Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s Authoritarian President, Dies at 78

  • He was second-longest serving leader of a former Soviet state
  • His regime was criticized for violent crackdowns on dissent

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s autocratic president and the second-longest serving leader of a former Soviet state, has died. He was 78.

He died Sept. 2 in Tashkent, the nation’s capital, according to a statement published on the Uzbekistan government’s website. Karimov suffered a brain hemorrhage Aug. 27, the Associated Press reported, citing a message posted on Instagram by his daughter, Lola Karimova. He entered a hospital in Tashkent, AP said, citing a government statement.

"The first president of our country, Islam Karimov, was truly a great historical figure, thanks to whom our republic gained independence, achieved much progress on the path toward independent development, and was able to avoid the horrors of war and destabilization in one of the toughest and most important periods in the history of our young state,” the statement said.

Karimov ruled the landlocked central Asian republic for more than 27 years, the longest tenure for a leader of a former Soviet state after Nursultan Nazarbayev, in neighboring Kazakhstan. Karimov kept Uzbekistan stable and “retained much of the Soviet system in healthcare, education and the economy,” Zarine Zhandosova, a specialist in central Asia at Saint Petersburg University in Russia, said in a telephone interview. He advocated “an authoritarian secular state” while ensuring that Uzbekistan was “never a puppet of Russia,” she said.

Repressive Regime

His regime tortured critics and jailed thousands of political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. He drew international condemnation when hundreds of people were killed by security forces who fired on protesters in the city of Andijan on May 13, 2005. The regime rejected international calls for an independent investigation into the killings, which it blamed on Islamist extremists.

Rights groups cataloged allegations of abuses in Uzbek prisons as Karimov suppressed dissent under the banner of countering Islamic militancy. A 2004 U.S. State Department report noted that the bodies of two men tortured to death at the notorious Jaslyk prison had extensive burns “reportedly caused by immersion in boiling water.”

Succession Question

Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara, described as “the single most hated person in the country” in a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, said in a letter to a BBC journalist in 2014 that she was beaten and put under house arrest after a fall from grace with her father, sparked by her criticism of top officials around him. A former pop star and fashion designer who controlled extensive business interests, Gulnara was earlier considered a potential successor as president.

“Russia is likely to want to have a big say in the succession given that it considers Uzbekistan as in its backyard,” Tim Ash, head of EMEA Credit Strategy at Nomura International in London, said in a note.

Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov was born Jan. 30, 1938, to a family of civil servants in Samarkand, Soviet Union, according to the presidential website. After spending part of his childhood in a state-run orphanage, he earned degrees as an engineer-mechanic and as an economist from the Central Asian Polytechnic and the Tashkent Institute of national economy.

Karimov rose in his career to become first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989, effectively taking control of the then-Soviet republic. He declared Uzbekistan independent in August 1991 as the Soviet Union began to collapse and was elected president four months later, extending his term in a 1995 referendum.

Extended Term

He was re-elected in January 2000 in a vote the U.S. said offered “no true choice.” Karimov extended the presidential term to seven from five years in a 2002 referendum, then ran again in 2007, flouting a constitutional ban on a third term. Uzbek officials dismissed the contradiction by asserting that Karimov’s previous shorter terms didn’t count. He won a fourth election with 90 percent of the vote in March 2015.

Karimov sought to balance relations with Russia, where state-owned Gazprom is a major buyer of Uzbek gas, by cultivating ties with Europe and the U.S. He allowed the American military to use a base in his country to support operations against al-Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. German forces used a base in Uzbekistan until late last year.

‘Key Role’

Uzbekistan was “an early and outspoken supporter of the war on terrorism” and has “a key role” in U.S. policy toward Central Asia as a region of “major strategic importance,” the then Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, told a congressional committee in 2004.

Karimov expelled the U.S. from the base in 2005 after the State Department condemned the Andijan crackdown. He pulled Uzbekistan, central Asia’s most populous state, out of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance in 2012.

The former Soviet autocrat during a Kremlin visit in April described himself as a leader able to speak directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and Putin last met in June, when Uzbekistan hosted the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group that includes Russia, China and central Asian states.

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