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"When they ask me "who is the President of Uzbekibekibekistanstan?"
I am going to say, "you know, I don't know, do you know?"
Knowing who is the head of some of some of these small,
insignificant states around the world - I don't think that is
something that is critical to focusing on national security."
Herman Cain, 09 October 2011

Islam Abduganievich Karimov

Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, died 02 September 2016. Uzbekistan's government on 28 August 2016 said 78-year-old President Karimov had been hospitalized. "According to specialists, full health screening and further treatment will take a certain period of time," it said. Karimov had ruled Uzbekistan with an iron grip for over a quarter of a century, first as the republic's Communist Party chief in 1989, then as president since the country became independent in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The authoritarian leader had no clear successor, prompting concern his death could lead to a period of instability in the heart of Central Asia.

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said 02 September 2016 that Uzbekistan's President died, however the Uzbek government said that the leader is only critically ill. Yildirim expressed his condolences during a televised meeting with his cabinet. "Uzbek President Islam Karimov has passed away. May God's mercy be upon him, as the Turkish Republic we are sharing the pain and sorrow of Uzbek people." A top Kyrgyz diplomat and an Afghan government official said that the leaders of their countries have been invited to a funeral for Karimov on 02 September 2016.

Thousands of Uzbeks, many weeping, lined the streets of their capital on 03 September 2016 to watch the funeral cortege of President Islam Karimov. At dawn, a black Mercedes van carrying the body of Karimov, who died of a stroke aged 78, drove slowly along Tashkent's main thoroughfare. Police officers stood at salute and people bowed down to lay roses and carnations on the road side. Karimov, in power for more than a quarter of a century, was derided by Western governments as a dictator who violated human rights, but for many people in Uzbekistan, a mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state which borders Afghanistan, he was the only head of state they had ever known.

According to his official biography, President Karimov is an orphan. The President is known to be close to his wife's family; his biological family is never mentioned, nor is Pyotr, Karimov's son by his first wife. He was no orphan, he had six brothers and one sister, and grew up in a "normal family" in Samarkand. Of Karimov's seven siblings, two brothers -- Hurshid and Ibodulla -- remained; one lived in Tashkent, the other in Samarkand. Karimov's marriage to Natalia, the daughter of the Chairman of the Tashkent Agricultural Machinery Plant, Pyotr Kuchmi, had been a union of ambition. Karimov had a son, whom he named Rustam. But after he divorced Natalia in the late 1960s, she had their son's name changed to Pyotr.

Karimov first started circulating the orphanage story in the mid- to late 1980s as a way of distancing himself from his family. Karimov began to distance himself from his family in late 1985 and early 1986, when his brother, Hurshid, a distributor of retail food products (mostly tea), became embroiled in a minor corruption scandal. At the time, Karimov was Deputy Chairman of Gosplan, and was expecting a promotion. Karimov called his brother Arslan (Muslima's husband) and demanded that they disown Hurshid, arguing that their careers were in danger. Arslan, the Chair of the Jizzak City Court, refused.

The final break came in 1989, the year Karimov was named First Secretary of the Uzbek SSR. Arslan died that year in what Muslima described as a "suspicious" collision with a bus. A street in Jizzak was named after him, but Karimov ordered it changed back to the original name. Karimov's eldest brother died that year, as well. Karimov and those around him had gone to great lengths to promote, and jealously safeguard, what now appears to be an apocryphal myth of orphaned childhood.

Karimov had no acknowledged sons, who might have been regarded as heirs apparent in the patriarchal Muslim culture. His eldest daughter, Gulnara, was placed under house arrest in 2014. She is a real piece of work and was out of control. Karimov's second daughter, Lola, is Uzbekistan's ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO.

The assumption had been that, if Karimov were to leave the political stage, key elites (or "clans") would sit down and decide on a successor who can sustain their interests. It was not clear that this assumption was still valid, or at least that the process would be a smooth one.

President Karimov and the close circle of insiders that held power in Uzbekistan believed themselves to be encircled by threats from within and without. Uzbekistan has faced real terrorist threats from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), whose members have reportedly found refuge in the border areas of Pakistan. In this worldview, political and economic liberalism are sources of instability and vectors of foreign influence, both of which Karimov has sought to contain and control.

Karimov effectively controlled the government of Uzbekistan: He appoints all ministers including the prime minister. He appointed sixteen of the 100 senators and all provincial executives. He directly controlled his country's security forces and used them to suppress internal opposition to his rule. Election procedures were also changed to bar serious opposition parties from standing in elections. Karimov also managed to centralize power under his office at the expense of the clans, which formerly dominated Uzbek political life.

Karimov was strongly opposed to Islamic fundamentalism and used his country's security forces against suspected Islamist militant groups. He also commonly exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism to justify his authoritarianism and crackdowns against opponents.

Karimov had shown himself to be a savvy politician over many years of maneuvering to stay on top of the Uzbek government. His public rhetoric usually suggests that he wants to be remembered as the father of his country, a great president who presided over the foundation of strong institutions while keeping his country safe and stable. It also seemed that he was not content merely to govern his little corner of the globe - he truly seems to crave international legitimacy. Yet he avoided building a cult of personality. Many regional observers commented on Karimov's apparent sense of rivalry with Kazakh President Nazarbayev, who enjoyed greater respect on the world stage.

Karimov took a ruthlessly authoritarian approach to all forms of opposition. The few western observers who monitored elections condemned them as having failed to meet international standards and pointed out that all the candidates support the president. Karimov has been accused of using the perceived threat of Islamic militancy to justify his style of leadership. Some analysts suggest that the wave of bombings and shootings in March 2004 is evidence that this policy backfired. Observers point out that the combination of ruthless repression and poor living standards provides fertile breeding ground for violent resistance in a volatile region.

In early 2008 Prime Minister Mirziyayev's successor was announced as being first deputy Prime Minister Azimov, only to have that announcement revoked the following morning. The prevailing view was that Tashkent-based Azimov declined the dubious honor of becoming Karimov's heir apparent, feeling he does not yet have his political ducks lined up with Samarkand/Bukhara- or Ferghana Valley-centered rivals whose support was required for stability in Uzbekistan's political triad.

Karimov remained the ultimate arbiter in Uzbek political life, yet in many ways by 2009 the post-Karimov period was already beginning. Increasingly, there were signs that the bureaucracy is atrophying, unable to make or implement basic decisions and policies. This seemed to reflect the slow disengagement of the aging Karimov from the day-to-day management of the government, which left the lower levels without the presidential guidance that had driven this government for the previous two decades. Uncertain of the president's wishes and weaned in a climate of near absolutism, Karimov's minions were left in the unfamiliar position of having to manage issues without the security of presidential approval. The result was bureaucratic sclerosis.

It was improbable that a presidential succession in Tashkent would result in a dramatic change in the character of Uzbek political life in the short term, but there could nonetheless be significant changes around the margins that would take this society in a more positive direction over the long term.

In late March 2013 there were rumors that Karimov had suffered a heart attack on March 19, soon after he was shown on state television dancing and ringing in the Islamic new year at a Norouz celebration in Tashkent. Karimov's younger daughter, Lola, was reported to have suddenly returned to Uzbekistan from her home in Switzerland. Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara Karimova, issued more colorful denials, using her Twitter account to reject suggestions of her father's ill health. All eyes were on the Uzbek parliament, which was due to meet for a joint session on 28 March 22013 -- an event that traditionally opens with a speech by Karimov. President Karimov was reported to have met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov at the Oqsaroy on 27 March 2013. State-run Yoshlar’s evening news program showed Karimov hosting Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at his Oksaroy residence. This wasn’t the first time the Uzbek president was rumored to be in ill health.

Whether or not Karimov is planning for his succession, he does seem to be planning for his legacy. His public rhetoric usually suggested that he wanted to be remembered as the father of his country, a great president who presided over the foundation of strong institutions while keeping his country safe and stable. His handlers seemed to be cultivating this image more and more. It also seemed that he was not content merely to govern his little corner of the globe - he truly seemed to crave international legitimacy. Yet he avoided building a cult of personality. Many regional observers commented on Karimov's apparent sense of rivalry with Kazakh President Nazarbayev, who enjoys greater respect on the world stage. It seemed unlikely that President Karimov will voluntarily retire from Uzbek politics unless his health prevented him from further activity.

Political elites in Uzbekistan wanted to keep Islam Karimov in power as long as possible. Elites benefited from the system of converting state resources into private wealth. The central leadership provided protection in return for political support. This corruption was so pervasive in public office that it severely constrained any transfer of power. A disruption of this flow of wealth would have many repercussions for many political elites.

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament -- the obscure politician Nigmatulla Yuldashev -- would assume the president's authority for a period of three months. Many observers believe the most likely successor is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, born in 1951, who has headed the government since 2003. First Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, has been in the national government since 1998, always in a post connected to finance. Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Committee [SNB - the Uzbek version of the KGB] since the 1990s, is considered to be a possible successor to Karimov. Many suspect Inoyatov was behind the campaign to bring down Karimov’s daughter Gulnara.

A succession scenario circulating among members of the Apparat in 2009 envisiond Karimov handing over the Presidency to Gulnora Karimova and then becoming Chairman of Uzbekistan's Senate. Per the text of Uzbekistan's Constitution, the Chairman of the Senate has the power to choose the Chairman of the National Security Service. Some said Karimov intended to give National Security Council Secretary Murat Ataev more power in order to balance him against Inoyatov, and may be planning to replace Inoyatov with Ataev later on.

President Karimov remained interested in surrounding Inoyatov with "deputies" who would keep tabs on him and report on him. Inoyatov, however, was aware of the intent behind this and consistently found "kompromat" (compromising material) on such "deputies." He would then forward this information to President Karimov, necessitating their removal. Members of the Presidential Apparat said that Inoyatov had amassed considerable amounts of kompromat on other officials, including on members of the Karimov family. Some in the Apparat were speculating that if Inoyatov is in fact dismissed from his position and chooses to use this kompromat against the Karimov family, the family would have him "terminated."

In 2013, unsubstantiated rumors spread that 75-year-old Karimov was in poor health, and choosing a successor. Rumored candidates included first deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov; the chairman of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov; Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev; and Karimov’s billionaire daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who works as a fashion designer, philanthropist, and aspiring pop star. Many suspect Inoyatov was behind the campaign to bring down Karimov’s daughter Gulnara.

Existing patron-client networks built around regional identities (sometimes called “clans”) or core institutions such as the SNB have the potential to pull members into a conflict initiated from the top by elites who control distribution of vital goods and services. A contested presidential succession is probably the most likely scenario for this type of conflict to emerge, though contested succession to Colonial-General Rustam Inoyatov, the powerful head of the SNB, is another potential vector that is especially opaque to outside analysts.

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