The death of Uzbekistan’s President has unleashed a whirlwind of succession theories.
Most likely, Islam Karimov – who was confirmed dead by officials today – had already picked a successor to prevent political infighting in his absence. The only question is whether his chosen one has the necessary gravitas to fill the 27-year dictator’s void.
Uzbekistan’s elite networks are mostly divided along blood kinship and regional lines, the most influential being the Tashkent and Samarkand clans. As an integral part of informal politics, the clans are the principal benefactors and beneficiaries of the country’s vast natural resources. Due to these elite dynamics, clans often mobilize (either against one another or in cooperation against more powerful network) to protect their interests and strengthen their political / commercial position.
Karimov’s closest allies include Rustam Inoyatov. Often referenced as Karimov’s ‘gray cardinal,’ the chief of the National Security Council, or SNB, is part of the Tashkent clan. Then there’s Rustam Azimov, the Finance Minister and also from the Tashkent group. Last but not least is Prime Minister Shavkhat Mirzoyev, part of the Samarkand clan.
However, Karimov’s inner circle is better known for tensions between competing factions than as a group of close confidants. Competitors are eliminated through informal mechanisms of influence. Former Presidential Adviser Ismail Zhurabekov, for example, was brought up on corruption charges in 2004 and removed from power. He is often noted as the lynchpin bringing Karimov to power in 1989. Before Zhurabekov’s fall from grace, he was the head of the Samarkand clan, which Karimov feared was maneuvering to take control of the country.
A more public battle was with Karimov’s own daughter, Gulnara. Corruption and bribery allegations relating to international telecom companies culminated in her house arrest in 2014. Driven by SNB Chief Inoyatov and the Tashkent clan, Gulnara has been completely removed from succession talks and her close allies have been arrested or significantly waned in political influence.
A more recent case highlighting struggles within the inner circle began in February when authorities arrested Asaka Bank Chairman Kahramon Oripov on money laundering charges and black market currency exchange. Two months later, some executives from General Motors Uzbekistan – including Deputy Prime Minister Ulugbek Rozukulov (a protégé of Finance Minister Azimov) – were arrested for an illegal import/export scheme of GM vehicles. Rozukulov was considered one of Karimov’s closest associates, entrusted with maintaining tight control over state enterprises. But the GM scandal indicates that he had fallen out of favor, and the influence of his ‘protector’, Azimov, may also have significantly diminished.
The supposed decline of Rozukulov and Azimov has allowed others to move closer to the President. One notable personality is Deputy Head of the SNB, Shukhrat Gulyamov. Known as the “hero of Andijan” for his ruthless suppression of protests in Andijan in 2005, Gulyamov is now considered the third most powerful actor in Uzbekistan behind the President and Inoyatov. Where he fits with the question of succession and the emergence of a new power hierarchy, however, remains to be seen.
A Family Dynasty?
According to a report posted on the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan’s website, Karimov held a meeting last year with some of his closest advisers stating that preparations should be made for the succession of his youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, to the presidency.
While Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, has been silenced and her political and economic power diminished, Lola’s star certainly has been rising. Throughout 2015, she was brokering soft relations with US and European politicians. Karimova-Tillyaeva and her husband, Timur Tillyaev, are reportedly emerging as informal protectors of the Karimov clan.
A transition to Karimova-Tillyaeva would provide guarantees for the Karimov clan, safeguarding their assets and ensuring political protection from domestic attacks. Yet her ability to lead the country is questionable. While her limited public profile and attempts to maintain a positive image both domestically and internationally (especially compared to her sister) work in her favor, Uzbekistan’s highly paternalistic society requires aggressive and direct political authority. The most high-profile position that Karimova-Tillyaeva has held is her current role as Permanent Representative of Uzbekistan in UNESCO. This position hardly amounts to executive experience. Although she is associated with a variety of domestic companies that manage Chinese imports and heads charity projects, most business decisions are left to her husband.
Lacking the political acumen to lead the country, the question of Karimova-Tillyaeva’s succession turns to whether her husband, an influential entrepreneur with growing political ambitions of his own, might take the lead. Yet, as with his wife, political support becomes the defining obstacle.
One of the key qualifications the elite will be looking for in the next president is the capacity to moderate political disputes and competing interests. With Karimova-Tillyaeva lacking the executive skills for such as task, the risk is of a weak presidential successor who becomes susceptible to external influence from the dominant regional clans – in particular, the Tashkent or Samarkand networks. Which of these groups is able to co-opt the next president will inevitably determine greater influence at the expense of the other. Evidence to suggest that Karimova-Tillyaeva will be able to balance elite interests as her father has successfully done since independence is slim.
The issue is partly about the level of trust that the elite has in the Tillyaev family. First, the family has lived in Geneva since 2010, and although she’s the President’s daughter, Karimova-Tillyaeva could be deemed an ‘outsider’ for her lack of political engagement and her distance from the inner workings of politics. But a bigger fear is that the succession of Karimova-Tillyaeva would ultimately lead to the rise of her husband’s clan. The Tillyaev family have alleged ties to the Tashkent network and SNB Chief Inoyatov. In the past this has reportedly worked to the Tillyaevs’ benefit with Inoyatov and the SNB providing political cover for the family’s business ventures. Timur Tillyaev is also reportedly connected with the powerful entrepreneur Salim Abduvaliyev. While this may initially benefit the Tashkent clan, the concern for some would be that Tillyaev’s immediate network of allies would begin to occupy key government positions, including those that the Tashkent group covet as their realm of influence.
Uzbekistan’s succession process remains opaque and unpredictable. Although there are barriers, Karimova-Tillyaeva’s transition can’t be ruled out, especially given the connection between Inoyatov and the Tillyaev family.
But the most obvious immediate successor is Prime Minister Mirzoyev. One of his greatest assets has been to also enjoy support from Inoyatov. According to established sources in Tashkent, Inoyatov has – at least previously – been of the persuasion that Mirzoyev balances elite politics. Gulnara’s fall from grace and Azimov’s alleged diminished influence has served to strengthen his position. The biggest obstacle to Mirzoyev, however, is the issue of his Tajik ethnicity.
Presuming that Karimov has been grooming a successor over the past year, and elite networks have been re-establishing their positions of influence vis-à-vis one-another, then the most probable succession scenario would resemble that of Turkmenistan in 2007 when back-room negotiations saw Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov replace Saparmurat Niyazov. While political realignments and elite network balancing took place following the Berdymukhamedov presidency, the initial transition was seamless.
In all likelihood, Uzbekistan’s elite would favor a similar progression so as not to disrupt their business interests or spark turmoil in an already politically unstable region, given its border with Afghanistan, regional relations and the economic downturn. There is little doubt that Inoyatov will be running these discussions, and has been mandated to ensure that whoever inherits the presidency must be able to balance clan interests and command a similar level of loyalty among political elites.