Alisher Taksanov: Post-Karimov Uzbekistan: Palace Coups, Mutinies, or Elections?
“There are three possible ways events could develop: a transfer of power through palace intrigue; a military revolt and the ascension at bayonet point of someone from the military that is sick of the mess; or an election held within the framework of the law,” – Independent journalist Alisher Taksanov considers various scenarios for the transfer of power in Uzbekistan in this CABAR.asia exclusive.
At the end of August 2016, the official Presidential Press Service released a brief, uninformative message: “The President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has been hospitalized. According to specialists, he requires a thorough medical examination.”
This is the first time that an official source has publicly commented on Islam Karimov’s health. Earlier this information was classified as “secret”, and the population could only guess how their elected leader was feeling. Since 2010, information has leaked out onto social networks and the opposition media on more than one occasion about how Islam Karimov twice fell into a coma. They also reported that he suffered a heart attack in 2013. This time things are significantly more serious due to the fact that an official announcement has been made. Additionally, the President’s youngest daughter, Lola Tillyaeva-Karimova, took to Instagram and Facebook to report that her father had suffered a stroke and said, “My only request to everyone is to refrain from any speculations, and show respect to our family’s right to privacy.” This has added further clarification to the unfolding situation but has also led to increased fear and expectations as one fact became perfectly clear: the country has been for, all intents and purposes, without presidential leadership for a few days.
One does not need a medical education to understand that the chances for rehabilitation after a stroke, particularly for a nearly 80-year old man, are very low and that there can be no discussion of his returning to work. This means that Islam Karimov is unable to fulfill his primary duties and must be replaced. This is necessary from a national security perspective as a procedure for maintaining political stability and managing the most important branch of government.
Constitutional Requirements: Formalities Further Complicate Matters
Are there any regulations governing the transfer of power from one individual to another? We are speaking, of course, about the highest position in the country. Until 18 April 2011 the Constitution provided a very laconic answer to this question in Article 96: “In case the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan fails to exercise his duties due to health reasons as confirmed by a State Medical Commission formed by the Oliy Majlis, an emergency session of the Oliy Majlis shall be called within 10 days to select an individual from among the deputies of that chamber to be vested with the responsibilities of Acting President of the Republic of Uzbekistan for a term of no more than three months. National elections to elect the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan must be held within this three month period.”
However, there have never been mechanisms for implementing this article, procedures for the transfer power and subordination, or any confirmation of the constitutionality of the Oliy Majlis’ decisions. This point somehow “fell out of” the purview of the MPs, political parties, the Constitutional Court, and the media, and therefore has practically never been raised. It seemed that things would never reach this point, and that it was not worth wasting time on this ‘minor’ article. Regardless, 5 important aspects were outlined:
- The legitimate ability to remove a President from power (with no other means available, including impeachment);
- The conclusion of a State Medical Commission as the basis for this action;
- The Acting President is drawn exclusively from among the members of parliament;
- This President has a discrete term of office, i.e. limited in time;
- Elections are to be held within three months in the form of a popular vote and not an election in the Oliy Majlis.
As such, the responsibility for the subsequent transfer of power was reserved as a right of the Parliament, and not the Government, Supreme Court, or the Central Election Commission, and this is an important point – during the transition the state would become parliamentary for a short period of time. Yet, in the spring of 2011 there were unexpected changes made to Article 96. It now reads: “In case the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan fail(s) to exercise his duties, the Chairman of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall be vested with acting duties and powers by holding election of President of the country within three months with strict observance of the Law ‘On election of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan’.”
The problem being that this formulation has actually added more uncertainty rather than delineating necessary steps to be taken, leading to the following questions:
- What does “fail(s) to exercise his duties” mean and what is the framework for this failure?
- Who or what confirms the President’s failure to exercise his duties?
- Can the Senate Chairman combine his authority with that of the President? Is this not a subordination of the executive by the legislative branch or a consolidation of both of these branches of government in the hands of one individual practically granting them unchecked power?
- What if the timing of these fresh elections does not coincide with the timetable as outlined in the Constitution?
This last point probably needs further explanation. Article 117 of the Constitution explicitly states that “the elections of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan… shall be held accordingly on the year of expiration of the constitutional term of their powers – on the first Sunday of the third decade of December.”
