For now, it appears that Uzbekistan will follow the path established by Islam Karimov and embrace the status quo under the new interim president. But that could change after snap presidential elections in December.
From left, Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov's daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva and widow Tatyana Karomova walk at a cemetery in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Photo: AP
On Sept. 8, the parliament of Uzbekistan approved Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the new interim president after the death of long-time ruler Islam Karimov earlier this month. Despite being the second highest-ranking person in the country for 13 years, Mirziyoyev had always remained in Karimov’s shadow.
The main question is whether the regime is going to change after the transition of power and what affect it would have on the security of Central Asia. So far, in his first speech before the Parliament, Mirziyoyev stated that he would continue the political course of President Islam Karimov. In foreign affairs, the new head of state intends on prioritizing cooperation with immediate neighbors – the other countries of Central Asia and Russia.
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Did Karimov appoint a successor? That is now a purely rhetorical question. Currently, it is obvious that regardless of Karimov’s choice, Prime Minister Mirziyoyev is going to become the second president of Uzbekistan. At the first president’s funeral, Mirziyoyev was in charge of the proceedings, and experts immediately pointed to similarities with the Turkmen scenario. The predetermined nature of the Uzbek transition was also confirmed by the recent approval of the interim president.
“The situation around Islam Karimov’s death and further appointment of Mirziyoyev as interim President indicates that the Uzbek elite is feeling confident and maintains control of the country. After Karimov’s burial, no additional security measures were put in place, which also proves the point,” Rafael Sattarov, an independent Uzbek political scientist, told Russia Direct.
Over the next three months, the new position will enable the people of Uzbekistan to see Mirziyoyev from a different angle. Little was known about him during his 13-year tenure as prime minister. It has been rumored that at his previous posts, including the mayor of Jizzakh and the governor of Samarkand Region, he ruled with an iron fist, which made him unpopular with the local population.
According to Sattarov, “For a long time, Mirziyoyev has been on the sidelines and many Uzbekistanis saw him and heard him speak for the first time only at the first president’s funeral.”
The parliament of Uzbekistan decided to hold the presidential election on Dec. 4, and the campaign officially started on Sept. 9. Virtually everybody in Uzbekistan thinks that Mirziyoyev will become the second president, especially since he enjoys the support of political heavyweight Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service (NSS). According to insiders, Inoyatov is second only to the late Karimov in terms of influence. Experts also told Russia Direct that Mirziyoyev would likely become the new head of Uzbekistan after the election.
“If Uzbek elites delay with choosing the successor, it can result in instability, and no one benefits from that," argues PIR Center expert Yuri Fedotov. "However, the peaceful transition of power is only possible if Mirziyoyev can strike a deal with regional leaders who control the election process and vote counting. He will also have to make arrangements with the NSS, police and military to position troops in Tashkent and in the regions.”
Sanat Kushkumbaev independent expert from Kazakhstan agrees that the Uzbek elites have already determined who will succeed Karimov. “Mirziyoyev’s candidacy may be introduced by the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, which nominated him for the position of the head of government in January 2015. The same party nominated Karimov at the last two presidential elections,” the expert explains.
For the upcoming December election, elites will likely have to select alternative candidates in order to showcase the democratic nature of the vote. However, in line with the tradition established during the Karimov era, all contenders for the position will be just figureheads.
Following Karimov’s path towards a post-Karimov Uzbekistan
In his parliamentary speech on Sept. 8, Mirziyoyev outlined the first steps of his election campaign. In general, he promised to continue the policies of the first president. Sattarov takes it to mean that in his first years as President Mirziyoyev will maintain Karimov’s status quo. “But as his power solidifies, the new president may start to remove the “old guard” representatives that were close to Karimov,” suggests Sattarov. The validity of the expert’s opinion is confirmed by sudden inspections of the Abu-Sakhi wholesale market in Tashkent. The site is controlled by the family of the former president’s youngest daughter, Lola Karimova.
Still, according to Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy will emphasize cooperation with Central Asian countries and Russia, even though Uzbekistan has very strained relations with neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, predominantly due to problems with water, energy supply and border control.
Speaking of bilateral Uzbekistan-Russia relations, lately they have been fairly stable and warm, in spite of the fact that after the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Samarkand in October 2015 and the new cooperation format C5+1 [The C5+1 is a platform that brings together the five states of Central Asia and the U.S. to discuss and work on issues of common concern – Editor's note] was established, Tashkent revived its emphasis on strengthening of Uzbek-American ties.
Farkhad Tolipov, director of the independent education and research Institution Knowledge Caravan, told Russia Direct that, “In international relations, Karimov sought to maintain geopolitical balance between external players. Adherence to this principle is beneficial to the new leader, especially since foreign policy will be implemented by the team of the deceased president. So far, there have been no changes on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff.”
“As far as regional policy goes, new Uzbek authorities will continue to do their best to avoid destabilization. In this area, cooperation with Kazakhstan will be of paramount importance. Moreover, Tashkent will not abandon Turkmenistan in its push against radical Islam propagated by Afghanistan’s Taliban,” Sattarov explains.
In his opinion, we should not expect Uzbekistan to change its stance on participation in military blocs and join the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or other multilateral cooperation formats on security matters.
PIR Center expert Yuri Fedorov also does not believe that Uzbekistan will pursue a pro-Russian foreign policy: “The Kremlin would like to see a pro-Moscow faction in power, but there are some serious doubts as to whether such a group exists within the leadership of Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s foreign policy enables successful trading with Moscow, Beijing and Washington, which suits the national elite well.”
In spite of a common stereotype, Tolipov does not think that Uzbekistan owed its security to just one man – Karimov. “Peace and stability in Uzbekistan rely on several factors: the president’s policies, societal characteristics and national mentality, suppression of civil unrest, consensus between various clans and political absenteeism. The absence of the potential for conflict is a special trait of Uzbek society and state,” explains Tolipov.