What if a dictator dies?

By Thijs Korsten

Many long-ruling dictators have plans for their succession. Islam Karimov, however, was an exception. After suffering a stroke, his condition was kept quiet until his death was confirmed on September 2nd, 2016. The Prime Minister of Turkey offered his condolences publicly, which made it quite hard for the ruling circle of Uzbekistan to keep silent about Karimov’s death. The Economist wrote: “The secrecy that shrouded the president’s illness and demise was typical of the paranoid regime that Mr. Karimov constructed and presided over for decades.” The first days after Karimov’s death, it was not clear who was ruling the country.  Now, we know the interim President is Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister, who is expected to be the leading candidate in the upcoming elections (4 December).

Uzbekistan is on a crossroads between chaos and the continuation of a repressive dictatorship. Is there a third option? Perhaps a peaceful transition to a more democratic and liberal society? Not really, according to experts on Central Asian affairs. Uzbekistan has little to no civil society, all forms of criticism only exist in exile, and the entire society is infiltrated with informants.

When he was elected President in 1990, Karimov felt the end of the USSR was near. Towards the end of 1991 he declared independence, ruling the country until his recent death. An entire generation grew up knowing just one leader: Karimov. Now they are faced with a dilemma: either a continued dictatorship under a new face, and the continued repression of many basic freedoms, or the implementation of a democratic process that could slide into violent chaos.

Uzbekistan is on a crossroads between chaos and the continuation of a repressive dictatorship.

I spoke to Uzbek journalist Navbahor Imamova, based in Washington D.C., about Karimov’s legacy. Although he might have kept Uzbekistan relatively stable, the country still faces enormous political, economic, social and cultural challenges. Imamova: “The system is deeply corrupt. There is no rule of law. The rights of citizens are systematically violated and the level of accountability is very low. Islam Karimov is given credit for maintaining stability but many fear the long-term implications of repression.” There is indeed more to Karimov’s rule than an iron fist in the arena of politics and media: torture, assassinating exiles abroad, jailing all political opponents, banning all unregistered religious activity and eradicating all independent media among others. Behind the scenes, severe economic problems developed. Uzbekistan has a huge black market and its economy is highly dependent on remittances from Russia. Moreover, Karimov oversaw the gunning down of 187 (official government figure) to 1,500 (estimate by defector) protesters by security forces in the city of Andijan in 2005.

“The system is deeply corrupt. There is no rule of law. The rights of citizens are systematically violated and the level of accountability is very low.”

However, many Uzbeks loved their leader and still do. Uzbek student Fazliddin told The Boomerang: “The reaction of each person was almost the same after Karimov’s death. Everyone was shocked. In Uzbekistan everyone respected him, and this loss has changed the lives of all citizens of Uzbekistan. He gave the nation independence, stability and peace. Many youngsters wish to be as great a politician as he was.” Fazliddin believes there will be free elections to determine Karimov’s successor. When asked about Karimov’s negative reputation in the West, he says that he finds the criticism very unpleasant and unreasonable. On the absence of political opposition in his country, he remarks that “there was almost nothing to do for opposition.”

I also spoke to Doniyor, a medical student in India who belongs to a rather influential Uzbek family. He explained how Karimov preserved peace in the Uzbekistan’s clannish society, and managed to keep balanced relations with Russia, China, and the US. After speaking to both Fazliddin and Doniyor, it becomes clear why many Uzbeks respected the strict rule of Karimov: normal, obedient citizens were not affected much by his iron first, the same fist that suppressed terrorist activity by the Islamic extremist groups of the Greater Middle East, which may frighten many Uzbeks. Moreover, one should note the role of propaganda; for instance, Doniyor believed that the aforementioned Andijan Massacre was “sponsored by the US”.

Journalist Imamova explains: “Several generations grew up under Karimov, seeing him as the only leader.”

Continuation of the current political situation might be for the better. Political instability could erupt into religious, clan-related, regional, or ethnic conflicts. There is precedent for peaceful continuation of dictatorships in Central Asia. When Turkmenistan’s narcissistic and repressive dictators Saparmurat Niyazov, passed away in 2006, he was immediately succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has ruled the country ever since. With this immediate succession, Turkmenistan remained quite stable.

How then, should Uzbekistan get out of its repressive, authoritarian situation, especially given the state propaganda and the absence of free media? If on the short-term continuation of repressive dictatorship guarantees stability, does a change toward freedom require chaos and bloodshed? Or should we in the West accept that some societies are not ready for a free, liberal, open system?

Navbahor Imamova does not expect major changes in Uzbekistan. “The new president will have his style and strategy that he will slowly introduce. He will face no opposition inside the country.” In his article “Goodbye Karimov”, published before Karimov’s official death, Uzbek journalist Daniil Kislov, summarised it all in a few words: “the system [Karimov] created will live on.”

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