14 september 2016

British Media Coverage of Islam Karimov’s Death

Karimov’s terrible misrule

On August 31st The Times published the article “Nightmare in Tashkent”, in which it informs its readers about the upcoming Uzbek independence day and about President Karimov’s uncertain health conditions.

“Wedged between the Kazakh steppe and the mountains of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has for most of Mr Karimov’s tenure been one of Asia’s nastiest dictatorships. He has created a police state worthy of the Stasi. He has authorised torture on a mass scale and the use of live fire on peaceful protests. Like his old Soviet neighbours, he has fostered rampant kleptocracy, creating an inner circle of cronies with too much to lose to consider removing him from power.”

This is how The Times decided to present Uzbekistan to its readers. The Times and The Economist also highlighted the chance that Uzbekistan missed after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, when central Asian republics had the choice of moving towards democracy and free markets. Mr. Karimov instead preferred Kazakhstan’s and Turkmenistan’s approach, thereby initiating repression and the cult of personality. All this intensified after a series of car bombings in Tashkent and after the protest in the eastern city of Andijan which was gunned down by security forces. Karimov “clung to power by rigging elections […] and by ruthlessly crushing dissent”, writes the Economist.

Uzbekistan is a country where “torture is ‘endemic in the criminal-justice system’, political opposition and independent media are banned, and political prisoners languish in jails”, and where religious extremism is on the rise as a consequence of the repression of freedom of religion. Human rights groups accuse Karimov’s regime of serious human rights abuses, including torture and forced labour in the lucrative cotton industry.

Outside powers in the post-Karimov Uzbekistan

Outside powers like Russia, China, and the US are said to be manoeuvring the country, the Economist and the Guardian say.

Russia, as former colonial ruler, does not hide its interests. “Cultural, economic and political ties with Moscow have been close, but at the same time Karimov often regarded the Kremlin’s intentions with suspicion. According to US diplomats, he bitterly criticised Russian attempts to carve out a sphere of influence in its “near abroad” and bristled at what he perceived as Russian Slavic condescension”, writes the Guardian. However, the Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Uzbekistan is keen to maintain and develop strategic relations with Moscow. Mirziyoyev met Vladimir Putin, who also “laid flowers at Karimov’s grave on Tuesday”, with the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin admired Karimov for his ability to maintain “stability” and said that Russia would “do everything to support the Uzbek people and the Uzbek leadership”.[…] “You can count on us fully, as you can on your most faithful friends”, writes the Guardian.

China on the other hand shows economic interests, and seeks to secure its gas imports. Relations with China improved after Karimov’s refusal to allow a Western independent investigation of the Andijan massacre. This made ties with China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation even stronger.

With regard to the United States, the country will continue to ally with Uzbekistan in the war against terrorism because of Uzbekistan’s positon at the border with Afghanistan. This also explains why the US closed a blind eye to Karimov’s misrule for many years, writes The Times. The US also had a military base in Karshi-Khanabad since 2001, which is of strategic importance for Afghanistan operations, but the Uzbek government “cancelled the lease after Washington called for an independent investigation” into the brutal repression of the Andijan protests in 2005. According to the Guardian, G.W. Bush and the West were forced to condemn the killings.

Nevertheless, John Kerry, “had no problem cosying up to Karimov last November in Samarkand”, thus lending legitimacy to Karimov’s dictatorship once more. “Kerry claimed to have raised in private the matter of human rights. But it was clear other issues dominated the meeting, not least US eagerness to halt the spread of Isis-style Islamist ideology and jihadism in Muslim central Asia – a spectre regularly invoked by Karimov to justify his actions. Kerry was also keen to enlist Uzbek support in curbing Russia’s post-Ukraine expansionist tendencies, which at that point were taking flight in Syria. Putting hardware where its conscience should be, the US had already resumed military cooperation, providing Uzbekistan in 2015 with 300 armoured utility vehicles and 20 armoured recovery vehicles – reportedly the largest single arms transfer by the US to any central Asian nation.”, said the Guardian.

