External Affairs

End of Karimov Era Opens Door to Political Uncertainty in Uzbekistan

Strongman who led his country through the post-Soviet transition and saw himself as an alternative to a future of perpetual jihad for Uzbeks and Central Asians.

File photo of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who died on Friday. Credit: Reuters

File photo of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who died on Friday. Credit: Reuters

Travel focuses the mind on what is often taken for granted. The proximity of Central Asia and its most populous country, Uzbekistan, to India, is one such example. It took several months for Zahir-ud-din Mohammed ‘Babur’”, an Uzbek from the Ferghana valley of Uzbekistan, to enter India from his kingdom in Afghanistan in 1526 and engage in battle against Ibrahim Lodhi at Panipat, laying the foundations for the Mughal empire in India. In June 2016, it took Prime Minister Narendra Modi just over three hours to travel from Delhi to Tashkent. As the political barriers erected more than a century ago to keep India separated from Central Asia are overcome by technology and investment, the implications of events in Central Asia become even more directly relevant today for India and the region.

In this context, news of the death of Islam A. Karimov, who has been president of Uzbekistan ever since it declared independence from the Soviet Union on September 1, 1991, is bound to arouse international concern. The first official intimation that his end was near came earlier this week when his younger daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva posted on Instagram that Karimov had a “cerebral haemorrhage”, and the Uzbek government confirmed that the president had been hospitalised. Uzbekistan had not formally announced his death at the time of publication but the Turkish prime minister went public with the news of his passing.

Soviet origins

Like many other political leaders in the former Soviet republics who had their new role as leaders of “independent” countries thrust on them by the Russian-led breakup of the USSR, Karimov was an apparatchik of the Soviet system. He had his roots in Samarkand, which was incorporated in the newly formed Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by Stalin in October 1924. Samarkand stayed as the capital of the newly created Soviet Republic until 1930, when it was supplanted by Tashkent. It lies at the heart of a vibrant Central Asian cultural mosaic, influenced by both Turkic and Persian societies of which the Uzbeks and Tajiks are an intrinsic part.

Stalin’s design was to create administrative units out of the earlier khanates and kingdoms in Central Asia, with the new borders often bifurcating clans and tribes which are the foundation of identity in the region. Consequently, while the new Soviet republics were outwardly remarkable for their diverse populations, beneath the surface, old antagonisms would often persist. Even the vice-like grip of Soviet control could not prevent these antagonisms from erupting from time to time, especially along the fault lines of the new administrative republics.

Karimov understood and reflected this cultural diversity, though in his political exertions he attempted to rise above the identities of language, ethnicity and tribes that characterise this region. The uncharted journey that Uzbekistan took as a modern state owes a great deal to Karimov’s style of functioning. Though he may not have been initially grounded in the imperial traditions of Samarkand, there is no doubt that early in his first decade in power he had made one of Samarkand’s globally famous rulers, Timur, his role model. This included the often repeated folklore of Timur’s desire to leave a legacy as a leader and statesman, focusing on the outward manifestations of magnificence. The massive and grand renovation of Samarkand’s main square, the Registan, is testimony to this aspect of Karimov.

At the same time, he emulated other popular aspects of Timur, notably the cultivation of an “iron” persona. Among Central Asian leaders, Karimov was probably the one who rarely showed any emotion in public, and who instilled in others around him a sense of discipline born out of fear.

One of his legacies has been keeping the modern Uzbek state together within its boundaries drawn almost a century ago by Stalin. In this, his resort to strong-arm measures, including the use of force to quell any demonstrations against his rule, has been widely commented upon by liberal voices, within and outside Uzbekistan. Whether, by ruling with an iron hand, Karimov sowed the future seeds of fragmentation in Central Asia or not is a question that only time will tell.

