For the first time since its independence, Uzbekistan is experiencing the tremors of managed political transition. On September 2 at 9 pm local time, President Islam Karimov officially died in the intensive care unit in Tashkent, where he had been treated since August 27 after suffering a brain hemorrhage and subsequent stroke. Conflicting reports stated that he might have died as early as August 28: preparations for the burial ceremony had been laid out in his native city of Samarkand already on September 1, one day before his presumed death. The official announcement, both in the press and through daughter Lola Karimova’s Instagram account, that the President had been admitted to a hospital helped raise awareness on the fact that the leader would not take part to the Independence Day ceremony on September 1 – and ultimately prepared the people for the worst.
President Karimov was buried in Samarkand on September 3, amidst genuine popular grief and plentiful foreign delegations.
Whatever the exact date of Karimov’s death, what matters is how the succession process unfolded.
Uzbekistan initially respected the legal and constitutional process of the presidential succession. As such, Senate Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev began serving as interim President on September 2, as per the Constitution. However, he was quickly replaced by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev after both Houses of the Parliament voted him the new interim President on September 8 during a joint session. Presidential elections will be organized on December 4.
Much speculation and wishful thinking arose about the political future of the country, and especially the emphasis on a “succession war” taking place in Uzbekistan. Clearly, there will be no such “war”, as the succession process had already been decided a few years ago, as early as 2014, in the anticipation of Karimov’s death.
Seeing the intellectual and physical capabilities of the President declining since 2013, a handful of powerful political players took to themselves to lock up the political sphere in order to ensure a peaceful transition when the unavoidable took place. For the past few years, Uzbekistan’s political power was slowly taken over by the National Security Committee (SNB) in a bid to maintain stability in a post-Karimov era and thus ensure a peaceful transition.
Anticipating the move, successive constitutional amendments in 2014 further broadened — if only on paper — the powers of the Prime Minister and the Parliament. In this, a wave of constitutional modifications took place in March 2014, when several articles were rewritten to give the Prime Minister powers and decision-making capabilities that used to be held by the President. At the same time, the Parliament received a new lever of power, as it now possesses the ability to cancel government decisions and potentially dissolve the government. This mechanism was thought out to isolate an increasingly diminished President from the decision-making process and to protect him from all outside pressure, while progressively distributing his power to other State institutions.
Consequently, power players simply had to wait for the official death of Islam Karimov. The succession process thus truly unfolded between August 28 and September 2, i.e. just enough time to convene and sign the papers. Had a genuine “succession” war taken place in Uzbekistan, the power players would have probably kept Karimov officially braindead in a coma for much longer – just like what happened in Azerbaijan after the death of Heydar Aliyev.
In the backstage of Uzbek politics, two men are currently calling the shots. Both men are responsible for the succession and will ultimately decide who will be Uzbekistan’s next President. Both are unlikely candidates to the presidency, as they control the country from the shadows and will probably prefer that it remained so. Both men have actively been working together to lock up the succession process and control the bulk of State structures.
National Security Committee (SNB) chief Rustam Inoyatov is one of them: in place since 1995, he is the most powerful (and most feared) player in the country. He oversees the security services of Uzbekistan and virtually controls the military and defense structures of the country. His eyes are everywhere and his men have been placed to powerful positions at the presidential administration and embedded within the government. At 72 years old, he is rumored to be ill. Inoyatov was reportedly behind the systematic and voluntary destruction of Gulnara Karimova’s business ventures and potential political future. She was placed under house arrest in 2014 on suspicions of money laundering, corruption, and embezzlement from telecom companies.
The other is Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, a 56 years old business-oriented technocrat overlooking the finance and business connections of the country. Loyal to the President, he has been working in the government since 1998.
If not the grey cardinals, then who could take over the presidency? Two scenarios are emerging.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Mirziyoyev is currently topping the very short list of likely successors. He is now the interim President and was the one who headed the State Commission responsible for organizing the funeral of Islam Karimov. At 58 years old, he had been Prime Minister since 2003. If the public knows him, he has a generally bad image, as he was in charge of implementing unpopular presidential measures. His political ascension and access to power networks were somewhat impeded by both Inoyatov and Azimov in the past. And this is where clanic affiliations arise: both Inoyatov and Azimov are from the Tashkent clan, while Islam Karimov and Mirziyoyev are from the Samarkand clan.
On the other hand, another likely scenario would see the emergence of an unknown candidate, probably from the Samarkand clan, but with little political networks and no personal agenda. This “compromise figure” would thus but controlled by the likes of Mirziyoyev and Inoyatov in order to ensure an “acceptable” transition.
Whoever the next president is – either Mirziyoyev or a “mystery guest” – the succession process is clearly over and no “war” will break out between the clans and the powerful players. They have been working hand and hand at least since 2014 and decided on the transition long ago. As such, a clanic status quo will remain: the Samarkand clan will rule the country while the Tashkent clan will pull the strings from behind the curtain. Mirziyoyev or someone from the Samarkand clan will head the country while Inoyatov and Azimov will keep brooding in the shadows.
One thing is sure however: the succession process in Uzbekistan is taking place under the watchful eye of the Kremlin and with the benediction of President Vladimir Putin, who met with Mirziyoyev on September 6. A Russian-oriented politician, he would make a good pick for Moscow.