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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tashkent's Tough Road Ahead: Uzbekistan after Karimov

On Monday, August 29th, news broke that Islam Karimov, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, suffered a brain hemorrhage and had been hospitalized. Rumors abound that President Karimov has died, but the statements pronouncing him dead are still unconfirmed.

Even if Karimov is not dead, there are serious doubts as to whether he will be able to continue his duties as President.

Islam Karimov rose through the ranks as a member of the Communist Party and ascended to power in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by 1989. He has been the President of Uzbekistan since the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and he has ruled with an iron fist. Freedom House, the well-known American think tank, consistently rates the Central Asian country as one of the most repressive countries in the world. 

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and most of its 31 million people are very young, almost half are under 25 years old. It is a mostly Sunni Muslim country and its people speak a Turkic language called Uzbek as well as Russian.

Despite its population, Uzbekistan is plagued by an economic rut. China and Russia, its main trading partners, are both coping with economic troubles. Remittances from Uzbeks living in Russia don’t carry the same worth as they once did with the rouble’s collapse. Chinese investment in the country has slowed down considerably.

These problems are not limited to Uzbekistan, either. Central Asia as a whole is struggling to find its place in the world as its five nations are all only a couple decades old.

Of the five countries in the region, only Kazakhstan seems to have mobilized as a regional power as the discovery of oil pushed the Kazakh economy into overdrive, but with Russia’s considerable recession, even Kazakhstan’s economy has slowed down. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s tiny eastern neighbor, is probably the most democratic country in the region, but it has endured multiple violent revolutions and is wracked by corruption. Despite very friendly relations with their much more stable and wealthy cousin Iran, Tajikistan still reels from the effects of a long and bloody civil war. Turkmenistan doesn’t sing unending hymns of praise to Saparmurat “Turkmenbasy” Niyazov any more, but it is still a rigidly controlled police state.

Islamism is also a cause for concern. All five of the Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim. Although they are all secular countries which were not so long ago removed from the atheist ideals of the Soviet Union, Islamist groups have played a role in opposition to the dictatorships that replaced communism. It is currently unclear as to whether Islamism will play a role in moving Central Asia away from its status quo, but considering the problems with Islamic fundamentalism that nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan struggle to contain it could destabilize the region.

A transition to functioning democracy in Uzbekistan is possible, but difficult to imagine. Authoritarian government is the status quo in both Central Asia and the regions that surround it. The only real exceptions to this rule is Mongolia, which quietly but effectively transitioned to democracy after its communist regime fell. It’s true that Kyrgyzstan is somewhat democratic and Iran has some elements of democracy present in its structure of government, but for various and different reasons, to call either of those countries a shining example of democracy is a major exaggeration at best.

There’s also the little-known factor of clan politics. Officially kept under wraps by Tashkent, two political clans control much of the country-the Tashkent clan and Samarkand clan. If the different clans turn against each other this could hamper stability in the country.

Uzbekistan’s status as a young country must also be considered. While Uzbeks are a people with a long history, it hasn’t even been three decades since Uzbekistan became a sovereign nation free from Russian and Soviet control. There may be some opportunity for Turkey to play a role in fostering change in Uzbekistan as both are Turkic peoples, but that may be a long shot as Turkey seems to be largely preoccupied with its recent intervention in Northern Syria and the recently botched military coup.

So what can be done for Uzbekistan to move towards democracy and prosperity? It’s difficult to say. Not only is it corrupt and repressive, Uzbekistan is isolated. It’s never been the primary subject of sanctions like Russia or Iran, but it does not have extensive trade relationships or a particularly strong economy. It does not have the technological muscle  that Russia or China does.

But it does have potential. Uzbekistan, as mentioned before, is the most populous nation in Central Asia. Its young population, if encouraged and mobilized to pursue education and entrepreneurship to bring back to their country could jump-start the country’s moribund economy. The largely overlooked region also has massive tourism potential as it boasts considerable natural beauty and history as a major portion of the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road.

For now, Uzbekistan is relatively quiet as Karimov’s fate is still not definite. The picture should come into focus in due time, though, and when it does, the consequences will be substantial.

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