Tea Leaves in Tashkent

Who will follow Uzbekistan’s aging dictator?

There's a joke about Leonid Brezhnev, the uni-browed and droopy-jowled party chief who ruled the Soviet Union for so long that he ossified into buffoonish senility, serving as a convenient symbol of the overall national stagnation. In the joke, a doddering Brezhnev asks his granddaughter, "So what would you like to be when you grow up?"

The girl answers, "Why, grandfather, of course I'd like to be the chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union." Upon hearing this, Brezhnev scratches his signature slicked-back hair and says, "Hmm, but why would the party need two chairmen?"

The vignette about the perils of the transfer of power in the 1970s Soviet Union also applies to the Uzbekistan of today. Central Asia's most populous country and an important U.S. ally in the Afghan war, Uzbekistan is also a police state with a derelict economy, a Gulag-style prison system -- and a deepening succession crisis, amplified by a recent rumor about the president's allegedly ailing heart and increasingly rare public appearances.

Islam Karimov, the shrewd and ruthless president, is 76 now, the same age Brezhnev was when he died in office. There are other similarities. Like Brezhnev, Karimov has piloted his country's economy into a dead end, with upbeat official growth statistics often belying a Soviet-style command economy where businesses succeed or fail based on their proximities to the regime's flunkies.

Like in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, the general absurdity of political and economic life goes dutifully unchronicled by Pravda -- the Russian-language paper still bears its communist-era name -- which might devote a page to the actuarial celebration of the latest cotton harvest while ignoring the forced labor responsible for it.

A career Communist party boss, Karimov also bears a political resemblance to another aging strongman, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, before he was overthrown. Like Mubarak, Karimov has declared war on anything resembling organized Islam, jailing thousands of people on specious charges of Islamic militancy and subjecting them to horrific torture. These witch hunts risk turning the threat of extremism into a self-fulfilling prophecy and eventually strengthening the hand of political Islamists.

The defining political event of modern Uzbekistan was the 2005 massacre of protesters in the town of Andijan where the government had imprisoned a group of respected businessmen on trumped-up charges of Islamic conspiracy. When those merchants escaped in an armed jailbreak, hundreds of peaceful protesters flocked to the town's central square for an impromptu rally. Government troops shot and killed hundreds of civilians, including children, and the regime crossed the Rubicon. Since then, security services have seen their influence rise, while Karimov has grown increasingly mistrustful and focused on little more than his own political survival.

This frozen narrative of political senility and repression was suddenly cracked in March when an overseas opposition group claimed that Karimov had suffered a massive heart attack. Never mind that the sourcing was thin and the opposition leader -- Turkey-based Muhammad Solih of the People's Movement of Uzbekistan -- clearly has an interest in fomenting political upheaval in Tashkent. The rumor ignited anew the question of what comes after Karimov. "Even if he didn't suffer a heart attack, one would need to have invented one to forecast the possible scenarios in case the aging leader is unable to carry on," Daniil Kislov, the editor of, wrote recently. The regime dismissed the rumors, and Karimov eventually flew to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. His eldest daughter Gulnara said on Twitter that all reports of her dad's ill health were "pure craziness" considering that he danced for "20 minutes in a row" at an Uzbek holiday celebration.

In fact, it is Gulnara, often called "the princess," who has been a perennial frontrunner in the parlor game of guessing Karimov's successor. A businesswoman, poet, jewelry designer, diplomat, philanthropist and a pop singer, Gulnara is certainly unburdened by excessive self-doubt. (She has compared herself to Lady Gaga and recorded a duet with French tax exile Gerard Depardieu.)

A week or so before the alleged heart attack, Gulnara spoke to Celebrity Scene News, a publicity mill run by American TV producer Pete Allman, whose ample mane appears to have been blow-dried by an idling jet engine.

In the video interview, Allman says, "I see how good you are for your country. This is why I ask you how would you feel if you were president of Uzbekistan?" Unlike the little girl from the old Soviet joke about Brezhnev, Gulnara doesn't admit to dreaming of running the country. But she doesn't rule it out either. "Well, I probably won't be able to answer this question before I try it," she says. "I'm comfortable where I am right now. I'm a person who doesn't really take steps before there's an assurance to be able to do a certain project." Analysts are generally split on her true intentions, and there are other people in Karimov's entourage who might be tapped to replace him. Some in Uzbekistan talk about a "Putin scenario," a reference to a shaky Boris Yeltsin handpicking a successor with one overriding criterion: security for himself and his family.

So if not Gulnara, who? Karimov's long-serving prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyaev is sometimes mentioned as a possible contender for the throne, as is his deputy Rustam Azimov, who's in charge of the financial sector. In a rarely seen spat at the top of Uzbekistan's political elite, Gulnara recently accused Azimov of corruption in a public and unceremonious way. The allegations sound particularly rich coming from a woman widely believed to have parlayed her own illustrious pedigree into spectacular wealth. The spat may indicate the beginnings of a pre-succession scramble, or it may simply be a clash of business interests. There surely are other candidates for the top post whose names aren't yet publicly known. The National Security Service, whose influence has ballooned since Andijan, must be particularly keen to field its own man in the contest for the Uzbek throne.

