Uzbekistan Dictator Islam Karimov Leaves a Complicated Legacy
by Stephen Schwartz
Karimov ruled over Uzbekistan for 27 years, beginning as president of Soviet Uzbekistan in 1990. Under him, Uzbekistan departed the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, but its political, social, and religious habits did not change. It had been a major element in the Russian-directed Communist system as a source of cotton, and to this day, according to the CIA World Factbook, the economy remains centered on cotton, of which the country is the world's sixth largest producer and fifth largest exporter.
Uzbek officials tell foreign visitors proudly that children are sent into the fields to pick cotton, as if that were natural. It is but one persistent feature of the country's harsh Communist heritage. Since Uzbekistan gained self-determination, state-run investment has diversified national exports to include gold and natural gas. Yet Karimov benefited most from the legacy of iron Soviet control in the five central Asian "socialist republics," and, after the country declared its independence, its geographic location. It has jockeyed between the "new" Russia and the old, old ways of China, which has always looked hungrily at Central Asia.
After September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan, with or without a tyrant as its head, became significant because of its short common border with Afghanistan. Karimov claimed to have been the first foreign leader to offer assistance to Washington on the afternoon of that day fifteen years ago. A rail and road bridge at Termez, crossing the Amu Darya river on the frontier between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, was a key asset during the 1979-89 Russian occupation of the latter. Uzbekistan was considered a legitimate ally against Al-Qaida, and the U.S. utilized an airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in the southwestern area near Afghan territory.
While his early period as autocrat of a separate country included flirtation with spiritual Muslim Sufis and inauguration of diplomatic relations with Israel—like most other ex-Soviet "republics," Uzbekistan has an important Jewish community—neither these activities nor Uzbek anxiety over radical Islam defined Karimov's policy. The former Soviet party leader aimed relentlessly at the maintenance of a Soviet-style party-state, with camouflage elections, artificial groups posing as civil society institutions, and blunt repression of dissent.
Uzbekistan, which is Turkic in language, was a major intellectual power in Islam for centuries. Tourism, focusing on classic cities and the shrines in and around Samarqand, could have advanced its status in the world. But the entry of too many foreigners, including Sufis interested in visiting its sacred sites, would have interfered with the silence Karimov preferred to impose on his subjects. Local Uzbek media are closely controlled.
The Karimov regime pointed to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an ally of Al-Qaida, as a local threat, and it is true that some Uzbek fanatics left the country to fight for the Taliban, as they now go to Syria to serve the so-called "Islamic State." But terrorists never carried out a serious campaign within the country's borders. Aside from the hideous tales of medieval tortures said to be inflicted on those who opposed Karimov, the indifference of the majority of the population to extremism was a barrier to the IMU.
Among the Central Asian ex-Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan, which borders Uzbekistan to its east, is the sole nation to have attained a fractious but authentic multiparty democracy. Karimov was "reelected" as Uzbek president, representing the absurdly titled "Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party," in 2007. But the neighborhood—as well as the wider former-Soviet region—are unpredictable. Kazakhstan, the largest of the ex-Soviet "stans," and exceptionally rich in energy and minerals, has been run in an authoritarian manner by one man, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since 1989. Kazakhstan was once a nuclear power. Tajikistan, similarly, has been ruled by Emomali Rahmon, beginning in 1992.
The most unusual of the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics is Turkmenistan, formerly under the thumb of Suparmarat Niyazov, who died in 2006 at 66. Niyazov had effected such innovations as a change in the calendar in 2002, to retitle the months and most of the weekdays in honor of himself, his mother, and Turkmen heroes, but their traditional Russian names were restored after his death.
Perhaps in recognition that Karimov was a kindred spirit, the Tajik and Turkmen presidents attended the funeral, the BBC said. Another mourner was Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. As well as that of Vladimir Putin, Uzbekistan has attracted the consistent "pan-Turkic" attention of Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara.
Much in recent Uzbek history concerns events in May 2005, still remembered and still relevant. Uzbekistan shares a convoluted boundary zone, the Ferghana Valley, with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In the past, the area was reputed to be a hotbed of radical Islam. Andijan, a major trading city, lies within the Uzbek share of the valley. (Kyrgyzstan had undergone its democratizing "Tulip Revolution" in April 2005, not long before.) Residents of Andijan were discontented by the arrest of a group of young entrepreneurs who were charged, by all accounts falsely, with belonging to a radical Islamist group. A mass demonstration for their release was fired on by Uzbek security, with hundreds of protestors killed.
The administration of President George W. Bush criticized Karimov for this action, and American use of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase ended. Air operations against the Taliban were moved to Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, but in 2014 the Manas facility was turned over to the Kyrgyz authorities, and American personnel were withdrawn. The gravitational pull of Russia remains strong; Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan joined the Putin-forged "Eurasian Economic Union," conceived as a counter to the European Union. Karimov left the Putin-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in 2012, and rejected the EEU. He then turned his country and its energy business toward China. In 2015, the Russian Gazprom enterprise reduced its purchase of Uzbek natural gas, but the difference was covered by the Chinese. Once again, Karimov's interest lay in manipulating others to retain power for himself.
The battle against Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the so-called "Islamic State," and other terrorists has required the democracies to make distasteful choices. But after 2005, there was no doubt that Karimov and his manner of governance could not be supported. He will not be missed, though with no clear succession among his clan members and party factions, Uzbekistan and its neighbors may be in for more trouble.