TASHKENT – Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president, hails from Samarkand, the mythical 2,500-year-old Silk Road trading crossroads. Alexander the Great loved it, Genghis Khan razed it to the ground, Tamerlane made it his fabled capital. Nowadays, the reality is not nearly the stuff of legend. As a Tashkent businessman puts it: “It’s the Samarkand mafia who put Karimov where he is. All the clans, acting together. But now they are restless and very unhappy: he forgot how he came to power and only thinks about himself.”

Karimov is in a bind. The more military muscle he gets from the West – to face what he calls “Islamic terrorists” and also to intimidate his Central Asian neighbors – the more he fears the army will become too independent and powerful, like in Turkey or Pakistan. For the moment, according to Tashkent insiders, he is distributing privilege by playing one clan against another and by appointing “safe” people to positions of power. The minister of defense is a physicist and the secretary of the Security Council is a law professor. The division of powers in a Muslim country like Uzbekistan is extremely peculiar. Instead of executive, legislative and judiciary we have a post-Soviet arrangement of president, law enforcement and the military – from which the moderate Islamic intelligentzia is completely excluded. Karimov’s concern is the day when the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Committee and the Ministry of Defense start thinking as one.

Although rich in gold, minerals, oil and gas, the state-controlled Uzbek economy is a mess. The standard of living in the rural areas – including the fertile Fergana Valley – is abysmal, roughly around US$1 a day. There’s practically no consumer demand. Corruption is appalling. Bribery is the norm: the police national sport is to stop drivers any time, anywhere. The intellectual capital accumulated in Soviet times – when Uzbekistan was an industrial powerhouse – has been squandered.

Regional trade and cooperation – despite rhetorical avalanches in endless conferences – is at a standstill because of Uzbekistan, which is fond of periodically imposing monster customs duties and closing its borders with Central Asian neighbors. As economist Galima Bukharbaeva puts it: “There is virtually no import and export of manufactured goods and foodstuffs.” There’s even an official Uzbek ban on trade contracts with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Karimov was a professional economist from the Soviet school. He worked as Uzbekistan’s minister of finance, headed the regional, infamous Gosplan (state planning agency) and during perestroika was the secretary of the Communist Party. Insiders remark he spews out macroeconomic data effortlessly. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on the other hand can’t understand why he did not dismantle the old system via a Russian-style shock therapy. Maybe it’s because he understood Uzbek society too well. He knew the social consequences of large-scale privatization, price deregulation and less state control. He knew that compared to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan had to face three huge problems: it depends on grain imports, it cannot export as much as Kazakhstan and it is a hostage of cotton prices in the international markets. Uzbekistan’s transition from communism may have been relatively painless – but this has been essentially a transition to economic stagnation and economic depression.

For sociologist Ravshan Nazarov, urban Uzbeks are divided into four strata: the Russified intelligentzia; the national intelligentzia; the multi-ethnic working class; and recent migrants from rural areas. A great deal of the Russified intelligentzia can be found in Tashkent driving taxis – or their own cars converted into taxis – to make ends meet. Having to face what is locally called “Uzbekization,” tens of thousands of Europeans preferred to emigrate to Russia, Crimea, Germany, the US or Israel. There was a massive exodus of engineers to Russia – basically because of government policies, according to a mechanical engineer: “They don’t hire or promote Russian engineers. Only people with satellite TV can get the Russian networks. And it’s impossible to find Russian newspapers anywhere.”

The Uzbek intelligentzia has been able to find low-paying jobs in the government, in local bureaucracies or in small businesses. The Uzbek working class has opened family restaurants, corner stores, small hotels, artisan shops – very visible in Tashkent or Bukhara. As to the mass of urban population, it is basically surviving. The migrants from rural areas – hordes of unemployed, unskilled young people – become fodder for the drug mafias. As a young professional in the tourism business in Taskent puts it, “The most creative and productive people in this country have left. The economy is dead, the bureaucrats extort money from everybody, and there are no jobs even if you are good in your profession.”

But Uzbekistan’s real time bomb is in the countryside – specifically the Fergana Valley – which occupies 1.5 percent of the country but is home to 11 percent of the total population of 25 million. Land and water resources are stretched to the limit. Unemployment is as high as 80 percent. These people are exclusively farmers: they would not dream of going to Tashkent to find a job in a factory. Both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT) which advocate, respectively, a violent and a peaceful way to Sharia (Islamic Law) are betting on a social explosion in the valley. (See Part 6 of this series, Peaceful jihad.)

The mahallah – a social institution that has been active in Uzbekistan for centuries – also plays a very important part in the whole scenario. The mahallah regulates daily life in the Fergana Valley and in the big cities – Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Essentially, it is the cement of public life – and crucially of the political system. As a mechanism of social control it overlaps with the role of the mosque – at least the mosques that are registered with the state. So Karimov’s ultra-repressive regime once more finds itself cornered. When people look up to the mahallah and the mosque to answers for their daily problems, they are not paying attention to the secular state. This situation entails added surveillance by the security apparatus to prevent a “subversive” alliance of mahallah and mosque.

Tashkent would like to paint itself as the modern, cosmopolitan capital of Central Asia. But the long, wide Soviet boulevards lead us to a time warp, and the feeling is of extreme suffocation. The outside world hardly penetrates the bubble, apart from a pedestrian strip, the Broadway, full of kebab joints and tacky karaoke and souvenir stalls, and a few international hotels – the only places in town where a four-day-old German newspaper can be found. The currency is a joke: one needs a trolley to take home the equivalent of US$100 in 100 som bills (US$ 1 = 977 som). Uzbeks cannot legally buy dollars – only a maximum of $300 if they are leaving the country. There are some pockets of foreign investment: the Americans on mining and oil, South Koreans, Germans and Turks in a handful of joint ventures, all Karimov-related. There’s no way to become an investor in Uzbekistan without a direct line to Karimov.

