Oct 12, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

A Transition to Test Uzbekistan's Continuity

The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov casts doubt on his longstanding foreign and domestic policies.
(URIEL SINAI/Getty Images)

Uzbekistan is arguably the most strategic country in Central Asia. With 31 million people living within its borders, it is the region's most populous country and the only one that shares a border with each of the four other Central Asian nations. Uzbekistan contains the majority of the Fergana Valley, Central Asia's agricultural heartland, and is a major producer, exporter and transit state of natural gas flowing to Russia and China.

Today, Uzbekistan is all the more important for the unprecedented power transition underway there. Prior to his death in early September, President Islam Karimov had ruled Uzbekistan since 1989. During his time in office, Karimov oversaw the country's transition to independence from the Soviet Union. He built its political, economic and security structures and set the course for Tashkent's domestic and foreign policy. Though the late president died without a clear succession plan in place, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev stepped in as interim leader after Karimov's death. Mirziyoyev is likely to assume the presidency officially following an election in December, and he has called for a continuation of Karimov's policies. But the winds of change blowing across Central Asia could bring more than just a new leader to Uzbekistan.

When Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Karimov inherited a unique set of challenges. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan had no history as an independent state in a modern sense. The territory that now makes up Uzbekistan was divided between various empires, regional clans and khanates before being colonized by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It was only under Soviet rule in the 20th century that an Uzbek state with hard borders and a distinct national identity was formed. Maintaining unity and stability in the country after its independence was a pressing priority for Karimov, since the end of Moscow's authority over the country risked exposing its underlying regional and clan-based divisions. Karimov quickly established his own highly centralized authority, striking a delicate balance between Uzbekistan's main clans — the Tashkent, the Fergana and his own Samarkand clan — while quashing dissent with a strong security apparatus.

Setting the Course

But keeping the country together was not the only challenge for Karimov. After Uzbekistan gained its independence, the country experienced a resurgence of religiosity and became a hotbed of radical Islamist movements, most notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Founded in the country's pious Fergana region, the militant group conducted attacks throughout Central Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Karimov seized support from the West by allowing U.S. and NATO forces to use Uzbek territory as a logistical base for operations in Afghanistan. The IMU was subsequently pushed out of Uzbekistan and into the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, and in the years since, Uzbek security forces have largely managed to keep a lid on Islamist militancy.

Establishing the direction of Uzbekistan's foreign policy was another important undertaking for the country's first president. Under Karimov's leadership, Uzbekistan pursued a neutral, isolationist foreign policy unlike those of many other Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which kept close military ties with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Karimov opted to distance his country from Russia in part because Uzbekistan had the demographic, economic and military resources to resist becoming a Russian satellite. Uzbekistan's tense relationship with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also influenced Karimov's decision. Both countries have long hosted large Uzbek minorities, a legacy of the complex borders that the Soviet Union established across Central Asia. In the early 1990s (and again in 2010), competition over land and farming rights in the Fergana Valley gave rise to ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents in the Kyrgyz towns of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Similarly, competition over dwindling water supplies has fueled tensions between the countries. Because Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are upstream of Uzbekistan, they threaten its access to water and, in turn, its agricultural production, particularly with the hydroelectric dam projects they have proposed.

That Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) made Uzbekistan wary of the alliance, prompting it to withdraw from the bloc after six years in 2012. At the same time, Karimov opted out of any strategic alignment with the West as well, despite his cooperation with the United States and NATO over Afghanistan. In fact, the Uzbek president rescinded the United States' access to its military bases in 2005 after Washington criticized Tashkent for human rights abuses. Preferring to keep Uzbekistan at arm's length from any one foreign military or alliance, Karimov pursued political, economic and security cooperation with numerous foreign partners, including Russia, the United States and China. 

Staying the Course

But without Karimov, it is unclear whether Uzbekistan will continue down the same path. Immediately after Karimov's death, Mirziyoyev made a statement affirming Uzbekistan's nonalignment strategy, and he has also praised Karimov's domestic policies. Having served as prime minister since 2003, Mirziyoyev is well-versed in the late president's leadership style and methods. Furthermore, as a member of the Samarkand clan, Mirziyoyev will be careful not to depart too drastically from Karimov's policies for fear of instigating a clan-based power struggle with Security Services chief Rustam Inoyatov and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, both of the Tashkent clan.

Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share a border
Despite the new leader's claims, however, the changing social and political climate in Central Asia may force him to reassess the country's domestic and foreign policies. Uzbekistan, along with the rest of Central Asia, is under mounting economic pressure thanks to low global energy prices and Russia's financial woes. Remittances from Russia are waning, while labor restrictions there are multiplying, sending more and more Uzbek workers back home. As unemployment grows in Uzbekistan, so, too, do the country's security risks. The country's pervasive security apparatus kept security threats largely in check under Karimov; compared with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan rarely experienced protests or militant attacks. But there is no guarantee that Mirziyoyev will have the same success that his predecessor did in stifling dissent and cracking down on militancy, especially in the face of growing instability. If unrest in the country increases, Mirziyoyev could lose popular support or, more important, backing from within the government, further weakening his hold on power.

Adjusting Foreign Policy

In his short time as Uzbekistan's interim president, Mirziyoyev has already made a minor tweak to the country's foreign policy. Soon after his appointment, he called for stronger relations with Uzbekistan's neighbors — particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — and sent envoys to both countries during his first weeks in office. Karimov had notoriously bad relationships with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who welcomed the opportunity to improve their ties with Uzbekistan. It remains unclear, however, whether Mirziyoyev can alter the course of the countries' relations, given the lingering ethnic divisions and long-standing disagreements. Instead, his efforts may be merely a gesture of goodwill meant to enhance his image ahead of the election. Even so, by extending an olive branch to the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments, the new Uzbek leader could ease the way for a less confrontational approach to water management and border issues.

More important will be the direction Uzbekistan's relationship with Russia and China takes under Mirziyoyev. Both foreign powers have been increasingly active in Central Asia as instability in the region has grown. Moscow and Beijing have increased their involvement to counter rising militancy, and each hopes to gain political influence in Uzbekistan as the country makes its first leadership transition. If the security situation in Uzbekistan deteriorates enough that Tashkent has to turn to external aid, its nonalignment strategy could fall by the wayside. At the very least, Mirziyoyev may be forced to increase cooperation with Russia, China or even other powers such as the United States in ways that Karimov chose to avoid. Whether the new Uzbek leader can continue Karimov's policies, then, will depend more on the changing conditions in the country and the region than on his pledges to maintain continuity. 


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