Uzbek President Islam Karimov has kept the country unified under his rule for more than two decades, even though Uzbekistan is deeply split, along geographic and ethnic lines, into clans. These divisions define the political, economic, security and social powers within the country today. Regardless of who eventually succeeds Karimov as president, without him as a grand arbiter between the clans the volatility among these various groups could erupt into a crisis for a country of people who more readily identify with their clan than their nationality.
Currently, seven clans rule within Uzbekistan. These seven clans are divided along the 13 provincial lines, meaning that six of the provinces are aligned with or subjugated under the other seven. Of those seven clans, there are three main clans in power — the same Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana clans from the imperial and Soviet eras. The four smaller clans — the Jizzakh, Kashkadarya, Khorezm and Karakalpak — tend to change alliances. These four smaller clans are not generally engaged in elite intrafighting, but are instead more interested in their regional businesses and local governments.
The current divisions between the clans and their elite members began developing in the 1980s, when Sharof Rashidov, the Samarkand clan's powerful leader (and leader of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan), died. The Samarkand clan had proved the most adept at balancing clan and power divisions within the Soviet Socialist Republic, though Moscow gave the other primary clans turns as rulers in order to avoid empowering Samarkand too much.
Starting in 1983, the Samarkand clan's leader — Ismoil Jurabekov — began promoting Karimov as the next Samarkand clan member in line to lead the Uzbek republic. Jurabekov himself was too powerful to gain Kremlin approval as leader. In addition, Karimov was not powerful enough to cause concern within the Tashkent and Fergana clans. Karimov took the position in 1989. In 1991, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, Uzbekistan declared its independence and Karimov transitioned into the new office of president of the Central Asian state.
Instead of being wholly loyal to his Samarkand clan, Karimov wanted to keep order in the state and diversify his own power base by balancing the three major clans. Karimov started to build connections to both the Tashkent and Fergana clans beyond power politics and was seen within the Samarkand clan as having multiple allegiances. In addition, Karimov was concerned that Jurabekov and his associate, then-Interior Minister Zokir Almatov (who controlled the Interior Ministry forces) were planning a coup in order to ensconce a stronger leader from the Samarkand clan.
In 1995, in bolstering relations with Tashkent, Karimov promoted Rustam Inoyatov to head of the Uzbek National Security Services — the successor to the Soviet KGB in the country. At the time, the National Security Services was a weak institution, especially compared to the Interior Ministry and its forces. However, Karimov supported Inoyatov's vast expansion and revamping of the security services in the subsequent decade. According to reports, the National Security Services force now numbers 10,000, the same size as the Interior Ministry forces. It must be noted that there is no mention of the actual military — beyond its elites — in the clan struggle, as the military and its 67,000 troops are divided along geographic lines, meaning it is de facto divided among the clans.
In forming new ties with the Fergana clan — which is not as cohesive as the other clans, since it is divided among Andijan, Namangan and Fergana — Karimov gave his family members positions in the region's businesses. For example, Karimov's sister-in-law, Tamara Sabirova, and her son, Akbarali Abdullaev, either have worked with or own approximately 70 percent of businesses in the Fergana region.
Clan infighting was one factor in the rise of Islamist activity in the region. The Fergana Valley is one of the most conservative Islamic parts of Central Asia. One of the founders of the Central Asian militant group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jumma Kasimov, originally came from Namangan in the Fergana Valley. This region is also one of the poorest, which led to stirrings among male youths in the early 1990s that Kasimov was able to exploit to build his forces and significantly challenge Karimov — arguably more than any of the clan leaders could. Thus, the Uzbek government has been wary of the possibility of an uprising from the Fergana clan that would have militant and jihadist elements.
By approximately 1999, the Samarkand clan had more or less broken away from Karimov politically, due to his diversified loyalties. Moreover, open conflict broke out between the Samarkand and Tashkent clans. Jurabekov was forced to resign as deputy prime minister. In February 1999, six car bombs exploded across Tashkent within 90 minutes, targeting government buildings. The government officially blamed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the rise in Islamist militancy in the Fergana region, though both Samarkand and Tashkent clan members reportedly accused the other clan of supporting the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan in the plot.
