Uzbekistan has entered a new chapter in its history. Media sources in the country reported Monday that after 27 years in office Uzbek President Islam Karimov died of a brain hemorrhage, reinvigorating speculation about who will succeed the country's only president to date. Top contenders for the post include power players such as Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, security services chief Rustam Inoyatov and members of Karimov's own family. Given the geographically divided and clan-based nature of Uzbekistan's political system, the succession process could get complicated. But regardless of who takes over the country, its geopolitical importance will remain unchanged.
Located in Central Asia, Uzbekistan occupies a strategic place in the middle of the Eurasian landmass. Consequently, the country has attracted the interest — and influence — of numerous foreign powers throughout its long history, including Iran, Turkey, China and, more recently, Russia and the United States. Its role as Central Asia's geographic, demographic and agricultural heartland has made Uzbekistan all the more important to foreign powers and to neighboring countries alike. In the post-Soviet era, the country's significance has manifested in many different ways. Uzbekistan gained prominence as a producer and transit state for natural gas supplies to Russia and later to China. When U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan began in 2001, Uzbekistan's proximity to that country made it a key logistical base. Even after Uzbekistan evicted the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad base in 2005 following criticism from Washington of Tashkent's human rights record, the country continued to serve as part of a NATO supply route.
Beyond its logistical role, Uzbekistan has also been of interest to Russia, the West, and to other foreign powers for its problems with Islamist militancy. From 1999 to 2001, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was a major threat not only to Uzbekistan but also to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Though the group was largely pushed into the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, it remained a potent danger as a militant organization allied with al Qaeda. More recently, the growing presence of the Islamic State, the Taliban and other militant groups in northern Afghanistan has caught the attention of Russia and the United States, which are vying to engage Uzbekistan in various security initiatives.
Nevertheless, under Karimov's highly centralized rule, Uzbekistan maintained an isolationist foreign policy, choosing to avoid strategic alignment with any one foreign power while pursuing economic and security cooperation with several states, including Russia, the United States and China. Karimov used the looming threat of Islamist militancy to great advantage, both to elicit financial and security support from abroad (procuring 300 mine-resistant, armored protective vehicles from the United States and arms from Russia) and to justify crackdowns at home. Often, the targets of these campaigns have had little or nothing to do with Islamist militancy, which the Uzbek government invokes as a pretext to take action against other opposition elements. Uzbek law enforcement bodies recently revealed, for example, that they had detained over 500 supporters of terrorist organizations in the country in the first half of 2016, offering little proof to substantiate such a high figure.
Throughout his time in power, Karimov artfully managed foreign interests and influence while maintaining firm control over a diverse and divided country. Without him, Uzbekistan's future has been thrown into question. Given Karimov's advanced age and declining health, a succession plan has likely been in place for some time. Still, there is no guarantee that it will be carried out smoothly or accepted by the country's various stakeholders. A botched, contested or derailed succession could create a political and security vacuum in Uzbekistan that the country's regional divisions could lengthen and that militant groups could exploit.
Because of Uzbekistan's strategic location and geopolitical importance, the implications of its president's death and impending succession process reach far beyond its borders. As foreign powers such as Russia, China and the United States continue their quests to woo and influence Tashkent, the stakes of the succession will keep rising. Whoever leads Uzbekistan into its next chapter will inherit the leverage and challenges that accompany the country's geopolitical position.