Islamist challenge

He was quite clear about some issues. One of these was the threat posed by the  radical revival of Uzbekistan’s Islamic identity to its modern aspirations. He was far-sighted enough in attempting to deflect this phenomenon, which he saw very early in his rule as his primary challenge, by co-opting influential elements from the Uzbek diaspora. A large number of practicing Uzbek Muslims had migrated towards Saudi Arabia after the consolidation of Bolshevik rule in Central Asia. Another significant migration had taken place towards Turkey, driven more by linguistic and liberal, rather than purely religious urges. Karimov allowed the modern descendants of these two Uzbek diasporas outside the Soviet sphere to return and find their own space in their ancestral homeland. By doing so, he adroitly built bridges to two important centres of influence in the global Islamic world – Riyadh and Ankara – and Uzbekistan’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation ensured that Karimov’s internal hardline policies were not singled out by this grouping. However, he was unable or unwilling to allow the revival of his country’s rich and diverse Sunni and Sufi heritage to counter the proponents of radicalism supported from West Asia.

Probably he could implement such a policy because he knew that the population of his young country was not literate in either Arabic or Turkish, because during Stalin’s rule, both the Arabic and Turkic alphabets, which had recorded Uzbekistan’s rich cultural and religious heritage, had been erased from homes and schools, and replaced by Cyrillic. However, the ability of information and communication technologies to cross such barriers, propelled by globalisation and the growth of the internet, were challenges that Karimov could not have foreseen in 1991. These challenges from West Asia would converge during the past decade in spreading radicalising influences into Uzbekistan and its 31 million people.

Eventually, it was the specific regional impact of international terrorism, with Uzbekistan as a fertile recruiting ground for groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (an affiliate of Al Qaeda) and the Islamic State, which became his biggest worry. He was apprehensive about the increasing trans-national linkages between terrorist groupings in the Af-Pak region.

He was an active participant in all the regional ebbs and flows that marked the evolution of Afghanistan’s political identity since the Soviet army’s withdrawal across the Amu Darya to the Uzbek border town of Termez in 1989. He projected himself as an alternative to a future of perpetual jihad for Uzbeks and Central Asians.

Allied to all

Karimov was careful to keep his channels of communication open with Russia, even during the period when his government was perceived to have moved into the pro-American camp by leasing the airbase at Khanabad and allowing Uzbek territory to be used for supplying US-led troops in Afghanistan through the northern distribution network. His government allowed Russian companies like Gazprom and MTS to dominate the Uzbek energy and telecom sectors.

China’s entry into Central Asia was strongly supported by Karimov. Apart from their common membership of the China-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Uzbekistan reciprocated Chinese overtures because it was one of the two Central Asian countries which did not have a contiguous land border with China. The fact that China was ruled by the Communist Party also provided an ideological bridge for Karimov. When the Chinese established diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan in 1992, Karimov ordered the entire building housing the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party to be cleared out, and offered the property to China as their embassy premises. China’s influence in Uzbekistan has been consolidated by the use of Uzbek territory for routing the major energy and transportation links that connect China’s Xinjiang province with Central Asia and beyond.

Karimov was one of the few former Soviet leaders who had personal experience with work done by the Indian private sector. He appreciated the construction projects handled by two Indian companies in Uzbekistan (Larsen & Toubro and Tata Projects, which successfully completed the construction of three tourist hotels during the break-up of the Soviet Union in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara).

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov (R) talks with Armenia's President Levon Ter-Petrosyan during a news conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, December 21, 1991. Picture taken December 21, 1991. Credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov (R) talks with Armenia’s President Levon Ter-Petrosyan during a news conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, December 21, 1991. Picture taken December 21, 1991. Credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Many may not remember that he was the first of the new leaders from the former Soviet republics to have visited India. This was his first foreign trip, in August 1991. Out of deference to Indo-Soviet relations, he was hosted by the Vice-President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma. During his visit, the attempted “coup” against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev took place in Moscow. Karimov had to cut short his visit while he was in Agra, and rush back to Tashkent.

On the way to the airport, when his mind must have been grappling with the momentous choice he would have to make about his and his country’s future, faced with the imminent collapse of the system that had created him, Karimov looked out of the car window onto the monsoon-soaked Agra streets and asked rhetorically, “How does one deal with bicycle thieves here?”

A fortnight later, on September 1, 1991, he presided over the hastily cobbled celebrations of Uzbekistan’s first Independence Day at the renamed Mustakillik Maydoni (Independence Square), which had till then been the location of the largest Lenin statue in the Soviet Union.

Asoke Mukerji served as India’s last consul general in Soviet Central Asia, based in Tashkent, during the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, and opened India’s first embassy in Uzbekistan in March 1992