Following the bombings, the powers of the Tashkent-controlled National Security Services were expanded to include the ability to arrest anyone for any reason. In addition, Samarkand's Jurabekov was given a top position in the government as presidential adviser. Thus, balance among the clans was achieved again for a short period.
In 2004, rumors that Samarkand's Jurabekov and Almatov were planning coups against Karimov began circulating again. In March 2004, Jurabekov was ousted from his position once again. From March to July, another wave of bombings took place — explosions in Tashkent in March and April targeted police, and blasts occurred at the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent in July. Officials blamed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union and Hizb ut-Tahrir for the bombings. Again, various clans were accused of supporting the militant groups, though nothing could be proved.
In the aftermath of the 2004 attacks, and with Jurabekov again out of power, the Tashkent clan seriously expanded its influence. Inoyatov began to build up the National Security Services' forces in order to counter the Interior Ministry forces' heft in the police and security apparatuses in the country. The National Security Services formed elite spetsnaz groups, such as the Cobra Force, using funding and training from the United States, which held an air base in Karshi-Khanabad for logistical support in Afghanistan. In 2005, the Tashkent clan was also given power over the National Border Guards, a traditionally powerful group of forces within the Central Asian states.
Tensions and competition flared up between the clans ahead of the so-called 2005 Andijan massacre, in which government forces clamped down on protests in the Fergana Valley. A purge started in late 2004 and early 2005 of Fergana clan elite, including the long-time governor of Andijan and Fergana clan leader Kobiljon Obidov. In addition, dozens of prominent businessmen from the Fergana clan were arrested. The drive to dismantle the Fergana clan reportedly was spearheaded by Tashkent's Inoyatov. Protests began to pop up in which the Interior Ministry forces kept the peace. In 2005, when Inoyatov gained control of the National Border Guards, they too deployed, with both Tashkent and Samarkand forces suppressing the protests in Fergana.
The protests swelled from May 12 to May 15, leading to a prison attack that freed 500-700 prisoners. Thousands were on the streets when the border guards and Interior Ministry forces cracked down. It was the perfect storm of protests, power purges and clan rivalries in Fergana that led to the so-called Andijan massacre, which killed between 187 (according to the government) and 1,500 (according to independent counts). Thousands of Uzbek refugees fled to the borders, and Kyrgyzstan shut its borders to keep the refugees at bay.
In the aftermath, Karimov blamed the uprising on extremists in order to downplay Uzbekistan's internal struggles. The crisis led to massive international condemnation of the Uzbek government and sanctions from many Western nations on Uzbekistan. This in turn led Uzbekistan to close the U.S. military base at Karshi-Khanabad.
In the aftermath of the incident in Andijan, Karimov ousted Almatov as head of the Interior Ministry forces, leaving the Samarkand clan crippled until Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev — who now leads the Samarkand clan — started to consolidate power. The Andijan incident also left the Tashkent clan without a true rival until recently.
In the past three years, the clan struggles have begun stirring again, and several large shifts have occurred in recent months. First, the Samarkand and Fergana clans began realigning. From the Fergana clan, Russian-Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmanov's nephew Babur married the daughter of Samarkand leader Mirziyoyev, forming a clan alliance. Usmanov is not a head of the Fergana clan, but he could rise to the top of the clan, given his enormous wealth and connections to the elite in Russia (including Russian President Vladimir Putin) and in Uzbekistan.
After this alliance, the Tashkent clan began focusing on the Fergana clan again (the Samarkand clan is too difficult a target while it holds the premiership). In 2010, one of Fergana's leaders, Gafur Rakhimov, fled to Dubai after the National Security Services began investigating him for criminal practices. In the summer of 2012, 40 prominent businessmen in Fergana were arrested. All were linked to businessman Akbar Abdullaev (who was also arrested, in October 2013).
