Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for almost three decades, is now buried in Samarkand, his birthplace. The manner in which news of his illness and death was treated in Tashkent indicates the nature of the regime he has left behind. This was a typical replay of the old known Soviet story.
The unfolding situation in a strategically important country bordering Afghanistan is being watched carefully in all major capitals, including New Delhi. Uzbekistan also borders all other Central Asian countries. Any instability in Tashkent can easily spread to the core of the region – the volatile and most densely populated Fergana Valley, consisting eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. At the moment, as per the Uzbek constitution, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, chairman of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis (the parliament) has taken over as acting president. However, there are strong indications that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev could be the new leader. Mirziyoyev is best suited to continue Karimov’s legacy – he belongs to the same clan as Karimov, he has been prime minister since 2003, and is close to the Karimov family and the country’s national security establishment.
Karimov ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, first as a communist leader of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and then as president of the independent republic since 1991. During the last quarter century, Karimov was criticised by the West for his authoritarian rule and human rights violations. Still, he provided relative stability and economic development to Uzbekistan’s citizens. He also fought the forces of Islamic fundamentalism decisively, no small achievement for Central Asia’s largest country with ethnic linkages to neighbouring Afghanistan.
Despite international pressure, Karimov went on establishing his own “Uzbek model” of development – a combination of strong political authority with limited economic opening. His policies were initially ridiculed by western advisers, but the Uzbek economy has grown more than 8% every year in the last nine years. For some time, the model has been under stress due to declining remittances from Russia, and reduction in gas and cotton exports. Despite a weak external outlook, the economy is still growing at about 7% a year.
Under a ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, Karimov was also able to skilfully manoeuver first between Russia and the US, and later also with China. Whenever it seemed he was getting closer to one major country, he cleverly built ties with other powers. Many scholars have produced tremendous literature on how major powers are playing a new great game in Central Asia. Karimov was a Central Asian leader who mastered this game. Take for instance when he was thought to be closer to Russia. Uzbekistan joined the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1992. This sole post-Soviet collective security arrangement was signed in Tashkent. In 1998, however, Karimov left the grouping.
He was often criticised by Western organisations for the lack of democracy, economic reforms and human rights in Uzbekistan. Yet, when he saw the dangers in neighbouring Afghanistan, he allowed the Americans to use the Uzbek air bases. With political changes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, he became suspicious of US designs of spreading colour revolutions in the region. He closed the air bases when ties with the US became strained over the suppression of an armed uprising in Andijan.
In 2006, Uzbekistan restored its membership in the CSTO but six years later suspended its participation. This was at the time when Karimov had also allowed Uzbek territory to be used for transit routes under the Northern Distribution Network for the US-led war in Afghanistan. With his constantly changing orientation, Karimov may not have been termed a very reliable partner by the Russians, Americans or its even Uzbekistan’s immediate neighbours. Still, he was able to preserve a somewhat independent foreign policy in difficult circumstances.
Whoever succeeds Karimov at this juncture will have a relatively easy time continuing his legacy. Although Russia, the US and China will continue to assert their influence on strategically-important Uzbekistan, none will like to disturb stability in an already highly unstable neighbourhood. With a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS in West Asia, a weak Uzbekistan will become another opportunity for radical Islamic forces to spread their influence. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was pushed by Karimov to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, has developed links with the Taliban and ISIS. Although he was criticised for using Islamic threats to suppress political opposition, Karimov never allowed political Islam to prosper and all religious groups were systematically regulated.
Unlike the US, Europe and many multilateral organisations that were obsessed with spreading democracy and market economics in the region, India has been focused primarily on ensuring political stability. An unstable Central Asia was always viewed as a serious threat to India. New Delhi obviously would have welcomed a more democratic Central Asia, but it favoured allowing democratisation to happen at its own pace. New Delhi maintains a strategic partnership with Tashkent, and regards Uzbekistan as an important partner and a key country in its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. The two countries are bound by historical ties as well; Babur, the founder of India’s Mughal dynasty, came from modern-day Uzbekistan.
Radical forces in the region will feel emboldened with Karimov’s departure. However, if Turkmenistan’s political transition is any guide, where Saparmurat Niyazov was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov without any change in the political system, Uzbekistan may continue with Karimov’s legacy of strong secular state with limited political and economic openings. Moscow, Washington and Beijing may be looking to use the evolving situation to their benefit. With a limited presence so far, New Delhi will only hope that a new leadership in Tashkent will continue to provide stability and become an active partner in regional economic projects like the International North South Trade Corridor, which could facilitate linkages between Uzbekistan and India.
Gulshan Sachdeva is a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.