Uzbekistan's Dictator Is Dead – What Happens Next?

Gods don't foresee their own demise, so the death of Islam Karimov has left a power vacuum with a range of colourful candidates.
September 2, 2016, 9:31am

The late Uzbek President Islam Karimov (Photo: Kremlin, via)

Late last night, rumours began to emerge from Uzbek sources that President Karimov – the man who's ruled the country since the fall of the Soviet Union – has died. This morning, the Uzbek government announced that the president is "critically ill" after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, and in the last few hours western news outlets have started to confirm the dictator's passing.

Born in Samarkand in 1938, Islam Karimov is known to Uzbeks by the nickname "Big Papa", or in whispered quips as "Yurtbashi", head of the yurt-dwellers. Karimov's childhood is shrouded in mystery; it's said his father was an Uzbek, while his mother was an ethnic Tajik, but it isn't even public knowledge how his parents died.


Raised in an orphanage, Karimov studied economics and engineering. Joining the Communist Party, he ascended through the ranks, becoming First Secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989. When independence came, his transition to president was seamless. "If you elect me tomorrow," he told voters on the eve of 1991's rigged election, "then I need the right to dissolve parliament. Then I would have the final say." True to his word, Karimov duly replaced the legislature with a more compliant body. He has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

A wily operator, testy and ruthless, Karimov used the "war on terror" to his advantage. Branding his critics "Islamic extremists", in 2005 a demonstration in the city of Andijan over the arrest of "radical" local businessmen ended with government troops opening fire on the crowd. Official figures put the death toll at 187, but the true body count is believed to number well over 1,000. A diplomatic spat post-Andijan soon swept under the rug, US Ambassador Richard Norland warned Washington that "pressuring him, especially publicly, could cost us transit [rights for Afghanistan]".

As his health deteriorated, Karimov cut an increasingly isolated figure. In a rare interview dated November, 2014, his grandson told the BBC, "I tried to teach him how to use the internet, but my grandmother told me, 'Are you crazy? What if he reads the internet and he knows everything?'"


As with all the Central Asian dictators, no succession plans have been put in place. Gods don't foresee their own demise. With generals and career politicians jockeying for position, the likelihood is that the elite will split into clan-based factions, with civil war not out of the question.

Gulnara Karimova in 2012 (Photo: Francis Specker / EMPICS Entertainment, via)

Up until 2014, Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara, was seen by many as heir apparent. Ex-UN envoy and self-styled "Princess of Uzbekistan", her official website described her as a "poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty". A leaked US diplomatic cable reflected a rather different point of view, referring to her as "a robber baron… a greedy, power-hungry individual… She remains the single most hated person in the country."

Karimova's chances of landing the top job were effectively ended when she took to Twitter to attack her mother for messing with her entourage and accuse her sister of sorcery. After tangling with the country's top security official and falling foul of numerous corruption scandals – one of which saw Karimova-controlled Uzbekistani Coca-Cola removed from sale in the country over accusations of money laundering – by February 2014 she would be under house arrest.

Even if the president was alive, with the likelihood that he would regain his health extremely remote, new contenders have stepped into the void. So who are the would-be successors and what would happen if they came to power?


The leading candidate currently is Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has served as Prime Minister since 2003. From the same Samarkand Clan as Karimov, an advocate of moderate reforms and better foreign relations, Mirziyoyev's Russia-friendly stance could prove a stumbling block given the president's frosty relationship with the Kremlin.

Another top contender is Rustam Azimov, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. A member of the Tashkent Clan, Azimov – who has served at the IMF and the Asian Development Bank – is seen as a business-friendly reformer who would boost global investment. This, however, goes against a policy of self-reliance deep-rooted within the country for over a quarter of a century. On the 30th of August, it was reported that Azimov had been placed under house arrest, most likely in an attempt to sideline any power grab. Azimov hasn't been seen in public or made any statements since Karimov was hospitalised.

Other contenders include Head of the National Security Service – successor to the KGB – Rustam Inoyatov, the man who arrested Gulnara. Long seen as a natural replacement, now 72 years of age, Inoyatov's advancing years may work against him. Karimov's younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva – the country's UNESCO representative – has also been mooted in some quarters, though she has always stressed her separation from the structures of state. Purportedly considered by her father as successor, she may be unlikely to want to leave her $58 million mansion in Beverly Hills to oversee a country that could easily slide into turmoil.


Executed, expatriated or locked away, the Uzbek opposition are a hapless bunch. Godfather of the dissenters, the conservative and religious Mohammed Solih's pronouncements since escaping to Turkey have largely focused on "isolating gays and other sick people". From her exile in Berlin, journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, founder of – one of the only portals for independent news about the country – has found herself having to defend attacks from Solih's aficionados, which have included posting images of her head photoshopped onto pornographic images. As of December, 2014, Uznews ceased to exist, the names of its contributors having been disclosed following a government hack.

Finally, consideration must be given to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose goal is to destroy secularism and create a region-wide caliphate based on Sharia law. Raising funds by kidnapping Japanese geologists and American mountaineers, in 2000 the IMU briefly took the neighbouring Kyrgyz second city of Osh, holding its mayor for ransom and coming within striking distance of seizing Tashkent. With the IMU largely absorbed into Afghanistan and Pakistan, in June of 2014, after swearing allegiance to ISIS, the organisation claimed responsibility for the attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan, which left 36 dead. There are currently upwards of 2,000 ISIS recruits from Central Asia, with the movement's hierarchy focused on recruiting more disaffected Uzbeks.


So what happens next in Uzbekistan? By law, in the event of Karimov's death, power transfers to the speaker of the rubber-stamp Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev. When long-serving Turkmen autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006, however, the same constitutional arrangement was in place, only for the speaker to be detained in a chain of events which saw the president replaced by his dentist. And with Niyazov being the only Central Asian dictator to have passed away since the fall of the USSR, this is the closest precedent we have.


Parts of this article are excerpted from Stephen M Bland's forthcoming book Does It Yurt? Travels in Central Asia.

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