At the funeral of President Islam Karimov   

While most of the world remained unaware, the president of Uzbekistan died at the end of this past week, and a power vacuum exists that should be of concern to the Western world, and beyond.

Why?

Uzbekistan is facing its most significant transition since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990s. From its last days as a Soviet nation, through its independence in 1991, to the present, the Central Asian country of about 30 million people has had only one commander in chief, President Islam Karimov.

On Friday, September 2, Karimov’s nearly three decade rule over Uzbekistan abruptly came to an end as the government confirmed that their longtime leader is now dead. While the death of any leader would signal the beginning of a period of uncertainty and political change, Uzbekistan’s upcoming transition will be nothing short of historic, if for the sole reason that the nation has never experienced a change in leadership since becoming an independent country.

For nearly half of the population, Karimov was the only leader they ever knew. As Karimov exercised absolute control during his tenure, he bequeathed to his nation a vacuum of power upon his death. While two high-profile political figures from rival clans seem set to contend for power, there are a myriad of other actors that are likely to intervene in the succession process.

What happens next should matter deeply to the rest of the world. Uzbekistan is at a historic crossroads: either it will realize its raw potential to become a vibrant hub of tourism, democratic values, personal freedoms, economic investment, and cultural exchange; or it will fail to take the opportunity this transition fortuitously provides, in which case either it remains the domain of a dictatorial strongman, or it will collapse into a “Wild West” crossroads of drug trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism, and lawless criminality.

Understanding the significance of this choice Uzbekistan faces today requires the context of its recent history. Western media have not reflected such grasp.

What makes Uzbekistan different – politics and economy

For much of the Western world, Uzbekistan may not stand out from the other “-stans” (and frankly, the test of Western knowledge about the “-stans” is another whole story unto itself), but in many crucial ways, it is very different than its Central Asian neighbors. In almost all the markers of life quality and life expectancy, Uzbekistan is far ahead of its mountainous eastern neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While it is not oil rich like its vast northern neighbor Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan can boast of a treasure trove of tourist potential, with some of the greatest sites of the Silk Road within its borders, such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.

Prior to the Mongol invasions in the 13th Century, these cities were major economic, social, political, intellectual, scientific, and religious hubs, and since then, have been the muse of many an Eastern and Western poet (e.g., Matthew Arnold’s epic poem “Sohrab and Rustum” and James Elroy Flecker’s “Golden Journey to Samarkand”). Today they are well-preserved UNESCO sites that offer an accessible entry point into the world of the Silk Road.  

However, more important than its resources in tourism is how Uzbekistan stands out among its neighbors in other key demographic and political ways. Like many of its neighbors, Uzbekistan has a long history of rule by a totalitarian regime, with the President exercising complete control of all aspects of the state, the economy, and society on the whole.

President Karimov’s firm grip over Uzbekistan has enabled him to suppress revolt, crack down on drug trafficking, and prevent the rise of Islamist fundamentalism—always a possibility with Afghanistan being on the southern border. Indeed, it is the relatively tight security, high level of literacy, and comparatively good infrastructure—also products of Uzbek state control—have made the country viable as a tourist destination.

That alone is highly significant, but very little known in the West. And very important to Uzbekistan’s future.

Also, precisely for its stability and proximity to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been courted by both America and Russia to form strategic military alliances against terrorism in the region.

So the West has both reasons for keen and focused interest on this country. But it calls for a closer look at the country in full.

Uzbekistan’s apparent stability has come at an enormous human cost. International observers have cited a litany of grave human rights abuses that have accompanied President Karimov’s reign and have touched every aspect of society. President Karimov was personally implicated in the 2005 Andijan Massacre, and in other horrific episodes in recent history. Karimov has even leveled intimidation and suppression against his own family, placing his own daughter—once a global socialite and cultural ambassador of Uzbekistan—under house arrest in 2014. It is unclear what has become of her since then. So, while Uzbekistan has appeared to be open to the global stage—and in this sense, more like Kazakhstan or Tajikistan than the bizarre “Fortress Kingdom” of Turkmenistan—out of all the “stans”, only Uzbekistan and its President Karimov have been regularly compared with North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un.

That analogy offers the best snapshot of why we’ve been so relatively clueless about this place and its people.

What makes Uzbekistan different – population and religion

While that comparison may do justice to the systematic abuses perpetrated by Karimov and his totalitarian state, it does not do justice to the dynamics of the country’s population.  Uzbekistan is one of the most populous countries in Central Asia (and the most populous of those that were under the Soviet Union), and has one of the youngest populations in the region, with about half the population under age 30.

