On September 2, 2016, Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. He was 78 when he died. Why does it matter that an aging executive of a largely-irrelevant Caucasus country died? Because it has never happened before.
After serving two years as head of the Soviet Bloc’s Uzbek Communist Party, Karimov came to power in 1991 when Uzbekistan was established. He has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for 25 years, rigging elections and winning with more than 90 percent of the popular vote.
During his 25-year tenure, Karimov led with strength. Fiercely determined to raise Uzbekistan’s place in the world of geopolitics, he never feared pitting Russia against the United States and its allies to get what he wanted, which was often aid from both countries. He ruled, however, as an authoritarian leader, suppressing civil and human rights in Uzbekistan.
In 1996, according to the BBC, he declared a war on Islamic terrorism in a country with a 90 percent Muslim population. He used the front of a “war on terror” to persecute, arrest, and, in extreme cases, torture and kill political opponents and dissidents. In 2005, Uzbek troops opened fire on a peaceful protest in the city of Andijan. According to eyewitness accounts, military forces shot to kill. And kill they did. Roughly 500 people were killed at the scene. Human Rights Watch reports that around 200 more were arrested, tortured, and sentenced jail time.
The violence was barely covered by Western media sources. A quick Google News search of “Andijan” will yield articles from sources such as South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, and Sputnik International; no New York Times or Washington Post articles are to be found.
By now, one thing should be clear: Karimov was a bad—but cunning—man. But despite all of his cunning, he never thought about the fact that he would die. There is no clear successor in Uzbekistan.
A few things might happen.
Even if Karimov thought he would live forever, other politicians were not so sure. The Uzbek Constitution stipulates that a presidential election must be held within three months of a presidential death in office. However, considering Uzbekistan’s history with fraudulent elections, it is not a foregone conclusion that those elections will occur.
In the meantime, the chairman of the Uzbek Senate is supposed to step up to be interim president. Instead, he pointed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev to be appointed interim president.
Mirziyaev has been a loyal supporter of Karimov since he was appointed Prime Minister in 2003. According to a government statement, lawmakers appointed Mirziyaev due to his years of experience serving the people in the Karimov regime.
What does this mean? Most likely, not much will change.
Officials will continue to silence political opposition. People will keep dying. Human rights will continue to be infringed.
Or maybe none of that will happen.
Maybe Mirziyaev will allow for democratic elections in a country where they have never existed before. Political parties, suppressed for 25 years, will crop up all over the country. Citizens, newly freed from authoritarian rule, will form social groups and advocacy organizations. Democracy will flourish in yet another country. Free and critical media will broadcast.
With newfound freedoms will come newfound problems. Uzbekistan’s economy, which is heavily reliant on energy exportation, will be privatized and those companies will jockey to find new markets abroad, such as the United States. The Islamic terrorists who fled the country under Karimov’s rule may return to wreak havoc in their homeland. Taxpayer dollars will finance free elections and will pay for overseers of those elections.
Why does it matter that the aging executive of a largely irrelevant Caucasus nation died? Because no part of that statement is true. Islam Karimov was not an aging executive—he was a ruthless dictator who shunned and manipulated the international community while oppressing his people. Uzbekistan is not an irrelevant nation—it lies conveniently between Asia and Europe. It is a trade route, has vast natural resources, and is ripe for democracy.
Nobody really knows what is happening in Uzbekistan. But whatever happens, we’ll be hearing about it.