Theorists say that the true test of democracy is the transfer of power. Uzbekistan's President, Islam Karimov, staved off any such transitions during his decades-long rule; at 78, he was Central Asia’s oldest leader. His recent death, then, marks a major crossroads for Uzbekistan, which celebrated its 25th birthday last week: the forthcoming leader could usher in another 25 years of autocracy or turn the corner toward democracy.
Unfortunately for Uzbeks, prospects for post-Karimov progress are slim.
For all its 25 years (plus the final two years of Soviet rule), Karimov helmed Uzbekistan’s nominal democratic republic. He won the country's inaugural presidential election in 1991 amidst accusations of vote-tampering and lost any claims to a mandate in subsequent elections, all of which also featured strangleholds on media and opposition parties.
Throughout his time in office, information about the president's health fell under the regime's wide net of secret-keeping: authoritarian masters do not tolerate any allusions to cracking armor. So it surprised observers when the state-run media agency announced Karimov’s hospitalization on August 27th. (They did so perhaps because its hand was forced: Karimov always performed a traditional Uzbek dance at the country’s Independence Day celebrations on September 1st, and any unanticipated absence would have bred dismay.) Karimov's own daughter supplied details of a brain hemorrhage via an Instagram post the following day, asking for the same privacy that her father denied the citizens he kept under close surveillance. She insisted that her father was stable, but the first-time admission of illness signaled serious harm, enough that rumors of Karimov’s death swirled even before confirmation came on September 2nd.
For democratic states, news of a sitting president's sudden passing would be a tragedy signaling the vice-president's ascension to power, or new elections, or some other well-defined sequence of events. But the Uzbek executive does not have a vice-president position. Instead, the constitution demands that power shift to the parliamentary speaker if the president cannot function; speaker Nigmatilla Yuldashev has accordingly been installed as interim president. In reality, however, Karimov's trusted advisers will decide for themselves whom to elevate to the presidency (their failure to do so would portend an even uglier outcome: a power struggle inciting domestic conflict). Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has served in that position since 2003, is the likeliest choice. He is alleged to have Russia’s backing, and would be a more conservative choice than First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Asimov, another, albeit less likely, candidate for succession, who is thought to be more progressive.
And Uzbekistan is in dire need of progress. The country, once at the heart of the Silk Road, boasts stunning architecture and history, but it also ties with Turkmenistan for the most corrupt country in Central Asia. Karimov himself oversaw appalling human rights violations, including forced labor (a communist holdover so anachronistic that it would be funny if not for its frightening effect on nearly a million people every year), intimidation and detentions of journalists and activists, state-sponsored torture and even forced sterilizations of rural women.
Karimov, for all his bad behavior, received few sanctions from the international community. Onlookers were particularly incensed by the grisly Andijan massacre of 2005, in which Uzbek security forces fatally shot hundreds of protesters. The European Union sought to discipline Uzbekistan with arms sanctions, but half-hearted enforcement only highlighted the west’s ambivalence about stymying a partner so critical on regional security issues like radicalization and drug smuggling. The sanctions had the deleterious effect of pushing Uzbekistan toward China and its patron state, Russia, neither of which had a problem with Karimov’s violent handling of the protesters in Andijan. This cycle reflects a perpetual challenge for American and European policymakers: western attempts to pressure Uzbekistan to behave better only push the country toward fellow human rights abusers who share its authoritarian methods.
Karimov's longtime stranglehold on power is hardly unique in the region. In Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, too, former communist leaders embarked on lifelong presidencies following independence. Turkmenistan's longtime leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, already named "President for Life" (any pretense of democracy be damned) also conferred upon himself the title of Turkmenbashi, or "leader of the Turkmen," in a pale imitation of Mustafa Kemal's externally-bestowed honorific as Ataturk, "father of the Turks," in 1930's Turkey. When Niyazov died in 2006, a new strongman took over and instituted his own cult of personality. Repression remains the norm in Turkmenistan.The current Tajik president has been in office since 1994. Tajikistan at least boasts a multi-party system, but government pressure, flawed elections, and strict limits on press freedom following the country's civil war in the early 1990s have ensured that the authoritarian People's Democratic Party retains a parliamentary majority.
But this mural of unsavory authoritarians is exactly why Uzbekistan's upcoming transition matters immensely: a positive shift would serve as a compelling example for neighbors in various states of disrepair, but observers fret that Uzbekistan will instead go the way of Turkmenistan, trading one glorified despot for another.
Or could Uzbekistan take cues from Kyrgyzstan, the region's only sunnier, if spasmodic, model of democratic governance? Askar Akayev's leadership began with his installment as leader of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. A year later, he won an uncontested poll to become President of the independent country of Kyrgyzstan. In keeping with his Central Asian neighbors, he retained power through rigged elections, but he also set Kyrgyzstan on a path more open than its neighbors: for example, he pursued international development money and the Western standards that come with it. A painful grind toward democracy kicked off when anti-authoritarian protesters sent Akayev fleeing from office and into Russia in 2005. After a few chaotic years, the current president, Almazbek Atambayev, took office in 2011. Assuming he holds up his promise to vacate office when his six-year term concludes in 2017, Kyrgyzstan may be the region's shining example of democratic power transition, despite its troublesome cozying up to Russia and ongoing issues with corruption.
As Karimov's death forces a leadership change, foreign leaders would do well to remind their Uzbek counterparts of the opportunity to finally democratize. Calls so far have been soft: the White House released a statement affirming its commitment to Uzbekistan’s “sovereignty, security, and to a future based on the rights of all its citizens,” the final phrase hinting at the need for greater civil liberties. The Obama administration and other dignitaries could go further in encouraging Uzbekistan to choose a leader who will protect minority groups and stop flagrant human rights violations.
Of course, no amount of external pressure will change a nearly thirty-year record of authoritarianism overnight, regardless of who succeeds Karimov. Uzbeks do not have a legacy of democracy in the collective national consciousness; nor are there strong egalitarian neighbors to serve as models. So the temptation to institute another pro-Russian autocrat is no doubt strong. After all, Karimov retained plenty of domestic supporters who credited him with keeping Uzbekistan secure—all too often, stability stands in for success in adolescent, post-Soviet, particularly in Central Asia.
Any expectation of wholesale change would be ambitious to the point of absurdity. Nonetheless, proponents of democracy and human rights would be remiss not to urge Uzbekistan, in this time of tumult, to think carefully about the future it constructs. If a Karimov-style authoritarian seizes the presidency, it may be another 25 years until Uzbekistan gets its next shot at instituting real freedom for its people.