This means that even if the President is declared unable to fulfill his duties in May, fresh elections will only be held in December of that year. As such, the Chairman of the Senate will be in power as Acting President for 8 months, not 3 months. Additionally, he is required to remain in power until the President-Elect assumes office after the elections, which adds another two months to the Acting President’s term of office. The Constitution Court has never examined these contradictions. However, this body never “noticed” a problem in any of the presidential elections including the 2007 and 2015 reelections of Islam Karimov, whose participation in these elections contradicted Article 90 of the Constitution which states: “One and the same person may not be the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan for more than two consecutive terms.” Moreover, the law does not provide for an extension of a President’s mandate by referendum, plebiscite, an act of Parliament, or even under exceptional circumstances, although this was allowed to occur in 1995 (five additional years were granted) and in 2002 (presidential terms were extended from five to seven years).
As such, the Constitution has not been formally recognized in the political process if it was deemed inconvenient for the head of the state or contradicted his interests or those of groups providing him support, including corrupt officials, the heads of the security services, organized crime, and regional clans. In reality, everything is decided by those who have state resources, control over staffing issues, a large number of allies from among the regional elites, and close contacts within the National Security Service (SNB).
The Current Balance of Power
The weakness of the Uzbek political system stems from the fact that the entire power vertical is linked to one man. The other branches of government have practically no autonomy. The leadership of the Parliament, Government and political parties are not politicians per se but rather functionaries fulfilling the President’s orders. Since Uzbekistan declared independence in 1991, only two people have openly declared laid claim to the Presidency.
In December 1991, Salai Madaminov (famous under his nom de plume, Muhammad Salih), the leader of the Erk (Will) Party, ran in opposition to Islam Karimov. According to official statistics, Madaminov earned 12.7% of the votes. Earlier Uzbek radio has reported that he had won 33% of the votes, and the reports of independent observers indicated that Madaminov had won a majority of the votes. In 2005, Sanjar Umarov, businessman and leader of the “Coalition – Sunny Uzbekistan” movement, announced his campaign for the presidency, but he was arrested and tried on charges that had been fabricated by the Prosecutor-General. In 2007, three men were designated to be Islam Karimov opponents – Asliddin Rustamov (The People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan), Dilorom Tashmukhamedova (The Adolat Social Democratic Party), and Akmal Saidov (drawn from the ranks of public figures). These candidates openly demonstrated their unwillingness to become head of state. In the 2015 elections, these said-same tricks were used, and three “opponents” with no desire for power were named – Hotamzhon Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party, Narimon Umarov of the Adolat Party, and Akmal Saidov, who returned this time as the candidate from the Millii tiklanish Party. Islam Karimov always “won” as a result.
As such, there are no real politicians in Uzbekistan. There are people with resources, influence, and the backing of clans, informal groups that historically formed in regional isolation (which differ from the familial ties of tribalism). By the mid-2010s, power was consolidated in the hands of two groups – the Samarkand-Jizzakh Clan, represented by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, and the Tashkent Clan with Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov. Representatives of the Fergana Valley’s Andijan Clan had limited possibilities within the central government, and the other regional elites, more or less, remained powerful in their own territories. Experts were thus able to place bets on either of these two aforementioned figures winning the right to be the “heir apparent”. Recently, the fight for state resources and key positions within the government, parliament, courts, prosecutors, and security services has been between these two forces.
There is one more important individual in these political games that must be mentioned: Rustam Inoyatov, head of the SNB. Some have been of the opinion that this man has plans to take the highest office in the country, but this is unlikely in our view. Working in the field of security, he never really wanted to involve himself in the economic problems and social life of the state. These are not his areas of professional interest. This is a burden he cannot carry, and Inoyatov recognizes this.
Without a desire to take power, Inoyatov still remains a force that could hand power to either Azimov or Mirziyaev, and it is possible that decisions have already been made.
However, there has been an element of surprise in this process, namely Article 96 of the Constitution. According to Article 96, the title of Acting President should be granted to Nigmatulla Yuldashev from the Millii tiklanish Party, a former Justice Minister, former Deputy Prosecutor-General, and representative of the Tashkent Clan. This is the man who is supposed to consolidate power in his hands and, more importantly, command the armed forces. If this happened, Inoyatov would have fewer opportunities to organize a coup, because the SNB’s only “real” opponent is the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which is no less powerful than the SNB and could interrupt the plans of the secret police. The Ministry of Defence, paramilitary forces such as the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and the Customs and Tax Committees could certainly come to the defence of the Constitution and swear loyalty to Yuldashev.
