Uzbekistan After Karimov: More Continuity Than Change

On August 31, the eve of Uzbekistan’s 25th Independence Day, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev led a commemorative procession in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, amid reports of President Islam Karimov’s deteriorating health. The highly publicized nature of Uzbekistan’s Independence Day events and the absence of the nation’s founder elicited a rare statement from the Uzbek government regarding Karimov’s hospitalization. By September 2, an official government statement indicated that President Islam Karimov, an orphan who later became the “father” and unrepentant autocrat of the Uzbek nation, succumbed to a brain hemorrhage and died. As anticipated, Prime Minister Mirziyoyev served as head of the funeral commission—a role traditionally held by the heir apparent during the Soviet Union.

Less than a week after Karimov’s official death, Uzbekistan managed a stable transfer of power with Mirziyoyev at the helm. Resulting from a closed session of parliament on September 8, Chairman of the Senate Nigmatulla Yuldashev decided to forego his constitutional role as interim president and nominate Mirziyoyev, citing “his long experience of work in executive positions and respect among the people.” In addition, the Central Election Commission announced the date of the presidential election, December 4, which will further solidify Mirziyoyev’s position as Uzbekistan’s second president.

Mirziyoyev, a longtime favorite of Karimov, ascended into the high ranks of the Uzbek elite despite his modest education as an agricultural engineer. He served as governor of the important provinces of Samarkand (2001–2003) and Jizzakh (1996–2001) before Karimov appointed him prime minister in 2003. Often perceived as a staunch loyalist to Karimov, Mirziyoyev has enjoyed the rewards of Uzbekistan’s neo-patrimonial regime.

During his post as governor of Jizzakh Province, Mirziyoyev received the highest subsidies from the central government even though the region’s GDP per capita compared to the national average significantly declined from 94.3 percent in 1995 to 72.5 percent in 1998. In Uzbekistan leadership circles, Mirziyoyev has earned a reputation for his short temper, stubbornness, and self-righteous behavior. Mirziyoyev’s contentious disposition is offset by the support of Rustam Inoyatov, chief of the National Security Service (SNB) and widely considered the most powerful man in Uzbekistan. With Karimov’s legacy looming large, Inoyatov and the SNB will be crucial for Mirziyoyev’s successful consolidation of power.

There is little indication that Uzbekistan will experience a period of liberalization akin to the Khrushchev Thaw or that the new regime will pursue anything beyond rhetoric to meet the population’s unmet expectations. In the absence of an incentive for democratic reform, the neo-patrimonial leadership and isolationist policies that characterized Islam Karimov’s regime will invariably continue under Shavkat Mirziyoyev.


Karimov first assumed power in 1989 as secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party and, after supporting the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, declared Uzbekistan an independent state on September 1, 1991. For nearly three decades, the aggressive and fundamentally repressive tactics emblematic to Karimov’s tenure offered little room for dissent, economic liberalization, or political reform.

Uzbekistan under Karimov operated as a neo-patrimonial regime where informal networks garnered personal loyalty to the incumbent leadership. At the same time, formal structures such as the bureaucracy and security services protected elite interests through arbitrary implementation of law and selective adoption of elements of the market economy. While formal bureaucratic and legal-rational power structures exist in Uzbekistan, all power derived from Karimov himself—owing his legitimacy to his cult of personality and effective clientele networks.

From the onset of his rule, Karimov moved to outlaw all political opposition parties and Islamic organizations. Egregious human rights abuses under Karimov range from boiling political dissidents to death to imprisoning thousands of journalists, human rights activists, religious leaders, and innocent civilians based on politically motivated charges. In 2005, the regime’s response to a series of peaceful protests over imprisonment of local businessmen in the city of Andijan resulted in the deaths of up to one thousand civilians.

Karimov often justified the brutality of the security apparatus by appealing to Uzbek national values and his role as protector of the constitutional order. He expanded the state into the units of civil society through his exploitation of the mahalla, the traditional concept of neighborhood community, both to monitor dissent against the government and to suppress the emergence of parallel power structures.

Uzbekistan’s endemic corruption blurred the line between economic and political interests, encompassing both the public and private sectors. The political elite held a monopoly over its commodity sector, especially its exports including cotton, gold, uranium, and natural gas. Uzbekistan neither effectively exploited its natural resources nor expanded its economy like neighboring Kazakhstan due to Karimov’s isolationist policies and resistance to regional integration. Cumbersome border controls, trade barriers, and high tariffs have caused Uzbekistan to remain economically backward with minimal export diversification despite its abundance of commodities.