The uncertain future of Uzbekistan and the role of the West

“What will happen?” is one of the most popular questions asked by newspaper analysts on the aftermath of Karimov’s death. Will there be a change of regime or only a change of leader? This question is still unanswered, but Western governments seem to be tempted to accept the second option, thus acknowledging that the threat of radical Islam is more serious than an instable country, writes The Times. “That would be diplomacy at its laziest. Continuity for its own sake is the last thing Uzbekistan’s 32 million people need”, continues the paper.

“The threat of Islamist extremism was used to justify every atrocity”, even though Salafist fundamentalism has no roots in the region. It seems that president Karimov exploited the fear of extremism to “sustain an exceptionally ugly dictatorship”.

The Guardian says that, despite Karimov leaving a “toxic legacy of egregious human rights abuses, […] the US, Britain and the EU will continue to ignore this once his successor takes charge, assuming a handover of power can be accomplished peacefully”. Western main concerns in the country are namely security and trade, mainly gas, cotton and gold. Democracy is no priority yet.

Karimov’s successor

The lack of a clear successor opened a “phase of uncertainty” in the country, said the head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov. Uzbekistan has never held free and fair elections, demonstrated by the fact that Karimov won his fifth term in office with 90 per cent of the vote.

The Guardian says that speculations on who will be Karimov’s successor are high. Will it be his older daughter Gulnara Karimova, who, after being considered a potential successor for a long time, was put under house arrest, or her younger sister Lola? Better chances are to be seen for the prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and his deputy Rustam Azimov, writes the Economist. Final arbiter will be Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service. However, a classified 2008 US diplomatic cable reported that Inoyatov had “sufficient compromising information on Mirziyoyev to ensure his own interests are protected”.

“Whoever succeeds Mr Karimov has an unenviable choice. He (or conceivably she) could use the same brutal methods to stem the torrent of disaffection that may burst forth after his demise, or he could loosen up a little and risk being swept away in a deluge of popular anger. Many analysts are pessimistic. The system that Karimov built can continue after him, self-replicating regardless of who sits at the top,” writes Daniil Kislov, editor of Ferghana News, in the Economist.

It is widely assumed that the country’s elites will agree a new president with their own economic and business interests paramount. It is however doubtful that Karimov’s successor will be more democratic. The general condition of the country seems, without western pressure, unlikely to change., writes the Guardian.

Death of a dictator

After a week of speculations, Uzbekistan confirms with some delay on September 2nd that Islam Karimov has died from a stroke, writes the Economist. “The secrecy that shrouded the president’s illness and demise was typical of the paranoid regime that Mr Karimov constructed and presided over for decades.” The Uzbek government did not immediately confirm the reports, but still played funeral music on state channels.

President Karimov’s funeral ceremony

After his death at the age of 78 due to a stroke, Uzbek dictator Karimov was buried in Silk Road city. The event was open only for guests with an official invitation and ordinary citizens were not let through. Dmitry Medvedev, and other leaders from former Soviet republics, including the Tajik and Turkmen presidents, and the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan were present. Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan sent delegations led by their prime ministers. “The prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev headed the organising committee for the funeral.”

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, called Karimov’s death “a great loss for the people of Uzbekistan”, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who appointed him in 1989, said that Karimov was “a competent man with a strong character”.

The Islamic and high-security funeral for the president who ruled Uzbekistan for almost 27 years was held in his home city of Samarkand. The country held three days of mourning.

But how did people react to his death? Despite his brutal rule, people in Samarkand “mourned his passing and some youths wore black clothes”. Entire families were in despair, people threw flowers at the cortege, and many others said that “It is a great loss for every Uzbek. He made our country free and developed”, writes the Telegraph.

Situation on the border

Despite the difficult internal situation, analysts say that one should not forget the tense situation on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. A deadlock has developed over a “disputed section of the border, with four Kyrgyz nationals detained and currently held in Uzbek jails. Kyrgyz officials fear any new Uzbek president might see the ethnic card as a good way to rally the nation” […] “Many ethnic Uzbeks live in southern Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic violence in 2010 led to more than 400 deaths”, writes the Guardian.

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