The targeting of the Fergana clan seemed to speed up after rumors that Karimov was having heart troubles surfaced among opposition web sites outside of Uzbekistan in March 2013. In May, Usmanov's nephew (and Mirziyoyev's son-in-law) was killed in a mysterious car accident. The other leader of the Fergana clan, Salim Abduvaliyev, fled Uzbekistan for Italy after the National Security Services opened an investigation into his reported criminal activities, leaving the Fergana clan without a leader.
Though she is not in the Fergana clan, the president's daughter Gulnara Karimova has business connections with the clan and is hated by the Samarkand and Tashkent clans (her estranged mother and sister are aligned with the Tashkent clan). Karimova is a wild card in politics — and one with which the Tashkent clan seems particularly uncomfortable.
In the past few months, Karimova's television stations (TV-Markaz, NTT, Forum and SoFTS) have been shut down, and her associated media holding company Terra Group has been under investigation by the National Security Services. Karimova has taken to social media to publically call out Inoyatov for targeting her and accuse Inoyatov of corruption. Karimova also accused the National Security Services of arresting and torturing her bodyguards.
According to Stratfor sources in the region, the targeting of the Fergana clan and Karimova occurred after Inoyatov and his fellow Tashkent clan members asked the president for permission. It is unclear why the Uzbek president might have approved the targeting of his own daughter, unless Inoyatov's power has grown so much that he now threatens Karimov's hold on power. What is clear is that the Fergana clan, and any support Karimova has, is being systematically shut down in the country. The last time the Fergana clan was targeted on such a large scale, it contributed to the instability that led to the Andijan crisis.
Another sign that Inoyatov's power may be too great for Karimov to contain is that the National Security Services chief also seems to be targeting the Samarkand clan. In early December, there were reports that Inoyatov was behind the sacking of the Interior Minister Bahodir Matlyubov, one of the Samarkand clan's largest assets. Gen. Maj. Adkham Akhmedbayev of the Tashkent clan has reportedly filled the position of interior minister, overseeing a ministry full of Samarkand loyalists.
The Tashkent clan's increased targeting of both the Fergana and Samarkand clans could signal that Tashkent is preparing for the presidential succession.
With no clear succession plan laid out for when Karimov steps out of office or dies, there are two obvious players from the Samarkand and Tashkent clans jockeying for the position. From the Samarkand clan, Mirziyoyev is the most likely successor, with the former Samarkand leader Jurabekov supporting him behind the scenes. Samarkand continues to hold its base, with the Interior Ministry forces as its greatest tool.
Inoyatov of the Tashkent clan has eyed the position, but he is 70 years old, and if he did take Karimov's place it might not be for long. His fellow Tashkent clan member, First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, is instead the most likely choice as successor from the Tashkent clan. Azimov and Inoyatov reportedly do not get along, and Inoyatov even supposedly tried to oust Azimov during his rise to power, briefly allying with the Samarkand clan in the process. However, Azimov has a solid base in the financial and economic sectors, as well as Karimov's support.
The Fergana clan is currently in shambles, with no leader. However, given that the remaining clan members have strong Russian ties and a wealthy oligarch — Usmanov — in Moscow who has an interest in seeing the Fergana clan remain prominent in his home country, this weakness most likely will not last long. Usmanov had supported his nephew Babur, moving him into position to lead the Fergana clan and ally with the Samarkand clan, but after Babur's death in May it is unclear who will get Usmanov's support.
The overarching question is whether any new leader can truly replace Karimov, who has attempted to balance the clans during his nearly 25-year rule over Uzbekistan. A succession in another Central Asian state that had a long-time leader, Turkmenistan, went relatively smoothly, but there was not open conflict among the clans in Turkmenistan as there is in Uzbekistan. Successions in other Central Asian countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have been violent, leading to revolution and civil war. Kazakhstan is in a similar situation as Uzbekistan, as it is anticipating a succession of a long-time leader. With many powerful figures vying for the Uzbek presidency, the clan struggles are likely to continue for years, particularly as the clan divisions continue defining the power structures in Uzbekistan. The clan rivalries also threaten the relative stability Uzbekistan has enjoyed for the past few years (a byproduct of Karimov's mastery of balancing the clans). Given the current tensions between these groups, another regional uprising such as Andijan, or something more, is possible.