That alone is a striking feature of this place, which should factor into its future.  

Like many of the Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan is somewhat diverse ethnically, reflecting the Soviet policies of strategic nation-building with an eye toward eventual incorporation into an “internationalist” Soviet identity, while tactically diversifying nations’ populations as an insurance policy against ethno-nationalistic uprisings. Clever and shrewd.

However, Uzbekistan is more homogenous than its neighbor Kazakhstan (80 percent of Uzbekistan is ethnic Uzbek), partially because the Uzbek SSR took final form in 1929, during the years of korenizatsiya (or “indigenization”), prior to the Soviet Union’s return to Russification in the mid-1930s, when the Kazakh SSR came into existence.

Uzbekistan’s majority Uzbeks and minority Tajiks and Tartars are all Sunni Muslim, making a total Sunni Muslim population of around 88 percent. However, the Islam practiced in Uzbekistan follows the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, which is more flexible, adaptable and moderate in its interpretation of Islamic law than the strict traditionalist Hanbali school of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or the Shafi’i school of Eastern Africa, Yemen, and Southeast Asia. (It was precisely for its flexibility that the Ottoman Empire chose Hanafism over other schools of Islamic jurisprudence).

Furthermore, like fellow global tourist destination, the Maldives, Uzbekistan has exercised a total control over the mosques within its borders. Altogether, this means that a moderate form of Islam has prevailed within the country.

Beyond the majority Sunni population, there is a significant (around 9 percent) Orthodox Christian population (mainly Russian Orthodox), and small, but historically significant populations of Roman Catholics (from Poland, and to a much lesser extent, Lithuania) and Jews (namely, the historic Bukhara Jews). While many of the Jews moved when Uzbekistan gained independence, there is still a small population of Jews in Bukhara that maintains a synagogue in its historic location. The Catholic population, meanwhile, has a large Sacred Heart Church in central Tashkent, and smaller, but equally active, Catholic churches can be found in many of the country’s large cities (e.g., St Andrew’s in Bukhara, St John the Baptist in Samarkand, etc.). Moreover, the Church has a notable presence in charitable works, such as the works of Caritas and the Missionaries of Charity—though both have faced the scrutiny of the government in recent years.

The moment of truth

The authoritarian regime of President Karimov kept a firm grip on security and social stability, but at the expense of human rights and human lives. With Karimov no longer in power, there will be a vacuum of power that will not be empty for long. If another strongman comes to power, the country will likely remain stifled under decades more suppression and violations of basic freedoms.

If no strong government takes power, then the land of the Silk Road risks becoming the crossroads of criminals and extremists, in transit between Afghanistan and the West. This would be a historic and tragic set-back to international stability and security, and would make Uzbekistan yet one more open front in the world’s fight against crime and terror. Already the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—a terrorist group responsible for the 1999 Tashkent bombings, and now allied to Islamic State—has been preparing in exile for the moment they can return and come to power.

This is highly significant. Western leaders, take note.

At this moment though, a real third option exists between the Scylla of another post-Soviet strongman and the Charybdis of a lawless state. There is, generally speaking, a readiness among many people in Uzbekistan to take on greater freedom and cultural exchange. This can be seen in the entrepreneurial spirt of people saving and starting up their own businesses to cater to tourists.

This can be seen in the occasional Muslim visitor to the Catholic Cathedral, seeking a place of peace and prayer amidst the bustle of the capital city. This can be seen in the eagerness to access Western media in a country that has more internet users than Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, or Ireland. And this can be seen in the immense pride people have in sharing what they love about Uzbekistan with outsiders.

If these voices prevail and Uzbekistan seizes this moment to hand power over to a strong, but democratic central government, capable of maintaining peace at home, but never at the expense of human rights and lives, then the country can begin to take advantage of its resources, its strategic geo-political position, and most importantly, the wider aspirations of its own people, and become a beacon of rights, stability, and prosperity in the region.

Such a transition is not without regional precedence: Kyrgyzstan transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in its 2005 Tulip Revolution.

However, for this transition to happen in the “land beyond the Oxus”, the people of Uzbekistan must collectively make their voice heard now. Their entire future, and the future of the region as a whole, lies in their hands. And regional actors are already poised to move in.

Sheila Liaugminas is the editor of the MercatorNet blog Sheila Reports. Andrew Liaugminas is a doctoral student in at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he is studying the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas.

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Father Andrew Liaugminas is a doctoral student in at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he is studying the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas.