Islam Karimov was the first president of Uzbekistan. His government like others in Central Asia was authoritarian in nature and developed an oppressive political system. The year 2016 saw his death, but the same structures from the era are still in place. Reform seems like an impossibility. Uzbekistan is a relatively new country and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the former communists took the reigns of power. President Karimov used the excuse of fighting terrorism to continue extended rule over the country. The United States at one time had close relations with his government, despite various human rights abuses. Karimov was suspicious of both the United States and Russia and his foreign policy seemed rather isolated form the wider world. Uzbekistan traded one authoritarian regime for another. Russian imperialism, Soviet communism, and then a government with the institutions of democracy functioning as a dictatorship. Uzbekistan did not have a democratic system in any point in its history and the experiment had been a failure. Islam Karimov ruled like a king and now that he is gone Uzbekistan has an uncertain future.
Islam Karimov’s domination of Uzbekistan started in 1989. Around this period he became Communist Party leader of Uzbekistan. Karimov’s background was in engineering and economics. He was able to obtain degrees from Central Asian Polytechnic and the Tashkent Institute of National Economy. Islam Karimov was also a member of Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences. It appeared that he was not going to enter politics. He worked as an aircraft engineer from 1961 to 1966. He then became an economic state planner gaining employment in the Uzbek State Planning Office. Karimov was born in 1938 Samarkand knowing nothing, but the ways of the Soviet structure. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 he was able to get elected as president of a new country. This was a great leap from being first secretary for the Communist Party of Uzbekistan to then to the president of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan. Now that Uzbekistan was no longer part of Russia, Karimov had a free mandate to govern however he wished. Referendums worked in his favor to extend his rule in both 1995 and 2002.Political opposition was stifled in Uzbekistan and international observers noted electoral irregularities.
Islam Karimov even violated the country’s weak constitution. It states that a president can run for only two terms. This was circumvented by referendums making look as if the people had chosen him to remain in power. Islam Karimov’s political survival depended on various factors. A large security apparatus, allies to provide aid, and scapegoats for social and economic problems. Like other Central Asian leaders, they discarded Soviet communism and replaced it with a cult of personality driven authoritarianism. Nationalist rhetoric and idolatry of the president became the standard political discourse.
Islam Karimov was able to get aid and support from both Russia and the United States. It has been the case that a formerly colonized area may seek financial assistance from the mother country, because it was never fully developed. Seeking Russian aid seems to be the pattern of most of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. However, Karimov was playing both the US and Russia off against one another . Under the Bush administration Karimov’s country was of strategic importance. The United States was waging war in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan was a vital transport route. Islam Karimov was too powerful to become a puppet of either the US or Russia and in terms of foreign policy, the country remained somewhat isolated. This did not mean Karimov did not reach out to particular nations when it suited his interests. During his decades in power Uzbekistan would under go some transformation.
Daily life in Uzbekistan was different from the the Soviet era. The allegiance to a one party state switched to the allegiance to one person. Press freedom and civil rights were not valued in the new country. Limited legal protections left citizens vulnerable to human rights abuses. Religion played and continues to be a major part of Uzbek life. Islam was suppressed under Soviet rule and now Uzbeks could embrace once more a part of their cultural heritage. However, when terrorist movements emerged in the country, there was once again a suppression of religion. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was an armed insurgency, which Karimov used as a justification for extending his rule. His desire to stay in power he presented as a means of protecting the country from radical political Islamism. Making this argument was a way to instill hero worship in the population in regards to his presidency.
Throughout the country, Karimov’s face could be seen on billboards, posters, and art renditions. The government and presidency had enormous control over the population’s daily life. This control extended to what citizens could do or say. Islam Karimov proclaimed a Uzbek model which was a series of policies that were designed to make Uzbekistan self-sufficient. It paced emphasis on Uzbek values by attempting to discourage influence from outside the country both culturally and politically. Western cultural elements such as rap music were discouraged from having a place in the country. The fear of “Western imports” as they were referred to demonstrated a level of xenophobia. The fear of foreigners relates to the possibility of the Uzbek people learning new information that the government could not censor. The living standards were low in Uzbekistan. The country was struggling with mass poverty. This explains why there continues to be Uzbek migrants to Russia. The countryside was struggling the most under dismal economic conditions. This caused migration of young unemployed men to migrate to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, or even further to Europe and further east to South Korea. There was also an internal migration to Uzbek cities for work. The economic status of the country caused numerous issues as the decades proceeded.
Uzbekistan did not develop an economy that could sustain the population. The economy was mostly dominated by the Karimov family and the elites associated with him. While the Uzbekistan did avoid shock therapy which caused other social problems in former Soviet republics, Karimov made little effort to further development. Large industries were under state control, but the potential wealth was not distributed throughout society. The majority of the population worked in agriculture, with cotton being the most important crop. An economy most have multiple sectors to be fully functional in the contemporary world.
The state rum farms were almost similar to the collectives of the Soviet Union. There have been accusations that slavery was used on these plantations. It is unknown just how extensive the problem is in Uzbekistan. Some reports claimed even child labor was used. The average framer did not get the economic benefits of cotton production, even though it produced up to $1,000 million a year in hard currency earnings. The profits went to government officials and also members of the security services. There individuals that did venture into private enterprise, yet they faced restrictions. Getting authorization could be a challenge in Karimov’s autocratic bureaucracy. Even with such corruption the economic system was stable, but the social fabric of Uzbekistan was being destroyed. Uzbekistan by 1999 recovered 95% of GDP and compared to its neighbors it was doing better in terms of that economic measure. There were factories such as Daewoo, which produced cars and minibuses. The issue was that cheaper products could be found in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. While a level of protectionism did protect jobs, it was not attractive to foreign investment when high tariffs were present. Factories produced all sorts of products from aircraft to clothing and shoes. Another problem was that there was a challenge from Chinese competitors. While Islam Karimov promised reform and an improved economy none of these objectives came true.
The bombings that occurred in Tashkent in 1999 made the government even more repressive. This also was another argument of extending Karimov’s rule. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was blamed for the troubles of the nation. Mass arrests began of opposition figures who were not even affiliated with terrorist groups. It was thought that as many as 7,000 political and religious activists were imprisoned. Karimov’s rule was once again strengthened. Reforms in the political system he claimed would be too precarious considering the security situation. He argued that the Taliban and Russia were menacing threats and measures taken were necessary.
When the terrorist attacks occurred on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the US in 2001, Karimov then found a powerful ally. The United States wanted a close relationship with Uzbekistan to conduct operations against the Taliban. Even before US military action there were discussions between US Central Commander Tommy Franks and Islam Karimov in 2000 about possible establishment of military bases. The reason was that the United States was formulating an anti-Russian foreign policy designed to isolate it from Central Asia. US Presidents from Clinton onward were attempting to bring Central Asian Countries into their orbit.
Islam Karimov saw this as an opportunity to end the IMU and further expand his power. He could also eliminate an enemy Juma Namangani who was forming an insurgency in Tajikistan. Karimov was in no position to fight both the Taliban and the IMU simultaneously. The Fergana valley was main IMU stronghold that Karimov could not break. The US invasion of Afghanistan had indirectly saved his regime. President Vladimir Putin aware of US intentions accepted this new alliance. Russia may have realized that America’s limited understanding of the region and its leaders could be a hindrance to pushing Russia out of Central Asia. Khanabad airbase would be allowed to house US special operations to conduct missions in Northern Afghanistan. This announcement was made October 5, 2001 during a press conference in Tashkent with both Islam Karimov and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfled. Initially it was stated that the base was for the purpose of humanitarian aid, but it was clear it was mostly for military operations.
The Bush administration did little to encourage the release of political prisoners or encourage some reform. Human rights groups still had to register with the Ministry of Justice and were at risk for imprisonment. While it was clear that the administration had contradictory policies, they continued to ignore abuses and provided the Karimov government with financial aid. The United States provided $219 million in 2002. Aid increased to $86.1 million in 2003. This aid did not even go to military or civilian projects , but to Karimov and his inner circle.
Islam Karimov had miscalculated one factor. US support was not entirely unconditional . There were sections of the population that were growing restless. Others came to accept that Karimov’s rule would be permanent and that he was the lesser of two evils. The prospects of civil war or rule by terrorist organizations scared many into support for the government. This was exaggerated due to the fact the IMU was by this time weakened. Unlike Tajikistan, Uzbekistan was more stable and would not collapse so easily into civil war. The year 2005 would be another shift in terms of foreign policy. This time it would tilt toward Russia. The year 2005 would change the US-Uzbekistan relationship and be the biggest challenge to Karimov’s rule.
