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The Death of Uzbekistan’s Dictator: What It Means
What happens when a dictator dies in Central Asia? Unfortunately, likely not much.
Uzbekistan has known just one leader since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and last week—the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence—saw his death from an apparent brain hemorrhage.
Islam Karimov rose to power as head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan in 1989, and his presidency was characterized by repression in all aspects of Uzbek society. Uzbekistan ranks just above North Korea in the list of countries designated as having the worst scores for political rights and civil liberties, according to the human rights watchdog Freedom House.
As the country prepares for its first transition of power since independence, here are a few points to consider:
While Karimov’s death signals an opportunity for change, don’t expect a significant departure from the current environment of repression.
Karimov did not designate a successor, but the top candidates appear to be the Prime Minister, head of National Security Service, and Finance Minister—all of whom are deeply entrenched in the politics of the Karimov era. If Turkmenistan is any indication of transitions in Central Asian countries, the death of its longstanding dictator in 2006 led to the quick succession of the former Minister of Health, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has since established a cult of personality and maintains complete control over all aspects of public life.
If the transition doesn’t go smoothly, there’s the potential for instability in the region.
A power struggle among Karimov loyalists may pose a significant risk for the region’s stability. From a fragile economic system to the threat of violent extremism, Uzbekistan faces no shortage of challenges that threaten to impact the other Central Asian countries and its southern neighbor, Afghanistan. If chaos ensues, it may open a Pandora ’s Box in the region.
With no political opposition to speak of and non-governmental organizations labeled as “foreign agents,” there is little hope that Uzbekistan will now embark on a path of democratization, whether from the top down or at a grassroots level, after the death of Karimov. Karimov was an important ally on the war in Afghanistan, allowing supplies for U.S. troops to cross through Uzbekistan, as well as being a critic of Russian influence in the region. The United States will have to wait and see what impact, if any, a new leader will have on the politics of the region.
The Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative works to develop leaders in emerging democracies, stand with those who still live under tyranny, and foster U.S. leadership through policy and action. For more on the Bush Institute’s work on human freedom, see http://www.bushcenter.org/explore-our-work/issues/human-freedom.html.
Farhat Popal serves as the Manager of the Women’s Initiative Fellowship and the Afghan Women’s Project at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Farhat is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries.
Farhat studied Political Science/International Relations and History of the Near East at the University of California, San Diego. She earned a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she worked on human rights programs in Afghanistan and Central Asia at the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in Washington, DC, and evaluated reconstruction projects in Afghanistan with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. While with SIGAR, she spent considerable time conducting field work at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition to her international work, Farhat evaluated the effectiveness and efficiency of local government programs at the City of San Diego and City of Oakland’s Offices of the City Auditor.Full Bio
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