A dose of absurdity was injected August 30 into the mystery surrounding the fate of Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, as a state media outlet carried a report about world leaders offering the incapacitated leader congratulations on the country’s upcoming 25th anniversary of independence.
Authorities in Uzbekistan have acknowledged that the 78-year-old Karimov suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on August 27. Beyond that, not much else is known for sure. Several respected analysts of Uzbek affairs insist Karimov is dead, but no official confirmation of the president’s passing has been forthcoming. Neither has the world been shown proof that Karimov is alive.
The BBC’s Uzbek service reported that the September 1 celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of independence have been cancelled, which, if true, would be a sure sign that something serious has happened in Tashkent.
The problem is authorities have not definitively confirmed the cancellation, and a countdown clock on a government website is still ticking down.
With little verifiable information available, outside observers are grasping at the slightest clues for an indication of what awaits.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov
A large hint appeared with news, reported by Russia’s state-run news agency Sputnik, citing unnamed sources, that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev will be congratulating the population during the September 1 Independence Day holiday, instead of Karimov.
Mirziyoyev is widely seen as one of the favorites in the race for the top spot in Uzbekistan’s power structure, and his apparent assumption of at least some presidential duties seems like a potentially significant development. Under the constitution, it should be the speaker of the Senate, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who fulfills caretaker duties while the president is incapacitated.
“Officially, there have been no announcements about the festivities being canceled. All events will take place on September 1,” a source described as being familiar with the situation told Sputnik.
Sputnik’s self-adopted role in providing reassuring and broadly pro-governmental reports is noteworthy, as the outlet has not officially been accredited in Uzbekistan, despite or possibly because of its Russian government ties.
The only concession supposedly being made to Karimov’s illness — as Tashkent is still insisting on describing the president’s condition — is that the Independence Day celebration will be scaled down, according to Sputnik.
The population itself is in a state of worried and jittery uncertainty. One odd eyewitness account reported by Sputnik told of how a shopper at a bazaar in Tashkent was physically attacked after talking in public about Karimov’s presumed death.
“The sellers didn’t think too long before throwing empty water bottles at him, and then they threatened that if he kept going around spreading rumors, they would bust his legs,” the Sputnik reporter wrote, claiming to have seen the incident first hand.
A more sanguine picture of the mood was provided by journalist Alexei Volosevich. He noted there was not a heavy police presence in central Tashkent. “There aren’t the slightest signs of an increased police presence in the city. The usual multiple patrols have disappeared somewhere — you come across them, but much less frequently than usual,” he wrote.
Volosevich said he went to the hospital where Karimov was at one stage reportedly being treated, and was surprised to find anything but the high-security reported by some media.
“About 30 meters from the entrance, there was a police car and two policemen sleeping inside.
People walked freely into the hospital courtyard. I tried to go in but was stopped, and not by guard armed to the teeth, but by a single sentry guard who said the hospital was admitting nobody at that time,” Volosevich wrote. “It is possible that President Karimov was taken there for some time, to the intensive care ward, but that he is not there anymore.”
Elsewhere, the Uzbek government tried to maintain a business-as-usual façade. For example, Uzbek Foreign Ministry representatives met in Moscow on August 30 with their Russian counterparts in connection with an ongoing bilateral cooperation program. “The sides exchanged views on current issues of bilateral cooperation,” an Uzbek government statement noted.
While Uzbekistan remains a key partner in the West’s ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, American and EU diplomats have been reticent on the political uncertainty in Tashkent.
Foreign policy analysts in Russia, meanwhile, have gone into overdrive trying to understand what the post-Karimov era in Uzbekistan might mean for developments in the region. Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov said in an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency that the first signals on how the leadership transition in Tashkent was unfolding would be contained in messages to the outside world. Dubnov added that he did not expect Uzbekistan to make a major break from Karimov’s foreign policies.
“The most equal among Uzbekistan’s equal external partners is Russia, because when it comes to ensuring national security, Tashkent relies on Moscow more than it does on its main economic partner, China,” Dubnov said.