Despite its natural resources and strategic position, Uzbekistan attracts little attention. Yet this remote, repressive country has lost its first and only president since independence, Islam Karimov, at a time when fundamentalist Islam is approaching its borders, writes Nicholas Nugent
Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century. He was famous for his ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to opposition and use of brutal force against protesters.
According to Human Rights Watch, Karimov leaves ‘a legacy of political and religious repression’, with thousands in prison. Most notoriously, he was responsible for the 2005 massacre at Andijan in the east of the country, an impoverished region and scene of rivalry between Tashkent and Samarkand influence groups, or ‘clans’.
Clan differences may have been behind the arrest the previous year of 23 businessmen who were put on trial for allegedly promoting ‘extremism’. In May 2005 their supporters attacked the prison, freeing the businessmen, and took several law enforcement officials hostage in the process. The following day there was a mass street protest in the city’s Babur Square by townspeople complaining about poverty and government corruption, with protesters calling on President Karimov to resign.
That evening security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing several hundred people – 187, according to the government, more than three times that number, according to eyewitnesses. It was alleged that this was on the direct order of Karimov. The government blamed Muslim fundamentalists, though it subsequently admitted that poverty in the region had been an issue.
Observers believe that if Karimov had not cracked his whip, this could have been the start of a so-called ‘colour’ revolution against autocratic rule, like those which successfully changed governments in the former Soviet territories of Georgia (2003, Rose), Ukraine (2004, Orange) and Kyrgyzstan (2005, Tulip). But despite widespread international condemnation – the European Union criticised the ‘excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force’ – and the imposition of economic sanctions and travel bans, Karimov survived the protests.
After Andijan, any challenge to the regime was swiftly suppressed. By the time of his death it was reported that as many as 6,000 people were held in Uzbekistan’s prisons for political or religious reasons. It says much about the fear that Karimov inspired, among even his political associates, that his death at 79, following a stroke, was not announced for several days – until after Uzbekistan’s Independence Day on September 1, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of its emergence from the Soviet Union. The news had leaked out earlier through Russia and Turkey, the country’s closest allies.
A quarter century earlier, when the five central Asian republics separated from the former Soviet Union, it was Islam Karimov who declared Uzbekistan’s independence. Appointed Communist Party leader in 1989, and later president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, he carried on much as before. Uzbekistan only became a focus of Western attention after the September 2011 attacks in New York and Washington led the US to oust the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan’s southern neighbour across the Amu Darya river.
Fearing the spread northwards of Islamic fundamentalism, not to mention the flow of Afghan opium and refined heroin through Uzbekistan, Karimov’s government was sympathetic to America’s action and NATO’s later involvement in Afghanistan. It allowed the US to use a military base in Uzbekistan to support its Afghan operation, but this triggered a new, 21st century, ‘Great Game’.
With Russia and America competing for influence in Central Asia, Vladimir Putin’s government successfully put pressure on Karimov to withdraw the base rights granted to the US. While not Moscow’s closest ally, the late ruler was Russian-orientated by upbringing, and his country was plugged into the Russian economic system. It was not too hard for Putin to retain his loyalty – and it was Putin rather than Barack Obama who stopped over in Samarkand to pay respects to Karimov following the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
Uzbekistan is the third most populous former Soviet state, after Russia and Ukraine, with a population of around 31 million, and is one of the USSR’s more prosperous offspring, thanks to cotton. The diversion of the waters of the Amu Darya to support cotton production in the 1960s led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, now about a tenth of its former size. Even within the corrupt economics of the Soviet Union, this was regarded as an extreme case study in bad management of resources: how not to double your cotton output if you intend to retain it as a long-term agricultural business.
But while cotton remains an Uzbek mainstay, the discovery of natural gas and oil in exportable quantities has put the country on a strong economic footing. Gold, copper and uranium are also mined. In Soviet times the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, was a major industrial and transportation centre producing, among other things, aircraft and railway wagons. It was also a centre of culture and learning: as the closest major Soviet city to India and Pakistan, it attracted students from both countries.
To the ethnic links between the Uzbeks and Turks, as well as the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang region, can be added Uzbekistan’s strategic position in central Asia, even though it is doubly land-locked: one has to pass through two other countries to reach the ocean. As part of its effort to create a Silk Route for the 21st century, China has built a pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to Xinjiang, passing through Uzbekistan and providing China with plentiful supplies of natural gas. South Korea has also invested heavily in Uzbekistan.
What is Uzbekistan’s future after Karimov? He has been succeeded by his long-term ally, Shavkat Mirziyoev, 59, who can be expected to consolidate his position. As a regional governor, then as prime minister, he held local leaders accountable for meeting cotton production targets. Russia’s Sputnik news agency suggests that Mirziyoev will side-line his rival, the finance minister Rustam Azimov, by offering him an ambassadorial post.
Like Karimov a product of the Soviet system, Mirziyoev is unlikely to change the country’s internal policies, or to open its government up to greater scrutiny. As for corruption, Transparency International ranks Uzbekistan at 153, close to the worst of the 168 countries on its Corruption Perception Index 2015.
A guide to Uzbekistan’s probable course comes from neighbouring Turkmenistan, equally gas-rich and authoritarian, similar both ethnically and in being a former Soviet republic. There, when ‘president for life’ Saparamuat Niyazov died in 2006, his protégé, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, succeeded with barely a hiccup, and there was no opening up.
There are plenty of reasons for Uzbekistan’s new rulers to fear any loosening of control, not least the advances being made by a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, bringing new fears that an extreme brand of Islam could take hold north of the Amu Darya. Karimov’s claims about Islamist subversion may have been an excuse to move against his political opponents, but it is clear that a streak of fundamentalism lies beneath the surface of this remote, repressive state. It would not take much to light a spark.
Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Previously on the staff of the BBC World Service, he has written books on India and Vietnam and contributed to others on Indonesia and Myanmar. He is working on a history of the spice trade