the Russian president that Kyrgyzstan is a firm friend. At a cheerful midday press conference, Atambayev suggested the two had stayed up together until 5 a.m. – Putin had arrived in Bishkek late September 19 – and expressed wishes for everlasting friendship. "Russia is our main strategic partner. With Russia, we share a common history and a common destiny. […] Our future will be in partnership with the great Russia,” Atambayev said in comments broadcast by local media.