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World 05/09/2016

'Islam Karimov cannot be dead; only Islam Karimov can declare himself dead'

Almost exactly 25 years to the day since Islam Karimov became the reluctant first president of Uzbekistan in the ruins of the Soviet Union, he lay secretly dead, as the country’s small elite bought time for a grand funeral the day after his death, in line with Islamic custom.

Domesticated Islam was a pillar of Karimov’s rule, where, unprepared for the breakup of the Soviet Union, he had to look back beyond Russian colonisation to hastily construct nationalism in the vacuum of communism.

Raised in an orphanage and said to be a talented student, Karimov married well and climbed the ranks of the Soviet system. Installed as leader of the Communist Party the Uzbek SSR following purges of the leadership after a cotton production falsification scandal in the 1980s, Karimov quickly transitioned to president of Uzbekistan, crushing the democratic and Islamist opposition, and beginning his Stalinesque reign as father of the nation.

A class-A tyrant, he possessed a bulletproof hide, discarding friends and family to maintain absolute power (a joke doing the rounds over the last week goes “Islam Karimov cannot be dead, because only Islam Karimov can declare himself dead.”)

Under his rule, trade unions, NGOs, and mosques became implements of the state. The world’s fourth largest producer of cotton, his regime ran the annual – and continuing – slave labour drive, where around one million people are conscripted yearly to pick cotton in dire conditions.

Uzbekistan has more political prisoners than all of the other former Soviet states combined, and Uzbek authorities have become experts in torture, including boiling two prisoners to death in 2002, at the height of the country’s relationship with the United States. The regime may be opaque, but their reprisals are not, having hunted down refugees from as far away as Sweden.

Geopolitically, Karimov was an unreliable but at times necessary partner, routinely playing off the US, Russia, China, and Turkey against each other, making and breaking alliances at will.

Uzbekistan’s small border with Afghanistan was a blessing for Karimov after 9/11, where hosting a US air base and extraordinary rendition black sites saw him bestowed with hundreds of millions of dollars from the Americans, as well as state-of-the-art surveillance equipment intended to monitor Islamic extremism in the region. Karimov turned that capability on his own people to further monitor and repress dissent.

Frustration at poverty in the country saw the dissent reach its apogee in 2005, when a group of businessmen in Andijan created their own welfare system. They were arrested on trumped up terrorism charges. A subsequent jailbreak and mass protest saw masses of civilians gunned down, with possibly one thousand or more killed in what is now known as the Andijan Massacre.

Having spent some time reporting from the country last year, I was asked to write about Uzbek attitudes to Karimov, and the simple answer is that I can’t. The sinister air of the country is difficult to describe, but is best explained by the comparatively huge size of its military, police, and internal security forces. Asking someone their opinion of Karimov in private would likely be offensive or distressing. Asking someone of their opinion of Karimov in public could see them arrested or killed. Uzbek social media is united in its grief and mourning (one friend condemned my critical post about Karimov on Facebook as “outrageous”), and I doubt anyone in the country would risk anything beyond silence on Karimov’s passing – silence being a risk in and of itself.

Close to half the Uzbek population is under 25. They have received a lifetime of indoctrination into Uzbek nationalism and fear, with Karimov as the great leader and successor to historical figures such as 14th century conqueror Tamerlane. An iron fist is largely viewed as a virtue, and the only thought given to democracy, as in much of the region, is to blame it for the calamity of 1990s Russia.

Central Asian states are hostages to geography, hamstrung by Stalin’s borders, drawn in the 1920s, leaving sizeable ethnic minorities of other states within their borders, so ensuring that leaders were always looking within, rather to any grand nationalism that would see them break away. Prime Minister Mirziyoyev, who at this stage looks the likely successor to Karimov as leader of the Uzbeks, hails from Karimov’s mostly Tajik home town of Samarkand, and is believed to be ethnically Tajik himself.

Karimov’s death heralds a critical time Uzbekistan and the region. A new leader will be seeking to project power both inside and outside of the country. Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia to share a border with all the others, and has long-term grievances with weaker neighbours Kyrgyzstan (border disputes and a marginalised Uzbek minority) and Tajikistan (an ongoing water dispute that saw Karimov warn in recent years could end in a regional war).

The drop in energy prices is hurting their natural gas exports, as is Russia’s economic downturn, with a huge population of Uzbek migrant workers sending remittances home. These were already reduced by half last year. With the young demographics of the country, economic management will be crucial: we know that large numbers of unemployed men tend to start revolutions and undertake Islamic extremism at home and abroad.

But sadly, the only opposition the new leader is likely to face will be within the small circle of Uzbek elites on his way to absolute power. Revolution or even reform seem as distant as the reign of Tamerlane: and that, ultimately, is Islam Karimov’s legacy.

Elle Hardy is an Australian freelance writer with an interest in international affairs, politics, culture, and literature.