A trained engineer and economist, Islam Karimov began climbing the political ladder as a member of the Soviet Gosplan, or the State Planning Committee.
From the moment he became head of newly independent Uzbekistan, Karimov ruled with one aim – stability at any price.
It was long clear to Uzbek and foreign observers that Karimov would rule the country until the end of his life. The constitutional change that allowed the aging leader to be re-elected in 2007 and in 2015 came as no surprise.
But what will be his legacy, beyond creating one of the harshest and strictest regimes in Central Asia?
(See also Uzbekistan: The Iron Leader).
Some experts say that Karimov’s biggest accomplishment has been to manage the role regional clan structures played in politics, a challenging task given the size of the country and the resources at stake.
“Karimov managed to secure a balance between clan interests and, in fact, reduce down their role,” Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariev told IWPR.
Karimov built a so-called vertical of power, a term used in post-Soviet states, under which every state employee uncompromisingly obeyed his superior. The head of state, at the very top of this power vertical, served as the chief decision maker.
“He [also] exercised a rigid economic policy by means of a stiff power vertical,” Sariev continued.
Official Uzbek statistics on the economy have been consistently optimistic for the last two decades.
The Uzbek finance ministry, headed by one of Karimov’s possible successors Rustam Azimov, reported a 7.8 per cent growth in GDP in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year.
Their figures showed that industry grew by 6.7 per cent, agriculture by 6.8 per cent and retail sales increased by 14.1 per cent.
However Alisher Taksanov, an economist based in Bern, Switzerland, said that such data should be treated with suspicion.
“Any [authoritarian] state strives to present official statistics which would meet the interests of political power and show good economic results. Uzbekistan is no exception,” he told IWPR.
According to the CIA, Uzbekistan is among the world’s top 20 natural gas exporters. In 2013 it exported 13,5 billion cubic metres of gas to Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China.
Energy expert Rovshan Ibragimov told IWPR that the oil and gas industry forms up to 20 per cent of Uzbek GDP. Uzbekistan also exports cotton, gold and machinery.
Taksanov, who used to live and work in Uzbekistan before emigrating, added that Uzbekistan’s industrial development went hand-in-hand with mass corruption.
“Protectionism and nepotism, cronyism and corruption – these are the result of ‘reforms’ in the 25 years of independence,” he said.
Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian state to attract large-scale foreign investment, in particular from South Korea, Japan and later China. This has often been heralded as a major achievement.
But Taksanov warned that this had led to a narrow economic focus.
“Investments are mainly made into spheres of strategic importance and high profits – energy, oil and agricultural processing, trade, import-export of goods and services,” he said, adding, “These are [the spheres] with a quick return on invested capital.
“In this regard, science-driven production is left out of the scope of serious investment,” Taksanov added.
Inga Sikorskaya, head of the School of Peacemaking and Media Technology in Central Asia and former IWPR editor on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan argued that Uzbekistan’s isolation from the rest of the world had prevented the country from developing its human capital.
“During Karimov’s leadership, strict rules didn’t give [Uzbek] specialists a chance to increase their potential and develop by means of exchanging experience [with foreign colleagues] due to their limited freedom of movement and silencing of dissent,” Sikorskaya told IWPR.
Unemployment is another problem. Officially, the unemployment rate was 5.2 per cent in 2015.
Only 2,700 people were registering as seeking work in a country of 30 million by the end of that year.
But according to Mars Sariev, up to 30 per cent of Uzbeks are unemployed, with the rate rising to 40 per cent in Tashkent.
Some two to three million Uzbeks are labour migrants in Russia and Kazakstan, engaged in unskilled work.
Karimov officially commented on the issue of mass migration in 2013 after an Uzbek janitor was killed in Russia.
The leader publically questioned why the young man had been unable to find a job in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s birth rate – standing at 2.5 children per woman in 2012 and rising – is the highest among the former Soviet Union states. More than a quarter of citizens are aged under 15.
This means that the issue of job creation will be an on-going concern for the Uzbek leadership.
Karimov will certainly be remembered for the worst state-sponsored violence in post-Soviet Central Asia.
On May 13, 2005, Tashkent used armoured vehicles equipped with machine guns to suppress a demonstration in the city of Andijan, in the Ferghana region of Uzbekistan.
Officials claimed 200 were killed, most of them armed militants. Independent observers said that the casualties numbered several hundred, including children who were part of the crowd on that day.
(See also Andijan Remembered).
Andijan was a rare display of resistance. The country’s two opposition parties, Erk and Birlik, were forced out of the political arena at the dawn of independence.
Many party members were accused of Islamist connections by Tashkent.
(See Tashkent Tries Islamists).
Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, was indeed among the first Central Asian states to face threats from militant forces.
The authorities have bolstered its national security forces in the fight against groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
But it has also targeted religious groups, regarding them as the remaining source of dissent.
Ozodlik, the Uzbek RFE/RL service, reported that hundreds of people allegedly connected with the Islamic State were arrested at the end of last year.
Human rights groups have cast doubts on the regime’s claims that it was acting against terror threats.
A quarter-century of dictatorship has inevitably affected the country’s cultural life too. All creative spheres are only allowed to develop in line with the regime’s ideology.
Even in the Soviet era, Tashkent, the largest city in Central Asia, once boasted the best drama, art, and architecture schools in Central Asia.
The Mirzo Ulugbek National University in Tashkent, for instance, is the oldest such institution in Central Asia.
But independence did not bring increased creative freedom.
Workers in the sphere of culture and the arts have had to adjust to new realities or leave their sector – or the country.
Theatre troupes hardly ever tour abroad as they used to, while Uzbek television and cinema are limited to a narrow range of interpersonal relations, never touching on political matters.
“The decline in art…and other [creative] spheres, in my opinion, is directly connected to the absence of creative and academic freedom, which authorities have been successfully suppressing throughout the last 25 years,” Sikorskaya said.
Uzbek nationals require an exit visa to travel abroad, which is only granted after a lengthy, bureaucratic process, and information on all foreign trips is stored and strictly monitored by the security bodies.
There is also no opposition media inside Uzbekistan. Although internet penetration is high – according to Internet World Stats, as of November 2015 there were 12.7 million users – usage is closely monitored.
“The media has remained under the strict control of authorities, and almost all content consists of state propaganda. In this regard, real competition and pluralism are absent,” Sikorskaya said.
“By now, practically all those journalists who had managed to stay out of prison have left the country because of [fear of] prosecution,” she added. “Despite the fact that Uzbekistan’s internet penetration rate is high, the internet is also censored and [certain foreign resources] are blocked. An audience which got used to consuming filtered information, contents itself with what’s available, while more skilled users overcome blocking in search of alternative [voices].”
This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.