The Third Factor and New Contenders For Power
Until this moment, Yuldashev has not been a well-known figure. He has been incredibly careful, secretive, and loyal to Islam Karimov and not an autonomous decision maker. Yuldashev has not been a threat to anyone. But the an element of suppression has disappeared alongside the currently serving President, which means that the Senate Chairman can be open about his own political ambitions as power beyond his wildest dreams falls into his hands. On the other hand, it is possible that this scenario was planned and earlier agreed to by Nigmatulla Yuldashev and Islam Karimov outside of the public eye. It is entirely possible that he was brought before the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister with the demand that they recognize Yuldashev as Acting President in the event of Islam Karimov’s illness or death. These clan leaders could make that promise.
But sometimes promises are worthless in the East, as disparate interests drive people towards decisive action. The appearance of Yuldashev, a third actor in the political arena, has created an intriguing and not entirely predictable situation in Uzbekistan. With the combined power of the presidency and parliament, this person could become a key player. If so, then everything will depend on which line of action this man pursues.
- Put forth his own candidacy with the backing of the Millii tiklanish Party in accordance with Article 24 of the Law “On Presidential Elections” that states, “political parties have the right to put forward a candidate for President of the Republic of Uzbekistan”.
- Maintain his current position as head of the Senate and support Rustam Azimov, who is from the same clan.
- Become a mediator between the various clans and put forward an alternative candidate amenable to the Samarkand, Tashkent, as well as the other clans.
That being said the presence of these three figures does not necessarily mean that the all of the pieces have been placed on the chessboard. The leaders of the other three parties, freed from the pressure coming from the Ok Saroi (Presidential Residence) and sensing their right to take the highest office, could enter the political arena. They have the backing of supporters, capital, as well as their representatives in Parliament and regional legislatures, offices, ministries, and agencies. They could refuse to support Rustam Azimov and Shavkat Mirziyaev and start their own game. The situation would become truly unpredictable and difficult.
The opposition has virtually no chance. Even if they do create their own party, they have next to no chance to participate in the coming election because, according to Article 24 of the Law “On Presidential Elections, “a political party may nominate a candidate for President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, provided that it is registered by the Ministry of Justice no later than six months prior to the date of announcement of the election campaign.” This is twice as long as window provided by Article 96. Moreover, Article 1 of the Law “On Elections for the Presidency of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” outlaws the candidacy of opposition politicians that have lived abroad for a long. Article 1 states: “Any citizen of the Republic of Uzbekistan may be elected as President of the Republic of Uzbekistan… after permanently residing on the territory of Uzbekistan for at least ten years before the elections.” In this way, inconvenient contenders are sidelined.
Possible Outcomes: Coup, Quiet Legalization, or Elections?
Officially proclaiming Islam Karimov to be dead or unable to fulfill his duties is unsatisfactory for the elites, because they have not been able to divide the most important posts and levers of influences among themselves. There is no consensus. It is possible that they are displeased by the circumstances in which power must transfer to the Senate Chairman and are seeking a different path towards a legitimization of their own claims to the throne.
There are three possible ways events could develop:
- A transfer of power by means of palace intrigue;
- A security forces mutiny and the ascension at bayonet point of someone from the military that is sick of the mess;
- An election held within the framework of the law.
If the first situation is under consideration, could an Azeri or Turkmen scenario play out? In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev came to power in 2003. He used the name of his deceased father, President Heydar Aliev, to provide legitimacy to his ascension to the presidency. There might be some “message from Islam Karimov” read to the people in the event of his death. In this address, Karimov would encourage the people to recognize someone from amongst the current bureaucrats as President. This is possible but unlikely.
In Turkmenistan, the head of their Mejlis, Ovelgedy Ataev, became Acting President after the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov. However, Ataev was suddenly arrested on trumped up charges, and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became President by decree of the National Security Council in December 2006. This option is likely but precluded on the active support of Rustam Inoyatov.
A military revolt is one possible outcome, but there are as of yet no charismatic individuals in the Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Interior Affairs who could rally the troops to their banner and take power. While a Pinochet has not appeared, there may be some revolutionaries. A revolt could be led by radical elements supported by interests from the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is a real threat to national stability.
Holding elections within the law is the most favorable option that would guarantee if not democracy in the country then at least a peaceful transfer of power. It is this option in particular that would be preferable and could provide the potential for the stable and peaceful development of independent Uzbekistan.
 Fergana.ru. “Uzbekistan: The President’s Daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, spoke about her father’s illness on Facebook and Instagram (Узбекистан: Дочь президента Лола Каримова-Тилляева рассказала о болезни своего отца в Фейсбуке и Инстаграме).” 29 August 2016. Accessed on 1 September 2016. http://www.fergananews.com/news/25232
Author: Alisher Taksanov, independent journalist & political émigré (Bern, Switzerland)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CABAR.asia.