Death of Uzbek strongman Karimov leaves questions over succession

Vladimir Putin talks Islam Karimov

Vladimir Putin talks Islam Karimov

Uzbekistan has been plunged into political uncertainty as the nation mourns the death of its veteran leader, Islam Karimov, who died on Friday without naming a successor after ruling his country for 27 years.

How the power vacuum is filled in Uzbekistan is of urgent concern to Russia, the United States and China, all powers with interests in the volatile Central Asia region, where Uzbekistan is the most populous state.

The predominantly Sunni Muslim country could now face prolonged infighting among clans over its leadership.

“The death of Islam Karimov may open a pretty dangerous period of unpredictability and uncertainty in Uzbekistan,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Tass news agency on Friday.

The president’s death was announced Friday after he succumbed to a brain haemorrhage. Authorities said Karimov is to be buried in a cemetery in Samarkand later on Saturday near family members.

An iron-fisted ruler, Karimov led the central Asian nation for 27 years during which he crushed opposition, repressed the media and was repeatedly denounced by activists abroad for widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and torture.

He justified his brutal agenda by citing the danger posed by Islamist militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Over the years the group has been affiliated with the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, and has sent its fighters abroad.

Analysts have proposed five possible contenders for the country’s top job, among them a tight group of loyalists from Karimov’s inner circle.

Technocrat prime minister

Viewed as a tough-guy enforcer, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 59, appears to be the frontrunner to take over after he was named head of the committee organising Karimov’s funeral.

Mirziyoyev, who has served as prime minister since 2003, is reported to have close ties to the former president’s family and to key security bosses.

According to rights activists, the former governor of Karimov’s home region of Samarkand has been in charge of making sure the country fulfils its annual cotton quotas.

That places him at the heart of a industry that is crucial to the Uzbek economy – it is one of the world’s leading cotton producers – but is accused of forcing over a million citizens, including children, to pick the cotton each year.

Finance chief

Deputy premier and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 57, is reportedly viewed by foreign diplomats as more friendly to West, although he is still a key member of Karimov’s inner circle.

The former banker, who’s been Finance Minister since 2005, has been touted as a possible replacement after apparently weathering several challenges to this power.

After years at the heart of the Uzbek elite, Azimov is implicated in the vast web of corruption that has purportedly seen those close to Karimov amass vast fortunes.

When news emerged that Karimov was in hospital, rumours abounded that Azimov had been placed under house arrest. But these were quickly denied and he has also been named as part of Karimov’s funeral committee.

Veteran security boss

The country’s powerful security chief, Rustam Inoyatov, has held the post since 1995 and has long been seen as the power behind the throne.

At 72, the former KGB officer may not take the top job himself, but the long-time Karimov ally looks likely to have a decisive say in who does.

Inoyatov’s reputation is seriously tarnished for his alleged role in the bloody suppression of protests in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005 – when hundreds of opposition demonstrators are believed to have been gunned down in a massacre.

While officially he controls Uzbekistan’s security service, he also effectively exerts control over the army and other law enforcement agencies.

Stand-in leader

According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, senate leader Nigmatulla Yuldashev takes over temporarily until early elections are held within three months.

But commentators describe Yuldashev as a little-known “non-entity” who is unlikely to have the clout to secure the top spot for himself in the long run.

The Karimov family

Still likely to play a decisive role are Karimov’s widow Tatyana and his younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.

Karimova-Tillyaeva, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, took to social media during her father’s illness to confirm he had suffered a brain haemorrhage.

She told the BBC in rare comments in 2013 that she did not foresee a career in politics for herself, insisting she was focused on her young family.

She also said that she had not spoken to her older sister Gulnara for 12 years.

Once seen as a potential heir to her father’s throne, one-time socialite, pop star and business magnate Gulnara, 44, spectacularly fell from grace in a bitter family feud and was placed under house arrest in 2014.

Gulnara, a former ambassador to the UN in Geneva, is being investigated in Europe over a $330 million telecoms corruption scandal.