November 29, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov


Facing the menace of destabilization, Uzbekistan's President will seek nontrivial ways to consolidate power


Uzbekistan is facing national elections. On December 23, the Uzbek nation will elect its President. Observers have already identified the essence of this process as "Karimov elections". Though the voting list includes five candidates, including one woman, the victory of incumbent President Islam Karimov can be hindered only under by some extraordinary circumstances.

Since the death of Turkmen leader Saparmurad Niyazov, Mr. Karimov remains one of the two state leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asia persisting in this position since the times of the USSR. Islam Karimov, elected First Secretary of Uzbekistan's Communist Party in June 1989, was endorsed to the post of President at the March 1990 session of the Supreme Soviet of Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. He ascended to power in a complicated political period, on the peak of the Moscow-initiated campaign against corruption in the republic, and subsequent scandals over the brutal methods used by federal prosecutors during interrogation of local officials. During the previous five years, the Communist Party leadership of the republic changed thrice; Sharaf Rashidov and Inamzhon Usmanhodzhayev, were discredited with corruption charges, while Karimov's immediate predecessor, Rafik Nishanov, was answerable for the bloody pogroms of Meskheti Turks in Ferghana Valley. Thus, Karimov was perceived as a person capable of re-establishing both legal order and ethnic peace.

The power system, shaped in Uzbekistan under Karimov's rule, is typical for the political evolution of the post-Soviet Central Asia. In general features, it is largely similar to the political model of Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Uzbek liberal opposition, many leaders of which were forced to leave the country, accuses Karimov of dictatorship and personality cult. Large-scale unrest in Andizhan in May 2005, oppressed with excessive use of police force, added to this criticism, which was eagerly encouraged from the West. Both the EU and the United States, which used to overlook infringement of civil rights in Uzbekistan for political reasons while the country was a member of the pro-Western bloc of GUAM, turned its back to Karimov when his republic pulled out from this anti-Russian bloc. The Ferghana unrest thus became not more than a pretext for introducing diplomatic and economic sanctions against Uzbekistan, for forbidding a number of top officials to enter Western states, and for banning import of arms and related technologies to the republic.

This change of policy revealed the fact that democracy and human rights were actually the least important issue in the West's attitude to Karimov. Discontent from both sides of the Atlantic was expressed only after a visible rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Russia, particularly in the spheres of gas exports and security. The unrest of Ferghana, instigated, from Karimov's viewpoint, from the West, only accelerated the pro-Moscow turn of Tashkent.

In summer 2005, Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and later the Eurasian Economic Community and the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Moreover, Uzbekistan signed the SCO declaration, demanding withdrawal of US troops from Central Asia countries, which were deployed here after according to the post-9/11 anti-terrorist agreements. Uzbekistan expressed even a harsher position than its neighbor states, insisting on withdrawal of the US air base from its territory by the end of 2005. A year later, Uzbekistan signed a bilateral treaty on mutual assistance with Russia. The treaty obliged the two sides of military assistance, including cases of domestic subversion. Regarding the difference of the scale of the two countries, Russia has actually assumed responsibility for protecting Karimov's regime from any activities of radical opposition.

The radical Uzbek opposition is unified mainly with a strong Islamic sentiment. In Central Asia generally, the factor of religion serves as the most efficient impetus for political activity, associated with risk of strong resistance to the incumbent power. Political Islamist ideas are much more attractive for the socially deprived population than secular liberalism. Radical religious slogans are unacceptable for the majority of common, both Uzbek- and Russian-speaking population, which therefore recognizes Karimov as "smaller evil". For relevant reasons, courtiers compare him to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Karimov's commitment for building a secular state is implemented with predominantly authoritarian methods – which is natural, though not always justifiable.



At the same time, Karimov – as well as Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of Kazakhstan, regarded as Uzbekistan's regional rival – is convinced that the period of unavoidable authoritarianism will be inevitably changed with a prosperous democracy. Expressing this view, Karimov and his team refer to the same example of the Turkish Republic, which had spent decades in its evolution from an "enlightened authoritarian" rule of Ataturk towards a European democratic order.

It is noteworthy that today's political system of Uzbekistan has a more pluralistic shape than that of Kazakhstan and Putin's Russia. Officially, Islam Karimov is endorsed for Presidency by the Liberal Democratic Party that does not hold majority in the Legislative Chamber (Oliy Mazhilis) of the Uzbek Parliament.