One thing we can be certain of is that the next leader of the country is unlikely to come from outside the regime. Unfortunately for the people of Uzbekistan, the story of the Uzbek opposition is one of squabbling, insignificance, and irrelevance -- and sometimes of outright farce. Through intimidation, arrests, harassment, and occasional murders, the regime henchmen of course made sure things would be this way -- witness the bullying of Sanjar Umarov, a prominent Uzbek businessman. When Umarov evinced political ambition, the regime accused him of a litany of economic crimes and packed him off to prison for 14 years. Partly under American pressure, he was released early and has since been living in exile in the United States. Umarov's political demise is significant because he could have been an attractive proposition for Uzbekistan's business elites and the secular middle class many of whose members quietly detest the Karimov regime. By snipping Umarov's ambitions before he could garner any sizable national following, Karimov sent a clear signal to those elites. More ominously, several anti-regime activists have been assassinated abroad in murky circumstances. The opposition has also had its share of self-inflicted wounds stemming from isolation, competing ideologies, and an exaggerated sense of self-worth, all amplified by frustration at being marginalized in Uzbekistan.

Nobody personifies the listless state of the anti-Karimov opposition better than Solih, the purveyor of the hear-attack rumor, who has lived in exile for more than two decades and waded deep into Islamist waters. Wanted on trumped-up terrorism charges in Uzbekistan, Solih has publicly sparred with other anti-Karimov activists, most of them also scattered abroad and lacking any meaningful political toehold inside Uzbekistan.

The murky upcoming transition in Uzbekistan may not be a daily presence in international headlines, but it's no doubt being closely watched in both Washington and Moscow. Over the past few years, the geopolitical situation around Uzbekistan has played into Karimov's hands. Washington reprimanded him for Andijan, but quickly sought to win back his favor to assure support for the Afghanistan war. Uzbek territory has been crucial for the trans-shipment of goods to the U.S. troops there, and Uzbekistan will play a major logistical role during the looming withdrawal of U.S. forces. So there's an immediate tactical interest for Washington in maintaining the status quo, however ugly, inside Uzbekistan. Karimov has proven adept at playing the United States and Russia against each other, and exploiting their regional rivalries. Karimov must be even more paranoid about succession than he was a few years ago when the so-called color revolutions upended the placid post-Soviet political space. The more recent, and much more violent, Arab Spring must have made him even more careful about planning for life after office, if there's such a thing. And despite some analysts claiming to know what he's planning to do, only Karimov really knows, and we are left to parse the symbolism of a heart attack that may or may not have occurred.

A line from his daughter's poetry says it best: "If our thought was all transparent and clear and indefeasible despite subjective ways... Then we might call our life quite simple and pay no heed to small destructive symbols."

AFP/Getty Images


How to Close Guantanamo

Why Obama doesn’t need Congress to start to make good on his promise.

President Barack Obama finally broke his long silence on Tuesday on the need to close Guantanamo. Echoing comments he made four years ago -- when, on his second day in office he promised to close the facility within a year -- he said "Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient.... It needs to be closed."

Welcome words, but it's unlikely they will brighten the day of the 100 men currently on hunger strike at the facility. Twenty-one are currently being tube-fed, a procedure that entails being put in a restraint chair while a lubricated plastic tube is inserted down a detainee's nose and into his stomach. (Detainees are then held in the chair for approximately two hours to make sure the liquid supplement fed into the tube is digested.) Obama's words might carry more resonance with those who have been lobbying for closure of the facility for the better part of a decade, though perhaps more so if he didn't seem so keen to apportion blame elsewhere.

In his remarks, made in response to questions at the White House press briefing, Obama pointed the finger at Congress saying it had been "determined" not to let him close the facility, and that he promised to "re-engage with Congress" on the issue. While it's true that Congress has certainly placed obstacles in the way of closing the facility, such as restricting the use of funds to transfer detainees to the United States for trial, there are still a number of steps the Obama administration could have taken -- and can still take now -- to begin closing the facility and ending indefinite detention without trial.  

For one, it can begin to transfer the 86 of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo already slated for release to their home or third countries. In 2011 and again in 2012, Congress enacted some restrictions on the transfer of detainees from the facility, but those restrictions are not insurmountable. They require receiving countries to take certain steps to ensure that those being transferred do not engage in terrorist activity and that the secretary of defense certify such steps have taken place. If, however, the secretary of defense cannot, for one reason or another, certify those steps have been taken, he can waive the certification requirement in lieu of "alternative actions" -- a term which has no clear legal or procedural definition. The only guidelines are that they "substantially mitigate" the risk that the detainee being transferred may engage in terrorism. Clearly then, the administration's ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo exists now, even with congressional restrictions. And with Obama again reiterating that keeping Guantanamo open harms U.S. security, the certification -- and even more so the waiver -- process seems to offer a clear path forward to emptying the facility of more than half its prisoners, if not closing it down.

