The government of Uzbekistan announced Friday that its president has died at age 78. Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since 1989 when it was part of the Soviet Union.
He had suffered a brain hemorrhage last Saturday, and rumors about his death had swirled ever since.
Karimov became president 25 years ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the majority Muslim republic of Uzbekistan declared its independence.
When then-Secretary of State James Baker visited Uzbekistan in early 1992, Karimov insisted he would embrace democratic and free market principles. But he resisted making any economic or political reforms. And he ruthlessly suppressed all dissent.
According to journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, Karimov “really just continued the Soviet model. He was very anti-democratic. He refused to carry out economic reforms. He wasn’t interested in building a market economy. He was very brutal with opposition to him, which included not just Islamic fundamentalists but also democratic opposition.”
Ten years later, after 9/11, Uzbekistan agreed to serve as a crucial hub for the U.S. military on the northern border of Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Operation Forces launched missions from there. And the air base at Karshi Khanabad served as a major U.S. military transit point to supply forces in Afghanistan. The CIA also operated so-called “black sites” there, where al-Qaida prisoners where held and interrogated.
Then, in 2005 thousands of people took to the streets, protesting the repression and growing poverty. Many reportedly were gunned down by government forces. Karimov played down the incident. ”How many people were killed as a result of these events?” Karimov said. “I cannot say exactly, but as far as we are able to ascertain, more than 10 people from the government services died, however, it goes without saying that many more died on the other side.”
Human rights organizations said hundreds were killed. After the Bush administration criticized the incident, the Karimov government shut down U.S. access to its bases.
“His human rights record has been perhaps the most appalling,” Rashid said. “There was a period after 9/11 when the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is supposed to maintain the Geneva Convention, actually pulled out of Uzbekistan. … Prisoners were routinely tortured in the most horrendous fashion. And there were several reports by ambassadors, in fact, that at least one, if not more, that prisoners were killed by being put into a boiling vat of boiling water.”
His repression drove some Uzbeks, mostly Sunni Muslims, to join militant Islamic groups like the Taliban. And according to one security consulting company, 500 Uzbeks had joined the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq through December 2015.
“The crackdown certainly created more militants and more terrorists simply because the brutality of the methods used,” said Rashid. “Young people who were jailed for parking offenses or something were trashed by the police and treated very badly. And many of them would just high-tail it and go down to Afghanistan or Pakistan and join the Islamic movement or some other Islamic fundamentalist group.”
In 2015, Uzbekistan again became an important transit location for supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan after Russia cut off the supply lines that run through southern Russia. “It is one of the most important routes since the Russians closed access,” said retired Col. David Lamm, who served as chief of staff of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2004-2005. “Now with Karimov dead we are watching succession closely. Due to the money involved I suspect the regime will keep this part of the NDN (Northern Distribution Network) open.”
There’s no word yet on who will succeed Karimov. The prime minister, finance minister and deputy prime minister are all potential candidates, according to Rashid. However, Rashid said, “You don’t have amongst any of these people, what you and I would call a liberal democrat or even a vaguely reformist leader who would perhaps try and change the system in Uzbekistan.”
Arrangements for Karimov’s funeral were in full swing today in Samarkand, his home city, and will take place Saturday.