Speculation is growing about the health of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, hospitalised with a cerebral hemorrhage in the evening of August 27.
The country’s 25th independence day celebrations were cancelled and Karimov’s annual keynote speech replaced by an address from Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev.
Moscow-based news agency Ferghana.ru was the first to announce that Karimov had been hospitalised, news subsequently confirmed by Tashkent.
Karimov’s younger daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva also announced on social media that her father had suffered a brain hemorrhage.
This in itself set a precedent, as officials have never before released such personal information about the president.
Rumours about the ageing leader’s ailing health had been circulating for many years, fuelled by his prolonged public absences.
(See also Another Term for Uzbek Leader, and Then What? ).
In previous instances, Karimov would dispel suspicions by appearing at local or international events.
Last year, he met Kazak, Turkmen, Chinese and South Korean leaders either in Tashkent or in their own countries. Most recently, he made a two-day official visit to Moscow in late April.
Feghana.ru announced on August 29 that the president had in fact died, claimed quickly rebutted by by Uzbek authorities.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti also reported that Kariov was still alive, citing a source close to the presidential team.
On August 31 Karimova-Tillyaeva issued another message, thanking the Uzbek nation for their support while asking them to refrain from negative speculation and respect the family’s privacy.
The Uzbek political system is extremely rigid.
The law enforcement agencies and the national security committee exert great power, and some believe that even the president’s death will not lead to any great changes.
Aleksandr Knyazev, an Almaty-based researcher of Central Asian politics, told Reuters on August 30, “Karimov and his closest circle managed to build such a system of authority [that it] will continue functioning regardless of the head of state’s life or death.”
The Uzbek authorities share virtually no information with the outside world.
Central Asian analysts say it is nearly impossible to predict which political figure may emerge as the strongest should the president be incapacitated or die.
The most likely candidates include Mirziyoyev, a politically flexible figure who has managed to keep his position as premier since 2003.
Another is finance minister and deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, part of Karimov’s inner circle for two decades. Rumours that he had been put under house arrest were dispelled by finance ministry officials on August 30 who announced that he was in in his office as usual.
The other possible candidate was mooted as the head of the national security service, Rustam Inoyatov.
Officials in other Central Asian capitals refrained from making any public remarks about Karimov’s state of health or a possible transition.
Rumours that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were reinforcing security along their borders with Uzbekistan for fear of a possible migrant surge were quickly quashed by officials in both countries.
Mars Sariev, a political analyst in Bishkek, told IWPR that Uzbekistan had always kept a discreet geopolitical distance from major players such as the USA, China and Russia.
He said Tashkent was most likely to continue to try and maintain this balance of relationships.
“It will be easiest for Russia to find common language with the Uzbek political leadership,” he said. “But for sure the Uzbek leadership won’t be fully pro-Russian. It will keep balancing,” Sariev concluded.
Saifullo Safarov, deputy head of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Dushanbe, also told IWPR that relations between regional powers were unlikely to alter much regardless of any change of leadership in Uzbekistan.
“All Central Asia states need to cooperate with Uzbekistan on transit and energetic issues,” he continued.
In fact, he played down any chance of much change at all, even within the country.
“In Uzbekistan there is a tried-and-tested elite and they know how to govern their state,” Safarov said.
“There will be a trend of continuing on the same course they previously had. A strong shift is not expected.”
This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.