Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Meanwhile in Uzbekistan...

These days, it is difficult to see beyond Ukraine and Russia in the post-Soviet world. With the Crimean referendum on independence looming, and with US and EU sanctions against Russian elites drawing near, there seems to be plenty of reason for focusing on these two most populous states in the region. However, the rest of the world is not standing still and, just now, from Switzerland comes the next chapter in the ongoing saga of who should be the next ruler of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is in many ways the crucial centrepiece of Central Asia. While Kazakhstan has the economic advantage, Uzbekistan with its 30 million people has by far the largest population in the region. Uzbekistan is geographically adjacent to Afghanistan, as well as to all other post-Soviet countries in Central Asia; countries which depend on Uzbekistan for any hope of regional cooperation. And while Uzbekistan has not always supported such cooperation its leadership has also been averse to close relations with Russia and the West. In addition, Uzbekistan does have large gas reserves of its own, as well as one of the largest gold desposits in the world. All these elements show that Uzbekistan cannot be ignored. (for summary information, see also

Throughout its post-Soviet existence as a sovereign country, Uzbekistan has been ruled by President Islam Karimov, who was credited with 88% of the vote during his latest election in 2007. Democratic challengers to Karimov appear unlikely - in the 2014 world survey of political and civil liberties by Freedom House, Uzbekistan appears as one of ten countries in the world to score the worst possible marks in both categories. ( Yet Karimov is now in his mid-seventies and potential successors within his elite are beginning to position themselves for his departure.

It is in this context that the Swiss decision now to open money laundering investigations against Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, should be seen. ( Ms Karimova was for long viewed as the heir apparent to her father. Yet as the presidential election approaches next year, the President's elder daughter has openly complained that Uzbek security and political elites, and even her own family, are against her. ( Indeed, last September Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva publicly disowned her elder sister, who allegedly has also been the victim of attempted poisoning. And the Swiss charges come in the wake of criminal cases,k which were opened against Gulnara Karimova's close business associates in Uzbekistan. (

This is mentioned not to challenge the Swiss decision to investigate Ms Karimova for money laundering, but to highlight that her power and her business dominance in Uzbekistan seem to be quickly coming to an end. The benefitors of Gulnara Karimova's fall from grace remain quite opaque. Nonetheless, three names suggested as her direct competitors are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, Head of the National Security Services Rustam Inoyatov, and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov. (

These three are all in their late fifties or older, and they clearly all support central pillars of Islam Karimov's state. Thus, it is unlikely that any of them as president would promote political or civil liberties to a noteworthy degree, just as they would probably all seek to retain for Uzbekistan a wary position between Russia and the US; closer to the former but without being subservient to Moscow. Still, it has been suggested that Azimov has been rumoured to be a favourite choice of the US to succeed Karimov (; that Mirziyoev and Inoyatov are rumoured to be closely allied (, and that Inoyatov in particular has good connections with Russian political and security services elites (

This does not mean that Uzbekistan is likely to follow Ukraine in becoming a new battleground for Russian versus Western influence. Uzbek politics mostly make Vladimir Putin's Russia look like a democratic heaven and no one among the Uzbek elites has an interest in changing this, given the prevalent fear among them for civil unrest and demonstrations. Just such fear resulted in hundreds of casualties among protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan almost a decade ago. ( But the relative closeness of some, but perhaps not all, Uzbek elites to their Russian counterparts can tell us something about the influence of Moscow here - and in Central Asia and Afghanistan more generally - in the coming years.

Finally, it is worth noting that any hint of a messy Uzbek succession - possibly including casualties within the elites - could seriously worry rulers and their supporters in countries throughout much of the post-Soviet region. In Belarus and Tajikistan, for instance, it must have been noted by presidential offspring that their counterpart in Uzbekistan (and in Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovych's son until February was gaining influence) is now weakening. And if struggle between economic and military security interests among post-Soviet elites is now on the rise it is even worth remembering that the vast majority of serious challengers to sitting regimes tend to come from inside these elites themselves.

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