Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan strongman dies at 78

Uzbek President Islam Karimov in April 2016
Uzbek President Islam Karimov in April 2016

Islam Karimov, the Communist Party apparatchik who transformed post-independence Uzbekistan into a brutal personal fiefdom while reaping political and economic benefits from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, has died in Tashkent. He was 78.

His death was announced on Friday by state television after days of official silence about his health. His daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, wrote on verified social media accounts that he had suffered a “cerebral hemorrhage” on Aug. 27.

His death threatens instability but offers slight chance of change in Uzbekistan, a landlocked, mostly Muslim country in Central Asia that Mr. Karimov ruled even before independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. At least publicly, he had not named a successor.

A wily political survivor who emerged unscathed from Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era corruption purges, Mr. Karimov maintained iron-fisted stability over his 31 million people during the 1990s while neighboring countries were roiled by political turmoil and even civil war.

uzbekistanTo maintain his grip, he fostered Uzbek nationalism, harassed the political opposition and targeted independent religious centers of power, justifying mass arrests of Muslims as necessary in the struggle against Islamist radicalism.

Although he eschewed the golden statues and other trappings favored by some post-Soviet dictators in his region, Mr. Karimov’s domination of his country’s politics for a quarter-century was no less complete, nor less savage.

As parliament considered a 1998 law to place tighter restrictions on religion, ostensibly to combat extremism, Mr. Karimov exhorted: “Such people must be shot in the forehead! If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself!” Reports of macabre methods of torture, including the boiling of prisoners to death, followed.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in 2006
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in 2006

Mr. Karimov’s brand of stability found support in Moscow and in the West as a bulwark against Islamist radicalism — Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan to the south — but he also led his country into economic stagnation. Although Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous nation, rich in hydrocarbons and valuable minerals such as gold, 16 percent of the country lives below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 per day, and Uzbekistan has become known for an annual cotton harvest produced through the forced labor of its own citizens.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karimov’s family is believed to have amassed fabulous wealth, siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars in state profits and engaging in a byzantine political struggle in which Mr. Karimov’s own daughter and once prospective heir, Gulnara Karimova, reportedly has been put under house arrest by her mother.

Once known for a globe-trotting lifestyle at New York and Paris fashion shows, Gulnara Karimova has not been seen in public for two years after she was ensnared in a wide-ranging bribery probe involving foreign telecommunications firms seeking access to the Uzbek market. But perhaps her gravest mistake was publicly comparing her father with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov was born Jan. 30, 1938, in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, in what was then the Soviet Union, to an Uzbek father employed as a handyman and a Tajik mother. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from a technical school in Tashkent and found work as an engineer in an aviation plant.

In the late 1960s, he married into a well-connected family, became a protégé of powerful Communist Party leaders and began advancing at the powerful state planning agency Gosplan. He was appointed finance minister in 1983 and six years later rose to the rank of first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, he quickly sidelined political opponents and consolidated his power, winning presidential elections and declaring independence from Moscow in 1991.

Even then, as Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and the collapse of the Communist Party sparked starry-eyed visions of democratic transition in other post-Soviet republics, Mr. Karimov was charting an authoritarian path. He banned public protests and advocated Chinese-style reforms, a tremulous balance between a market economy and socialism.

uzbekistan flag mapMr. Karimov followed the path of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in leveraging their strategic location for aid and payouts from Washington for use as logistics hubs after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Mr. Karimov waged internal battles against political challenges or any hints of dissent. He portrayed his opponents, both the political opposition and independent religious organizations, as threats to national stability. By 1993, his main opponent, poet and political activist Muhammad Salih, had fled the country for exile in Turkey.

He also attacked religious centers of power, decrying the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. A series of six car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, apparently a targeted assassination attempt against Mr. Karimov, sped a government crackdown.

“I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic,” he said on Uzbek radio after the attack.

Thousands of Muslims were arrested, and reports of torture followed. Several alleged Islamists discovered in 2002 were boiled alive, according to human rights agencies and a forensic report by the British Foreign Ministry. Rights organizations claim that Uzbekistan is still holding thousands of political prisoners, far more than any other post-Soviet country.

Mr. Karimov’s most ferocious known act of repression came in 2005. After the arrest of 23 businessmen in the eastern city of Andijon, Uzbek security forces fired into a crowd of thousands with live ammunition. Mr. Karimov said the protesters were armed, while eyewitnesses claimed they were peaceful, and many were women and children. The government put the death toll at 187, but rights workers claimed it was far higher.

Despite such human rights abuses, Washington sought out Tashkent as a key ally in the fight against Islamist militancy. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States struck a deal with Mr. Karimov to use the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in the country’s south to ferry troops to Afghanistan.

President George W. Bush, right, meets with the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, in the Oval Office at the White House in 2002.
President George W. Bush, right, meets with the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, in the Oval Office at the White House in 2002.

After a White House meeting in 2002 with President George W. Bush, Mr. Karimov received more than $500 million in aid and credit, and Bush called Mr. Karimov one of America’s “foremost partners in the fight against terrorism.”

The relationship unraveled after the slaughter in Andijon provoked calls by Washington for an international investigation. In response, Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military from Karshi-Khanabad, cutting off a key transit point for humanitarian relief to northern Afghanistan.

However, by 2008, the two countries had repaired the relationship, and the United States was using Uzbek territory to ship military cargo along a land route to Afghanistan.

Mr. Karimov’s first marriage, to Natalya Petrovna Kuchmi, with whom he had a son, ended in divorce. In 1967, he married Tatyana Akbarovna, with whom he had two daughters.

His elder daughter, Gulnara Karimova, 44, drew global scrutiny for her ostentatious lifestyle. A Harvard-educated diplomat, she dabbled in fashion and jewelry design and released pop anthems with glossy music videos under her stage name Googoosha.

At home, she was known for strong-arming local businesses. In documents released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats described her as “the single most hated person in the country.” Her bitter divorce in 2001 from an Afghan American businessman also stoked negative headlines. She vanished from public view amid the international bribery probe, leading to speculation of a power struggle she had lost.

Mr. Karimov’s younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, 38, who lives with her businessman husband in Paris, is not believed to be seeking power. Instead, the country’s next leader will likely be chosen by a number of political kingmakers.

But the Soviet-style system assembled by Mr. Karimov is likely to persist.

“Authoritarianism will remain in Uzbekistan for the time being, and I think for a long time,” said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political scientist in exile who formerly worked in Tashkent’s Institute of Strategic Studies. “They think that these methods are the only way to maintain the stability and the integrity of Uzbekistan’s government.”

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