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Central Asia news

Expert Aleksei Malashenko: Islam Karimov will have to start thinking of the successor sooner or later

24.12.2007 12:35 msk

Nezavisimaya Gazeta – Dipkurier

Analytics Uzbekistan

"The Loneliest Authoritarian Ruler" is a piece in Nezavisimaya Gazeta by Aleksei Malashenko. An expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, Malashenko dwells on the political situation in Uzbekistan and the necessity for President Islam Karimov to start thinking of successors.

Emphasizing the lack of "suspense" in the presidential election in Uzbekistan on December 23 and drawing parallels with the situation in Russia, Malashenko capitalized on existence of "at least one difference between the two countries regardless of all similarities." "Stage directors in Moscow are different now. In Tashkent, however, there has been only one director since June 1989 when Karimov became first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic."

The widespread opinion is that the tragedy in Andijan in 2005 became a turning point for Uzbekistan, but Malashenko claims that 2001 had taken precedence. It was in the wake of the terrorist acts in New York in 2001 that official Tashkent began clamoring for the privilege of being the United States' number one ally in Central Asia in the war on terrorism. Foreign subsidies Uzbekistan was expecting then offered it a unique chance to launch the second wave of reforms and solve a great deal of domestic problems. It never happened for two reasons. First, the national leadership proved unready for radical changes. It had the gall to assume that it would get subsidies first and decide what to do afterwards. Second, would-be foreign sponsors put forth a number of terms the Uzbek establishment found unacceptable. Foreigners, for example, insisted on a war on corruption. By and large, some money was transacted to Tashkent indeed but it had counted on much more.

"It was in the wake of the events in Andijan that the West brought up every previously withheld grudge," Malashenko wrote. "And so did Karimov, which made the process mutual. Karimov, for example, ordered the US AF Base out of Khanabad. The West applied sanctions to Tashkent. It recalled the situation with human rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan. Even Turkey, aspiring as it was for acceptance in Europe, seconded the OSCE and condemned Tashkent. (It was probably their vengeance for Karimov's arrogant refusal to attend the Kurultai of Turkic-speaking countries in Antalia.) Russia immediately got into the cleave between Uzbekistan and the West then. Moscow knew better than ask inconvenient questions about Andijan, human rights, or anything like that..."

The West changed its mind barely a year later and decided that it was probably wrong to isolate a great Central Asian power because of some trifles like Andijan. Officials of the International Monetary Fund and Asian Bank of Development began talking of "a high level of cooperation" and even a "sincere exchange of opinions."

According to Malashenko, Uzbekistan is not in the least happy over Russia's active expansion into its energy sphere. As a matter of fact, the current Uzbek-Russian relations are not entirely cloudless.

An experienced politician he undeniably is, Karimov knows that the current situation affords him freedom of foreign political maneuvering which is also quite convenient from the standpoint of domestic politics. Election of the president on December 23 became for Karimov a process that enabled him to demonstrate: 1. his strength or, in other words, his ability to remain in control; 2. wisdom; and 3. his democratic nature regardless of what his political enemies are saying on the subject.

In the meantime, it eventually dawns on every authoritarian regime that it cannot completely ignore democracy much longer. According to Malashenko, authoritarian leader is forced to seek support in and from society. He inevitably becomes an instinctive - albeit formal - democrat because the alternative means that he is left face to face with his inner circle only. This inner circle in the meantime is not reliable at all. Praise and flattery are masks concealing fear and hatred. The late Turkmenbashi knew it all too well - and therefore constantly shuffled the deck. Vladimir Putin understands it too and subsequently fears a strengthening of any faction close to him.

"How can we expect Karimov to fail to understand it too? I hear he is jittery and suspicious these days. Actually, he is to be pitied. He lacks a loyal clan or a Family, the family that may be insufficiently reliable as a political prop but that is absolutely understandable and predictable. It makes Karimov probably the loneliest authoritarian ruler," Malashenko pointed out in the article.

Ideology of Central Asian authoritarianism is centered around the so called "Eastern traditions". The same traditions meanwhile exist in Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran where public politics and political struggle nevertheless exist. Some traces of democracy do exist there. According to Malashenko, "these national features of democracy are to a great extent Soviet features. And since all leaders nowadays are Russian- and Soviet-speakers, it is clear that Nasreddin does not have anything to do with it."

Even totalitarian Eastern tyrannies need invigoration. New leader of Turkmenistan Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov knows it. Aware of the necessity, he initiated what became a thaw. From this standpoint, the situation in Turkmenistan is of paramount importance for all others including Karimov. If Ashkhabad ends up at square one, it will be all right. If it doesn't, then Tashkent won't be able to ignore existence of this "new way of thinking" much longer.

Fear of democracy and acceptance of its inevitability are typical of all Central Asian regimes. On the other hand, democratization is always left for "afterwards" which is understandable. Weakening of authoritarian trends eventually leads to loss of power and should therefore left to successors. "After us the deluge" remains a fitting slogan.

Malashenko believes that the list of candidates for president is an circuitous confirmation of what groups of interests (clans, regions, whatever) Karimov keeps relying on. The candidates include three people from Tashkent and three from Samarkand. It goes without saying that candidates' own political rating is as near zero as to be nearly undetectable. It is rather the rating of the regions that counts. Also interesting, not a single candidate for president is from the Ferghana Valley which is surely an indication of Karimov's distrust of the region where nearly 50% of voters reside.

There is also Khorezm, the native city of Mohammad Salikh, Karimov's first and only genuine rival who ran for president against Karimov in 1991. Salikh polled more than 50% votes in Khorezm then. (The actual outcome of that election is a deep dark secret.) Residents of Khorezm were thrown a bone this time - Ilgizar Sabirov became chairman of the Oly Majlis or Senate.

What about genuine opposition? Does it exist? It did once, before the regime did away with it making use of political techniques drawn in Moscow. Seven independent candidates failed to submit all necessary documents to the Central Electoral Commission in the brief period set for the purpose. Islamists faded into the background altogether. As for Moslem rhetorics, this niche is occupied by supporters of the president. All the same, dismissing Islamists will be mistake. Life shows that they have their following in all Moslem countries where the population is dissatisfied with the powers-that-be.

There was no suspense about the latest election. The suspense will appear later. It will be centered around the successor. Nobody can say with any degree of accuracy when it is bound to begin or who will make the short-list of potential successors. Since every ruler (no matter how authoritarian) has political and biological limits, the issue of succession remains on the agenda. Nobody admits it but all in Karimov's inner circle are thinking about it.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta - Dipkurier, December 24, 2007. Translated by Ferghana.Ru