Rumors about Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s health and the likely succession have sparked concerns of possible destabilization in the volatile Central Asian region. Moscow will view any leadership change in Tashkent as an opportunity of increased engagement with new leaders. 

MOSCOW (AT)–The Kremlin appeared to select a wait-and-see approach amid indications of the upcoming demise of Uzbekistan’s strongman and leadership change in the Central Asia’s most populous state.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (L) efforts to engage him, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov remained non-committal

As Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was reported to have suffered a stroke and probably died, Moscow’s initial reaction was largely cautious. Reports of Karimov’s death remain unconfirmed, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced on August 30. Russia continues to be in contact with the authorities of Uzbekistan, Peskov said.

On August 29, Karimov’s daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva announced that Uzbekistan’s President was in intensive care following a stroke as he suffered a “cerebral hemorrhage.” But according to some media reports, Karimov had died on August 29. Uzbekistan’s government sources dismissed these reports, adding that Karimov’s rehabilitation would require “a certain period of time.” However, there were no official statements of denial.

In the meantime, Uzbekistan’s authorities also reportedly cancelled celebrations to mark the country’s Independence Day on September 1. Likewise, there were no official statements on that too.

According to Uzbekistan’s legislation, in the event of inability to perform duties, the President is due to be replaced till the next presidential poll by Chairman of Senate, Upper house of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan. This post is currently held by Ilghizar Sabirov. However, this succession scenario is believed to be an unlikely event.

There were media reports that deputy Prime Minister Roustam Azimov, one possible candidate for succession, was detained. Although the government sources dismissed these rumors, the reports appeared to come as an indication of power struggle within Uzbekistani elites.

Karimov, 78, headed former Soviet Uzbekistan since 1989, and became president of independent Uzbekistan in 1991. He had his powers extended for five more years by a referendum in 1995, and he was re-elected for yet another 5-year term in 2000. In 2002, another referendum allowed extension of the presidential term in office up to seven years.

In 2007, the Uzbek election commission ruled that Karimov still had a right to become a presidential candidate because he was claiming 7-year term for the first time since the country’s constitution was amended in 2002. In 2015, Karimov won Uzbekistan’s presidential poll in a yet another landslide, gaining 90% of the votes, according the Uzbek election commission. The Kremlin consistently supported Karimov’s landslides.

In recent years, Moscow has moved to build stronger economic relations with Karimov’s administration. Russia tried to pursue its economic, energy and security engagement with Uzbekistan. However, Uzbek leadership apparently preferred to refrain from any firm commitments.

In the past, Putin repeatedly hailed what he described as “relations of strategic partnership and alliance between Russia and Uzbekistan.” In 2004, Putin and Karimov met in Tashkent and signed a new partnership treaty.

But as the Kremlin tried to develop relations with Uzbekistan, Karimov remained non-committal. In 1992, Uzbekistan joined the post-Soviet security organization, Russia-led, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), then known as Tashkent Treaty group, but left it in 1998. In December 2006, Uzbekistan revived its membership in the CSTO, then left again 2012. Therefore, despite Moscow’s efforts to engage Tashkent, Karimov could hardly be viewed as Russia’s reliable partner in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan’s upcoming succession sparked concerns of possible destabilization in the volatile Central Asian region. However, succession in neighboring Turkmenistan appeared to indicate otherwise. Following a sudden demise of late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, he was peacefully and orderly replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov without any domestic or regional destabilization.

The upcoming leadership change in Uzbekistan may be viewed in Moscow as an opportunity of increased engagement with new leaders in Tashkent. However, Turkmenistan’s succession ten years ago only entailed a decline in relations between Moscow and Ashgabat.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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