Yes, there is some risk that detainees released from Guantanamo may engage in terrorism. The government has stated that some of the detainees released from Guantanamo have already been involved in terrorism, though the number is disputed and the government refuses to publicly release the information on which it is basing those claims. The director of national intelligence claims (though these claims have been discredited) that about 16 percent of the approximately 600 people released from the facility over the past 12 years are confirmed, and 11 percent are suspected, of having engaged in terrorism after their release. Independent, credible analyses of those figures by researchers at the New America Foundation indicate the number is more like 6 percent, or 1 in 17. Even if the Pentagon figures were true, clearly the vast majority of people released from Guantanamo have not engaged in terrorism; in fact, it's well below the estimated 60 percent U.S. recidivism rate for criminal convictions overall. There are many people in the world who may commit crimes in the future, but the United States has not locked them up indefinitely. The bottom line is that the administration needs to assume some risk that those released may become involved in terrorism -- even though that risk is objectively low. But even on a purely moral level, the fear that someone may engage in terrorist or criminal behavior in the future is not a legitimate basis for prolonged indefinite detention. Furthermore, the decision about whether to release a detainee should be made on an individual basis, not based on the behavior of other detainees.

The administration could also lift its self-imposed moratorium on returning Guantanamo detainees to Yemen; some 56 of the 86 detainees slated for release are from that country. The president imposed a moratorium on returns to Yemen after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian trained in Yemen, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane with explosives hidden in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009. Abdulmutallab was convicted in federal court and is now serving a life sentence. But the Yemeni government has requested the return of their citizens from Guantanamo and promised to build a rehabilitation center there to facilitate the process. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), an initial supporter of the moratorium, recently asked Obama's national security director to reevaluate the hold and consider whether, with appropriate assistance, Yemeni detainees can begin being transferred home.

Of the other 80 detainees at Guantanamo, the administration has designated 46 for indefinite detention. They were put in this category because an interagency task force deemed them too dangerous to release and yet the administration either did not have sufficient admissible evidence against them to prosecute or concluded that their acts did not amount to a chargeable crime.

Obama signed an executive order on March 7, 2011, providing these detainees the ability to challenge this designation. But the panel before which they would appear, called a Periodic Review Board (PRB), has yet to even be formed -- even though an executive order mandated that it begin reviews within the year. And while 31 prisoners have been slated for prosecution, only six of those -- including the five defendants accused in the attacks of September 11, 2001, face any formal charges. The remaining three men at Guantanamo are serving sentences following convictions in military commission proceedings.

The administration should either prosecute these 80 detainees against whom they have any credible evidence -- and in courts that comport with fair trial standards -- or release them. Though starting the PRB process would provide detainees in the indefinite detention category with at least some ability to challenge their designation, if these individuals cannot be prosecuted, they should be released.

Even though they have been revised three times since first formed in 2005, and improved under Obama's presidency, it's clear that military commissions at Guantanamo do not comport with fair trial standards. Among other things, they lack judicial independence, allow the admission of certain coerced testimony, and fail to protect privileged attorney-client communications. In February, defense attorneys in one of the only two cases currently being prosecuted at Guantanamo discovered listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in attorney-client meeting rooms. Additionally, proceedings were halted because a courtroom feed to the media and observers that supposedly only the judge was able to control was cut off by an unnamed U.S. agency. Then in mid-April, hearings were further delayed by two months because an enormous number of prosecution and defense files disappeared from the server that both legal teams are required to use to process the highly classified documents in the case. Furthermore, it's not entirely clear why even the court's supporters would be so in favor of continuing the status quo -- the only two military commission verdicts obtained by full trials were recently overturned on appeal. In those cases, the appellate court found that the charges of conspiracy and material support for terrorism, for which the defendants were accused, were not war crimes and hence not within the jurisdiction of the commissions.

Current congressional restrictions prohibit the use of funds to transfer detainees to the United States, so Obama is correct when he said that he'll need to re-engage with Congress to lift these unreasonable restrictions. While federal courts are not perfect, they provide much greater procedural protections than the military commissions; and, with 200 years of jurisprudence behind them, their verdicts are far more certain to withstand appeal.

Obama's pledge to "get back at it" on closing Guantanamo is welcome, but he can't get away with words alone, or with shifting the blame to Congress. There are steps he can take now to begin ending the unlawful practice of indefinite detention without trial and to transfer those prisoners who are already slated to be sent home. As the president himself said, Guantanamo "hurts us in terms of our international standing" and "lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts." If these are words he truly believes, then he should exercise the authority he has to transfer some detainees now, and begin working with Congress to address the rest.