The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan has found itself somewhat in the spotlight in the last week, following reports of the aging president's deteriorating health. In the absence of credible information in the country of thirty million, rumours of the demise of Islam Karimov have been hard to confirm, with denials from the president’s press office and family following regional media reports of his death after a brain haemorrhage.
On Friday morning, Reuters announced that three diplomatic sources had confirmed that Islam Karimov has died. While it is still too early to say with absolute certainty that the country’s president is dead, the various contradictions may well reflect that a power struggle over succession has already begun in a country that plays an important role in a potentially unstable region.
Four Possible Scenarios of Power Transition
It is difficult to predict how the transition will play out due to Uzbekistan’s opaque power sharing configuration, in which political elites frequently override institutional arrangements. Nonetheless one can identify four potential scenarios.
The first scenario would see the “Siloviki” (or security elites) install their preferred candidate, Rustam Inoyatov. Inoyatov is Chief of the National Security Service, which, along with the Uzbek special services, is one of the strongest pod structures of the state governance system at the moment in Uzbekistan. The Siloviki have the advantage of being able to declare a state of emergency and coordinate special measures throughout the country should the need arise. Specifically. Importantly, they are also likely to maintain vital communication channels with foreign powers.
The second possibility is that regional elites, who have strong links with the Cabinet of Ministers, appoint Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyeev as Karimov’s successor. In contrast to the silence of the president's administration since late August, the Cabinet of Ministers released an official statement regarding Karimov’s hospitalisation. This marks a distinct change in the government’s executive decision making and communication process, which could be seen as evidence for Mirziyeev’s succession.
The third scenario is the implementation of Uzbekistan’s official succession policy as laid out in the constitution. There were a number of amendments made to the Constitution of Uzbekistan in 2011 that have clarified the process of succession. Article 96 reads: “In case the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan fails to exercise his duties, the Chairman of the Oliy Majlis (Uzbekistan’s Senate) shall be vested with acting duties and powers by holding presidential elections within three months”.
It is likely that the succession process will contribute to uncertainty in the Central Asian region in the short term.
A final possibility is a “hybrid” version of the above scenarios, in which the Siloviki decide to install a consensus figure such as Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov to preserve stability in light of the delicate balance of power among competing clans. Most importantly, one should remember that the strength of Uzbek politics derives from acceptance of the rules which enable negotiation between political factions.
More generally, it is likely that the succession process will contribute to uncertainty in the Central Asian region in the short term. There are a host of unresolved issues in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, which spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. These concerns include border disputes, water distribution, desiccation of the Aral Sea, drug trafficking from Afghanistan, inter-ethnic conflicts and a trend of rising extremism throughout the region in recent years. The sudden death of a leader in a political system that lacks both transparency and experience of transferring power has the potential to intensify power struggle among competing clans and complicate efforts to resolve these regional issues.
However, there is also an opportunity for the Central Asian political elites to improve intra-regional dialog, which has shown little progress in the twenty five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether such progress can be achieved in the post-Islam Karimov era is debatable, but it is undeniable that Uzbekistan’s transition will have an impact on the whole region of Central Asia.
Erlan Karin is political analyst and author of the book “Successor or Succession. The Problem of Power Transitioning in Central Asia”. Ryskeldi Satke is contributing writer and researcher with news organizations and think-tanks in the US, EU, Turkey, Central and East Asia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.