Uzbekistan after Karimov: a EU on the sidelines?

By on September 3, 2016

On August 29, news broke of the death of the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, at the age of 78. Amid conflicting reports on the status of the president’s health, ranging from ‘full vigor’ to a possible stroke, it soon became clear that there was no succession plan to speak of in place. The country’s Independence Day celebrations scheduled for September 1 were cancelled, causing states which had prepared to send celebratory delegations to scramble to formulate an entirely different diplomatic response. Born in Samarkand in 1938, Karimov joined the Communist Party in 1964. The longest-ruling leader of any state in the post-Soviet space, he has run the Uzbek SSR and then an independent Uzbekistan since 1989, having been reelected in 2000, 2007, and 2015. The fallout after Karimov’s death, who was a skilled power broker between the country’s various clans and ethnic groups — be it an orderly succession, a power struggle among the elites, or even a civil war scenario — will most certainly be closely watched by leaders of neighboring states who are likely crafting strategies for a generational change in leadership themselves.


Two candidates and a kingmaker

Uzbekistan’s constitution states that if its president is unable to fulfill the tasks laid upon him or her, the functions of the presidency shall be shouldered by the head of the upper house of parliament. Regardless of whether the little-known Nigmatilla Yuldashev assumes these functions or not, the list of possible long-term successors to Karimov’s presidency is thought to contain three candidacies. The current prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is 58 and has held the post since 2003. Clans hailing from Dzhizak and Samarkand are likely to support him as a candidate for power, although the latter have likely fallen out of grace after the February 1999 Tashkent bombings. Experts agree that a Mirziyoyev presidency is expected to imply a shift towards more political repression in the country. Uzbekistan’s constitution has been re-written multiple times in the past five years, each time granting more powers to the prime minister, a fact which should strengthen his candidature. Another candidate is the current minister of finance, the 57-year-old Rustam Azimov, a well-entrenched member of government since 1998. Azimov is the candidate with the most solid international experience – he headed the National Bank for Foreign Economic Activity of the Republic of Uzbekistan (NBU) in the early years of the country’s independence and has led Uzbekistan’s talks with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). He has the support of clans hailing from Tashkent. Rustam Inoyatov, the 72-year-old head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (Milliy Xavfsizlik Xizmati, MXX or СНБ) has headed the security service since 1995; he also represents the Tashkent clans in the government. Inoyatov is understood to have played the role of the gray cardinal in the final years of Karimov’s rule. He was likely behind the fall of Gulnara Karimova, Islam Karimov’s daughter, who went from being a major business figure to being confined to a de facto home arrest since 2014 when a USD 1 billion Uzbek Telecom corruption deal was unearthed. Whilst Inoyatov’s age makes him an unlikely candidate for president, he nonetheless remains a kingmaker – it is difficult to see how another candidate could be successful without his support.

Uzbekistan’s politics have historically depended on a power balance between various clans – the president has represented the Samarkand clans, while other members of government have represented clans from Tashkent. If Inoyatov chooses to support Azimov’s candidacy, the delicate balance will be no more, setting off a struggle in the highest echelons of power and far beyond. As regards political opposition, not much remains after years of suppression and the emigration of leading figures. Islamist groups (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU or Oʻzbekiston Islomiy harakati) may pose some degree of threat in the transition period, but the Karimov presidency did act as a guarantor of stability, therefore the population at large is expected to support another strong presidency for the same reason.


What is at stake for Europe?

Uzbekistan has used its location neighboring Afghanistan and the restive Ferghana valley to its advantage since 2001 – it backed the NATO intervention in Afghanistan and hosted U.S. and German airbases in an eager bid to counter Russian influence in Central Asia. In the later years of Karimov’s rule, Uzbekistan became warier of Western support for the “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) and responded harshly to the 2005 Andijan protests. It nevertheless joined NATO’s Northern Distribution Network soon after the 2008 Bucharest summit, and has received U.S armored vehicles as late as 2015. Over time, Karimov has been able to balance Russian security hegemony in Central Asia with Western influence and a strategic partnership with China, signed in 2012 and upgraded in 2016.

Meanwhile, the European Union lacks any strong engagement policy towards both Central Asia as a region and Uzbekistan, its most populous country, in particular. Whereas the EU’s Global Strategy, introduced in June 2016, does contain a chapter on the security of the Union, it does, if somewhat counterintuitively, make clear that it is neither truly a global actor – nor does it have global ambitions. EU relations with Uzbekistan specifically have not taken off since all sanctions on the country were lifted in 2011 and the establishment of the EU Delegation in Tashkent in the same year. As non-security interests remain limited, bar perhaps border management and migration, the EU’s strategy of engaging Uzbekistan has been geared towards ensuring overall stability and keeping communication channels open.

The 2007 EU and Central Asia Strategy for a New Partnership, which defined the EU’s strategic interests in Uzbekistan as security and stability, named few concrete common interests outside of energy resources and the diversification of energy suppliers. Yet at a glance, Uzbekistan’s contribution to European energy security remains paltry as of 2016, and other bilateral trade is marginal at best. The 2016 EU-Central Asia Strategy Review found that the EU lacks a hard security posture in Central Asia and that European interest in the region is too low for common CSFP action. Instead, the EU’s contribution lies in soft security and diplomacy; the EUSR position should enable the EU to play a diplomatic security role in the region – including on water diplomacy with disputes over dam projects on the Syr Darya and Amur Darya rivers.

In a worsening economic climate as remittances to Central Asian nations plunge and trouble brews in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen if Uzbekistan’s new leadership will want to do more to challenge the reigning Russia-China cage in terms of security and economic influence. The setup’s inner workings are not without friction as Beijing is increasingly replacing Moscow as the primary investor in the region, and whereas Uzbekistan tacitly accepts Russian military hegemony in Central Asia, China is making moves to take a more active role. Tashkent’s current engagement with the United States on the common challenge of Afghanistan and Islamic terrorism should be understood as an attempt to diversify its partners outside the Russia-China duo. Yet U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is being downgraded, which may prompt Uzbekistan to seek new security partners. As things stand now, if Tashkent gazes towards Brussels, it is not likely to find what it is looking for.

Author: Boris Ajeganov
Boris is a Junior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute – Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also Assistant Editor of the CACI Analyst. Boris is an MA candidate in Political Science at Stockholm University, Sweden and has a background in Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine area studies. He has previously worked with the Eastern Partnership countries as intern with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and with internally displaced persons as intern with UNHCR Ukraine. His research interests include European energy security, frozen conflicts, and the European integration of post-Soviet states.

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