Oliy Mazhilis is presently comprised of MPS of five political parties, none of them holding an absolute majority. The Liberal Democratic Party is represented by 41 MPs of 120. However, this party almost absolutely dominated in Samarkand Region where Karimov originates from. This feature reflects the traditional regional-clan organization of the political establishment. Karimov, as the leader of the nation, vigilantly controls the balance of clans.

The second largest Popular Democratic Party is the successor of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. It has got 28 seats in Oliy Mazhilis. Three other parties could be to a different extent recognized as pro-Presidential.



The major challenge to the Uzbek power system emerges from regional differences. Until the Soviet period, the Uzbek statehood existed in the form of two kingdoms, the Khiva Khanate and the Bukhara Emirate, incorporated into the Russian empire with a high level of political and cultural autonomy. In the rest of the territory of today's Uzbekistan, the dominating Uzbek ethnos was not well consolidated. As recently as in late 1890s, Russian ethnographers distinguished two ethnic communities in this area – the Sarts, inhabiting agricultural oases, and the Uzbeks, still living a half-Nomadic life.

The present borders of Uzbekistan were established in 1920s, when the Soviet government divided Central Asia into several autonomous republics, subsequently granting them the status of full-fledged co-founding subjects of the USSR. The principle of state-building was based on the principle of self-determination: formally, each of the Soviet Socialist Republics had a right to separate itself from the Union, and therefore, the status of an S.S.R. was available only for the border nations (on those grounds, Tatarstan was not granted this status).

Thus, the Uzbek Republic, as well as the neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, were formed artificially, and the established borders did not consider the existing regional differences, which survived until today despite the efforts of consolidation, undertaken by Moscow and Tashkent authorities. Since his ascent to the top party position, Karimov was perceived by the population as a representative of Samarkand. Oppositionist activities in early 1990s were dominated by clans, based in Tashkent and Ferghana Valley, while the weaker clans of Karakalpak Region (the succession of the Khiva Khanate, or Khorezm), Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya Regions have always been subordinated by the central power.

Until today, Karimov's core team is recruited from cadres of Samarkand origin, while the strongest opposition is embedded in the Ferghana Valley. The holdover of tribal division obviously hampers the nation's consolidation, impeding transition from an authoritarian to a democratic order regardless from the intentions of politicians and intelligentsia.

The significance of regional differences is increasing with the age of the incumbent President. Though the national constitution does not include provisions restricting the number of Presidential terms, Karimov, in his age of 69, faces the necessity to select a successor, capable of efficiently keeping the nation together.

The leadership of Kazakhstan, faced with a similar problem, tries to cease the developing turf war among his sons-in-law by introducing constitutional amendments, providing him lifelong duties, and preventing transition of power to the members of his family. At the same time, Nazarbayev managed to restrict rivalry from regional clans by means of frequent purges of the Government. This approach is hardly available in a much more factionalized Uzbekistan, which cannot allow itself a homogenous political system on a Russian or Kazakh pattern. In order to prevent a Ukrainian-type brawl between region-based political forces, the Uzbek leadership has to invent its own option of Presidential succession.



One of the possible approaches for transformation of Uzbekistan's power system is the model of Belarus, where the multi-party parliament was deliberately replaced by a national assembly with domination of MPs selected directly from local districts. The existing multi-party system in Uzbekistan implies a much higher risk in for integrity of Uzbekistan than that of Belarus, as it implies clan differences with inherent secessionist tendencies. Therefore, Karimov is likely to undertake a change of the system which would diminish the role of both the parties and the parliament. His efforts will be concentrated on a personal selection of a reliable successor.

In political experiments of this or another kind, Karimov's potential is restricted with the relative economic and social backwardness of his state. The population very sensitively perceives the obvious economic advantages of Kazakhstan; Uzbek labor force migrates not only to Russia but increasingly also to the neighboring republic. Thus, the possibility of resolute changes in the political system requires visible signs of economic improvement. However, in case the same economic problems result in a new upsurge of massive unrest, Karimov may undertake abrupt changes in the political sphere.

The failure of the Andizhan riot in 2005 does not except new attempts of destabilization, initiated from outside. Facing a failure of strategy in the whole of Asia, the United States may initiate a new wave of subversive activities from those states of Central Asia where the persisting regional differences create a potential of chaos, instrumental for the purpose of destabilization of both Russia and China. Western powers may offer Karimov not only sticks but carrots, proposing trade privileges in exchange for political loyalty. Both possibilities suggest that the relationship between Moscow and Tashkent in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community, as well as SCO, should be reinforced on the base of mutual economic benefit, with long-term advantages not only for the ruling circles but also for the common people of Uzbekistan.

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