Both politically and economically, Uzbekistan has vacillated between Russia, China, and the United States, conveniently collaborating with the power that proves the most beneficial and offers the least pressure to the regime’s atrocious human rights record. Karimov espoused a “multi-vector” foreign policy that capitalized on manipulating the region’s main external actors as a bulwark for Uzbek sovereignty and Karimov’s own personality-driven rule. Although Karimov’s foreign policy was frequently brazen and unpredictable, it enabled Uzbekistan to maintain a greater degree of autonomy vis-à-vis external actors, limiting the ability of Washington, Moscow, and Beijing to influence internal affairs.

In the aftermath of September 11, the United States established a military base in Karshi-Khanabad in exchange for millions of dollars in economic and military aid for Uzbekistan. Bilateral relations with the United States deteriorated from close cooperation at the onset of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan to the near severing of relations in the aftermath of the May 2005 government crackdown in Andijan. The resulting Western condemnation of Uzbek authorities’ complete disregard for human rights prompted Karimov to bandwagon with Russia and China.

Though Uzbekistan resisted joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 after joining in 2006, the country’s economy depends on remittance inflows from Russia and Uzbek exports to Russia. Russia’s economic downturn has already adversely affected domestic demand for Uzbek products. Furthermore, the decline in opportunities for migrant workers in Russia combined with the Ruble devaluation places a heavy weight on Uzbek living standards.

In the face of Russia’s deteriorating economy, Beijing has overtaken Moscow as the major economic power in Central Asia. Within the last decade, Central Asia as a region—though, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan—has become increasingly dependent on Chinese infrastructure investments and consumer goods. Uzbekistan serves as a transportation conduit for Turkmen natural gas destined for China, and in 2013, Karimov signed new energy deals with Chinese President Xi Jinping valued at approximately $15 billion. China’s economic largesse allows Beijing to fund energy projects that the Russian government cannot afford and that Western businesses frequently eschew. As Islam Karimov once noted, Beijing is appealing as a bilateral partner because China “has never set any political demands.” Chinese authorities have refrained from leveraging their economic assets to acquire military facilities in Uzbekistan, which Beijing perceives as Moscow’s security sphere.

Overlapping concerns about terrorism and extremism drive security cooperation between Russia, China, and Uzbekistan that occurs both bilaterally and multilaterally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Under the auspices of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, member states’ counter-terrorism agencies coordinate “intelligence sharing in the form of a joint database and blacklists of individuals and groups linked to terrorism.” The SCO has increasingly been used as a forum for cooperation in the realm of security for Russia and China in Central Asia, reflecting the premium placed on stability across the region.

While Russia, China, and Uzbekistan tend to outsize the degree of danger presented by Islamic radicalization in order to justify domestic security measures, each regime has experienced extremist related violence in the past. Karimov notoriously feared the influence of Islamist organizations and so-called “color revolutions” led by Western regimes for regime stability. Likewise, China and Russia share the belief that preventing social revolutions and limiting Western influence in Central Asia are mutually reinforcing goals for their governments.


Thus far, post-Karimov Uzbekistan seems to be “business as usual”—a trajectory that Mirziyoyev will likely seek to continue as successor. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan after Karimov faces outstanding socioeconomic issues, intensified by the global drop in commodities and a rising unemployed youth population.

Two days prior to his appointment as interim president, Mirziyoyev joined Russian President Vladimir Putin to lay flowers at Karimov’s grave in Samarkand. The joint nature of the ceremony between Putin and Mirziyoyev implicitly signaled the Kremlin’s endorsement of Uzbekistan’s prime minister. Putin, seizing the opportunity to forge closer relations in post-Karimov Uzbekistan, vowed that Russia “will do everything to support this path of mutual development and the people and leadership of Uzbekistan. You can fully count on us as your most reliable friends.” For Mirziyoyev, Putin’s visit had the added symbolic value of portraying him as an equal to the Kremlin strongman.

In his first address as interim president, Mirziyoyev affirmed his intent to uphold Karimov’s isolationist policies, citing, “The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country.” Like Karimov, Mirziyoyev seems acutely aware of the imperative to balance Uzbekistan’s relationship with Russia, China, and, to a lesser extent, the United States without ceding to domination by any single power.

The absence of a vibrant civil society and democratic institutions to manage a transparent transfer of power, however, does not suggest Uzbekistan’s devolution into a state characterized by mass unrest. Rather, the institutional corruption and neo-patrimonial networks that were inextricably tied to Islam Karimov’s rule will be conferred to the continuity candidate, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Image: Meeting with President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov (Office of the President of Russia, July 2015)

Nicole Grajewski is a MPhil Candidate in Russian & east European studies at the University of Oxford and a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She has previously conducted field research in Kazakhstan and held positions at the U.S. Department of State, the Hudson Institute, and CNN. Follow her on Twitter.

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