Uzbekistan, a Central Asian state of 30 million people with vast natural resources, has recently witnessed two major back-to-back events – the Navruz holiday and the 4th presidential elections since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Navruz, held annually on March 21st, marks the spring equinox. It is the festivity of Persian origin symbolising the renewal of nature and hope. The authorities make use of it to reinforce a sense of national identity and pride.
The political and socio-cultural weight of the latter episode, however, is far greater, and has little to do with the new day narrative, which embodies Navruz.
Islam Karimov, who has been at the helm of power for a quarter-century, won the opaque presidential election on March 29th. This means one thing – stagnation.
Karimov's victory will only postpone the debate on his succession, not end it. The 77-year-old strongman, inspired by the 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane, intends to be remembered as the father of the nation, who consolidated all Uzbeks under his rule. Uzbekistan was arbitrarily founded by the Soviets in 1924; however, modern nation-building only started with the fall of communism. It will suffice to say that the first history of the country in the indigenous language was published in the late 1950s.
Born and raised in an orphanage, Islam Karimov has acquired his position through an unprecedented combination of electoral fraud, ad hoc referendums, and open violations of constitution.
The new-old president is however perceived as a guardian of peace and stability. He remains at the top due to a smart distribution of wealth among the elite, and a society that is rife with fear. The state manipulates the population, creating an atmosphere of anxiety. People do not wish to openly discuss politics and religion. It is a taboo.
Those opposing Karimov are subjected to prosecution, arrest, or exile. Not surprisingly, the regime in Tashkent is thought to be one of the most repressive and kleptocratic in the world.
Democracy, next to terrorism, is the gravest threat to the system, yet paradoxically,there is no political party in the lately elected parliament without the word "democratic" in its name.
Uzbeks, looking at the current upheavals in the post-Soviet space, view Karimov's autocratic style as the fundamental pillar of the country's survival. His legitimacy is based on providing security. The state guarantees strict control over an official Muslim clergy and an infiltration of radical movements.
The threats to the country are often artificially inflated to maximise their paralyzing effect on the society. They cannot, however, be underestimated; in 1999 there was an attempt on Karimov's life sponsored by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – a terrorist organisation, whose aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. IMU has also conducted numerous operations to destabilise governments in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The future of leadership in Uzbekistan seems to be bleak. Whoever steps into Karimov's shoes will have to confront and moderate various competing factions. The situation in Uzbekistan, a lynchpin of regional security, could also have profound repercussions for Central Asia and beyond.
To Russia, Uzbekistan is an anti-terrorist buffer zone and a troublesome partner in Moscow's post-imperial projects. In December 2014 the Kremlin, as a token of friendship, wrote off nearly $ 900 million of Uzbek debt, paving the way for an arms deal with Russian contractors. Beijing's primary interest is in security of energy supplies; the Central Asia-China gas pipeline traverses the country and its 4th leg is currently under construction. The United States, putting aside its human rights agenda, seeks followers to implement its post-Afghanistan strategy, in addition to selling weapons to Tashkent.
Uzbekistan, bordering all the post-Soviet republics, occupies a similarly strategic post when it comes to local politics. The ethnically complex Fergana Valley – the very heart of Central Asia partly located in Uzbekistan – is the quintessence of the region's instability.
Tashkent, strong militarily and demographically, and with GDP growth of 8.1 per cent in 2014, positions itself as a regional champion, and Islam Karimov silently competes for influence with the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan is the economic driving force of Central Asia. Astana's raw material deposits, significant foreign capital inflows, and increasing international recognition all contributed to Nazarbayev's title of the country's leader for life. Having written several books on Kazakh history he is, as Karimov is, the founder of the national myth. Nonetheless, with the current ruler aging and the early presidential elections in late April, Kazakhstan is soon to face the same succession-related questions.
The post-Soviet realities, on the other hand, did not go easy on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - the poorest and least-developed countries of the region. Bishkek has experienced two regime changes in five years, the second one in 2010, and is an area of recurrent ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Tajikistan, led by Emomali Rahmon for over two decades, suffered from a violent civil war in the 1990s. Both countries are major international aid recipients.
One state in Central Asia where a smooth transition of power has taken place is Turkmenistan. An eccentric leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, was replaced after his death in 2006 by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who was until then the deputy prime minister. During his tenure, which was characterised by a cult of personality, Niyazov was called Turkmenbashi– the leader of all Turkmen. Now, Ashgabat, relying on its rich gas assets, remains an extremely isolated democracy-free zone.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian states emerged as independent entities, obtaining statehood for the first time in their histories. The nanny state was gone. A new reality had come forth.
Today, the Central Asian regimes, still based on the patron-client relationship between the elite and society, are showing signs of fatigue. The longevity of the Uzbek, Kazakh, and Tajik presidents provides a relative balance, but not a breakthrough.
When looking at the reign of other aging leaders, such as Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe, who turned 91 last month, the rulers of Central Asia see that they could have a long way to go. They are hoping, but are not entirely confident, that the current state of affairs will not leave them in an uncertain limbo.
Michał Romanowski is a program coordinator at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw. His foreign and security research interests include Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. He has written for numerous publications, including The Diplomat, Global Asia, New Eastern Europe, and Visegrad Insight. He is a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders Program.