The Andijan incident gained international attention. Protests broke out in the city and showed the discord of people tired of the Karimov regime. This was not entirely a new beginning in political consciousness, rather the catalyst was social and economic problems. Andijan was prosperous when there were a number of factories. When factories closed or cut production staff many workers left the city. This forced a number of former factory workers to enter trade. The transition seemed to work well enough just as long as the city bordering Kyrgyzstan could have access to that market. Traders and merchants would buy products in Kyrgyzstan then resell them in Uzbekistan. Restrictions on trade were introduced in between 2002 and 2004, which would gradually cause discontent among workers in Andijan. Protests began and were at first small. Normally, these were easily dispersed by the police. It became a serious threat when the business community of the city got involved. They had the effective means and resources to organize mass resistance. The workers fearful that the arrest of their employers would effect their jobs. When arrests were made they seem more similar to show trials. Bobur Square would become a site of what now has been considered a massacre. Government troops began to amass around Bobur Square. The atmosphere became even more tense. Violence erupted when government troops began shooting into crowds. The death toll was estimated to be at least 1,500. There has never been a completely accurate account in deaths, but the governments official figure was 187 deaths. Karimov blamed the violence on Hizb ut-Tahrir an Islamist group. Although they were present at the protests, their numbers were not sufficient enough to be a genuine threat.
The violent response created the possibility of insurrection spreading across Uzbekistan.Some Uzbeks sought asylum in Kyrgyzstan rather than face the possibility of prison or torture. Border towns such as Qorasuv and Kara-Suu were in revolt. These smaller rebellions were vanquished. This left Islam Karimov in a state of paranoia and insecurity. Besides blaming Islamists he also claimed that there was a Western backed conspiracy associated with the color revolutions that occurred in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. The international response to the violence did not work in the favor of Islam Karimov. The US did not want to be associated with Karimov after the violence, but was slow to respond. Islam Karimov was vexed that the US was helping refugees who fled. He wanted them back as suspects for trial. US-Uzbek relations reached a nadir with the closing of US military bases. The country was now going in another direction in terms of foreign policy.
Islam Karimov was not so reliant on the United States, that his regime was in trouble after diplomatic conflicts. Uzbekistan would move more toward a Russian and Chinese orientation. Karimov had demonstrated that he could survive uprisings and the big powers. He was able to manipulate them to ensure his survival and that Uzbekistan would continue to get financial aid.
Uzbekistan began to play a larger role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Simultaneously it sought deeper ties to Russia by signing deals with Russian oil and gas companies such as Gazprom and Lukoil. These companies continue to work exploring the Ustyurt Plateau. Karimov then decided to get Uzbekistan back into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it had left in 1999. Around 2006, Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community. This organization was about economic integration and Uzbekistan needed partners if it was to prevent financial turmoil. When Karimov moved closer to Russia, that was when the European Union imposed sanctions. This had little effect on the government. It did not stop nor hinder the operations of Uzbekistan. Some have suspected this was merely done to stop Russian maneuvering in Central Asia . Islam Karimov had effectively shielded himself from any attempts at overthrow or usurpation. Once again there was another change in US and EU policy in 2008. Karimov tilted to Washington under the Barack Obama administration. The European Union partially lifted sanctions and the Obama administration wanted to form a clean slate in terms of diplomatic relations.
Karimov as a friendly gesture opened up borders for NATO to transport materiel to Afghanistan. The US and EU acquiesced under pressure from certain political realities. Afghanistan became a long never ending conflict, which the US could not solve. The fall of the Taliban did not stop their armed insurgency and the NATO-US presence was becoming hated by most of the population. Pakistan was becoming even more furious with US drone strikes in its territory. There were few people that the US-NATO mission could count as a helpful ally. The sudden shift or thaw with the Karimov government was out of desperation. Islam Karimov’s strategy of playing world powers off against one another was a success. Although he had to make it appear as if he was in the Western orbit. Karimov left the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012, while pulling Uzbekistan out of the Eurasian Economic Community. Karimov’s duplicitous game and master plan made it seem as if he was going to be president for life.
Islam Karimov passed away September 2, 2016 from a cerebral hemorrhage. It was rumored the 78 year old president suffered a stroke in August. The sudden news was a shock to a country living under Karimov. There was fear of what the future might bring . One fact was certain that reform was not going to be a priority. Similar to the death of Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niyazov the authoritarian structure remains intact. This explains when a longtime permanent leader either dies or is deposed there is very little change. The Karimov legacy is a combination of various factors. The post-Cold War world was more complicated than analysts had thought. The assumption was in the West was that democratization would happen in the former Soviet republics. The end of history thesis appeared to be flawed when applying it to Central Asia. Nation building for a country is a difficult process considering if a political system is imposed on a land. Uzbekistan never developed an indigenous democratic system. It would seem unlikely that one would emerge given that its history never had one. Islam Karimov was born in the Soviet Union in which an authoritarian system was seen as practical. He merely stopped during his rule believing in communism or command economy and instead created a kelptocratic state. Although he was the first president of an independent Uzbekistan he will not be cherished as a great leader. The intricate web of corruption and violence will be associated with the name Islam Karimov.
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