Argument

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 Fergananews.com, 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

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