Why Uzbekistan Could Be The World's Next Trouble Spot

The news that the brutal president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, is seriously ill has raised concerns that his country will be the next dictatorship to collapse into chaos.
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Such concerns are understandable because the world could certainly do without another source of violent instability in a sensitive region (in this case, between China and Russia and north of Afghanistan and Iran). But these fears are also being expressed far too late. The time for the outside world to take an interest is when dictators like Karimov are assembling authoritarian systems that are almost bound to self-destruct after their demise.

Uzbekistan is a textbook case. Ever since taking power in 1989, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, Karimov has corruptly concentrated the proceeds of the economy in the hands of his family and closest allies. Before she fell from favour, his daughter, Gulnora, was particularly notorious for flaunting her ill-gotten wealth in conspicuous contrast to the widespread poverty around the country. This brazen corruption combined with decades of wider economic mismanagement has left many Uzbeks with little to lose.

Karimov operates a vicious police state to maintain his grip on power and wealth. It is considered amongst “the worst of the worst” by every credible international human rights organisation. Thousands of Uzbeks have been imprisoned without fair trials, tortured, murdered or simply disappeared after being picked up by the authorities. Some victims were journalists or campaigners for political, human and religious rights. Many others are merely unfortunate bystanders swept up for no apparent reason other than to create a climate of fear.

I witnessed this situation first hand during my time as diplomat in Tashkent. In some streets I visited in towns such as Andizhan (a place Karimov pursues a vendetta against because he was once heckled by a crowd there in the early stages of his rule), almost every household had had a family member taken away, tortured or killed, for supposed “crimes” that were hard to discern.

At the time, the regime was organising show trials of detainees in a feeble attempt to legitimise some of its abuses. The routine charge used against those arrested for alleged unauthorised political or religious activities was possession of small quantities of drugs, which had been planted on them by the police. This practice led some Uzbek men to take the tragi-comic step of cutting the pockets out of their trousers to make it more difficult. The police responded by ceasing to bother planting evidence and just locking people up anyway.

Karimov’s reign of terror has long since eliminated the free media, democratic political opposition and independent civil society organisations. As a consequence, the absence of any outlet for even the mildest expression of the Uzbek people’s many legitimate grievances adds to the potential for an explosion.

The economic despair and suffocating oppression make it surprising that only a few thousand Uzbeks have been seduced by violent extremist groups such as the ISIS affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It must be difficult for some young people with no access to any other information, no economic prospects and loved ones who have been brutalised by the authorities, to resist the appeals of groups claiming to provide an opportunity to fight back.

Rather uncomfortably, it is the ingrained fear and remarkable moderation of the majority of the Uzbek population that the world is now relying on to keep the peace after Karimov has gone.

The risk of unstable power vacuum has been exacerbated by the President’s decision not to groom a successor because he feared the development of an alternative centre of authority. But the marginally more likely scenario is that his closest acolytes such as Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Head of the Security Services Rustem Inoyatov and Minister of Finance Rustam Azimov will do a deal behind the scenes for one of them to take-over as President.

These long-standing regime stalwarts are unlikely to embark on a programme of tension reducing reforms. In which case, replacing one brutal dictator with another cut from the same cloth will only delay the inevitable disintegration until the next crisis.

For more stories from Uzbekistan, read Paul's book The Accidental Diplimat - Adventures in the Foreign Office