The Death of a Despot May Lead to Instability in Central Asia

The death of brutal dictator Islam Karimov was announced on Friday, bringing his 27 year rule of Uzbekistan to an end. The handling of the Uzbek President’s death has been reminiscent of the regime changes of the Soviet Union – a week of speculation followed his admission to hospital last Sunday, with suspicions that his death was kept quiet to allow backroom plotters time to plan his succession. With Karimov failing to specify whom he wished to succeed him, the risk of Uzbekistan’s government descending into infighting is very real – particularly in a country which has never experienced regime change before.

While there is a constitutional requirement for elections to replace the President, Uzbekistan was not renowned for adhering to its constitution during Karimov’s premiership, and there seems to be little reason to assume that a democratic transition into a post-Karimov era is likely. Realistically then, the best that can be hoped for for the people of Uzbekistan and the region in general is a stable transition. However, the lack of a clear and legitimate successor may tempt important government actors from the previous regime to attempt to seize the leadership – Rustam Inoyatov, the country’s powerful intelligence chief, might be tempted by the opportunity, or perhaps thrust one of his key allies into the Presidency. The risk of civil war then, in a country previously considered one of the most stable in Central Asia, is increased significantly by Karimov’s death.

One of the problems with regime changes in long-standing dictatorships – particularly ones which have only ever had one leader – is that the state institutions set up to govern the nation may not be strong enough to survive without the force of personality of the original dictator. Weak state institutions can lead to the sort of widespread instability seen in Iraq in recent years – where poor command structures have led to corruption and the failure of the police and military to deal with smaller threats, which have combined to aid the rise of Daesh.

The country’s new regime will be expected to continue Karimov’s strong secularism, which many in the West credit with expelling the dangers of Islamic terrorism from Uzbekistan, and again the success of this policy will depend on the strength of both the new leader and the underlying state institutions implemented since independence.

The situation surrounding the Uzbek leadership is further complicated by the country’s unique position in Asia. With the largest population of any of the five former republics of the Soviet Union and sitting on the border with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been an important ally for both the United States and Russia, particularly in the fight against organisations like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda – although relations with the US are not as close as they once were. The presence of a senior Russian delegation at the funeral of Karimov suggests that Moscow view this opportunity as a chance for closer relations with Tashkent, but there are parallels between Uzbekistan and Ukraine that cannot be ignored – and accordingly this regime change could result in further instability in Uzbekistan, and in Central Asia as a whole.

Uzbekistan’s Crimea is a region called Karakalpakstan. There is a constitutional allowance for a referendum on secession for Karakalpakstan, but as yet no referendum has been held, in spite of the separatist ambitions of many actors in the region. Parallels between the region and Crimea are easy to draw – and the question of Karakalpakstan will be one that may have to be answered by the new government fairly early on in its tenure. Independence for the region, perhaps backed by Russia if the new regime weakens ties with Putin, would cause serious instability in Central Asia and would be a major blow to Uzbekistan, in particular because the north-western region contains many important resources.

While the West and many in Uzbekistan will be glad of regime change, the chances of a democratic election are low, and regime change is likely to bring about instability in one of Central Asia’s most stable nations, and that could be bad for both Uzbekistan and the entirety of Central Asia in the long term.

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