In Karimov’s land there is no free speech, no independent thinking, no free press, and dissidence from the regime may be punished by death. Human Rights Watch has even compared Karimov’s methods with Joseph Stalin’s. Karimov may be a Saddam Hussein minus the gassing of the Kurds. A simplistic formula would state that Karimov is trying to modernize Uzbekistan’s economy while trying to demodernize Uzbekistan’s society. But even that would not be true, because economic modernization is also limited.

Is it all about repression? Not really. History plays its part. The Uzbek collective unconscious easily accepts a strong ruler – in the tradition of super-conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), heavily promoted by the post-Soviet regime as the ultimate national hero: after all Karimov, hailing from Samarkand, cannot but be in awe of the conqueror who made Samarkand the capital of his empire. But the most striking aspect of everyday life in Tashkent is the passivity of the average Uzbek. There’s never a mention of political repression: the mantra instead is about inflation, high prices for everything, official corruption, problems with bureaucrats and the police, and the appalling state of public health care. Moreover, in the cities, there is real fear of radical Islam. The majority of Uzbekistan’s population is secular. People paid a lot of attention to what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Better a Karimov than a mullah Omar.

Wily Karimov framed all this into a running narrative of national independence. Moreover, in the public mind, there are no cadres to replace him: so life without Karimov is unthinkable. Westerners from the IMF and World Bank mould dream of enlightened authoritarianism coupled with a mixed economy. But a Karimov volte face seems highly unlikely: the conditions for the regime to increase freedom in social life and in the economy, cultivate relations with moderate Islamic leaders, go easy on the repression and abdicate from its Soviet hardcore propaganda style are simply not there. And as things stand, there’s no possibility of an Islamic Republic of Uzbekistan coming to light.

Immediately after September 11, 2001 Uzbekistan turned into an American client-state. Washington’s professional Panglossians may think that American influence on Karimov will lead to social and economic liberalization. Nonsense. Realists who trade their armchair for a field trip find out that any sort of liberalization would spell the end of the regime. What in fact has been happening is that Washington’s support makes the regime even stronger. Washington-Tashkent relations are rock solid. A Saudi Arabian parallel applies: Washington-Riyadh relations have been solid for decades – with no Saudi Arabian internal liberalization whatsoever. And to top it all, there are very few, if any, Uzbek members of al-Qaeda.

Karimov’s agenda is very clear. He has two ultimate goals. He’s involved in a ruthless war against Islamic fundamentalism. And he wants to establish himself as the most powerful ruler in Central Asia. His own version of “war on terror” enjoys the full support of his neighbors, but also crucially from the big New Great Game powers – the US, Russia and China. Karimov is also wily enough not to proclaim out loud that he has his eyes set on regional leadership. Businessmen in Tashkent note that there is no clear Uzbek foreign policy line – only Karimov’s whims, concerning Turkey, Iran or Russia, which are subordinated to the twin ultimate goals.

The one, indisputable trend is of Uzbekistan as an American client state – also with strong ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since 1999, Uzbekistan has been part of the pro-American GUUAM bloc, a security arrangement which also includes Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova: Russians gritted their teeth, with Russian nationalists still saying that Russia has “lost” Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Americans and could not afford to lose Uzbekistan. Karimov is a dependable ally of all of US President George W Bush’s war adventures, from Afghanistan to Iraq. Obviously, this also means that Karimov is not exactly a popular figure in the Muslim world – especially after he established close economic and political relations with Israel. Whatever his whims, Karimov won’t abdicate from Uzbekistan configured as the key American strategic partner in Central Asia.

But he also has to co-exist with powerful neighbors Russia and China. Although tens of thousands of Uighurs live in Uzbekistan, Karimov has become a firm ally in Beijing’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He was adamant to the Chinese: Uzbek Uighurs would not be a problem. A very important development is that the Uighur diaspora in Uzbekistan has indeed remained neutral – or at least not vocal, perhaps fearful of internal repression by Karimov’s security apparatus.

Relations between Tashkent and Moscow verge on Siberian deep-freeze. Unlike Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, who is frankly well-disposed, politically and economically, towards Moscow, Karimov is unwilling to commit to any closer cooperation with Russia: this of course would counter Karimov’s pet project of Uzbekistan being the top regional power in Central Asia. There’s frugal Russian investment in Uzbekistan. Commercial relations are frosty. Russia’s influence is decreasing – in the media, or even in terms of Russian as the main language of communication. In Karimov’s mind, neighboring Tajikistan embodies all the horrors of a Russian presence. Tajikistan is dependent on Russia in political, economic and military terms. And the Islamic parties play a part of the Tajik government.

Maybe this all has to do with family trauma. Karimov’s father was Uzbek but his mother was Tajik. He grew up in a Soviet orphanage. Samarkand, Timur’s capital, where he was born, is basically a Tajik city, a symbol of the best of Persian culture. It is now part of Uzbekistan only because of Stalin’s demented geography notions. In his nightmares, Karimov certainly sees his fabled Samarkand ruled by an axis of Russians and Islamists. So what could be cozier than to wake up in Washington’s arms?