With the passing this week of Uzbekistan’s leader of 27 years, Islam Karimov, the future of the nation and its foreign allegiances in the geopolitical landscape comes into question as the three superpowers – the United States, the Russian Federation, and China – all will be forced to revisit their central Asian policies. A change of leadership in the region is a rare event – the last change came 10 years ago in neighboring Turkmenistan; otherwise, the nations of Tajikistan and and Kazakhstan have had the same leader for 24 and 27 years, respectively. With a population that skews young (the median age of 27 years means that many have known no other leader), how will the nation and region adapt to the first truly unknown election their people have seen?
As a landlocked nation nestled in the center of Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran, Uzbekistan occupies a geopolitically strategic location adjacent to many flash points in world affairs. A friendly relationship with Uzbekistan’s future government may prove invaluable to national policy objectives such as combating terrorism, halting trafficking in drugs and humans, and providing a staging area for events in the Middle East.
Uzbekistan was under Russian control from the 1920s until 1991, when it became an independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Islam Karimov, the former head of the regional party, was elected as the country’s first president. The nation leaned toward supporting Western nations, finding common ground in combating terrorism. The United States benefited from this relationship early in its post-9/11 deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq when the Uzbek government allowed the use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base in the southern part of the country near the Afghan border until 2005. Relations deteriorated at that point when the United States responded negatively to the Uzbek government’s harsh response to mass protests – which eventually came to be known as the Andijan Massacre – and the agreement allowing for the use of the airbase was terminated.
Historically, Uzbekistan has prioritized security concerns and interests as a motivating factor in its foreign relations. It particularly focuses on the potential of religious terrorism, a policy that has resulted in mass arrests for those who practice (or are accused of practicing) religion outside of official state-sponsored groups. Organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have staged terrorist attacks since 1998. Since then, the Karimov administration has used the real or perceived threat of attacks to reign in opposition to its rule. This aligns with the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts, but as Russia and China look to expand their influence on the world stage, a power vacuum in central Asia provides a ripe opportunity to at the very least check the influence of the United States so close to their borders. The proximity to Iran also provides benefits for either nation if they wish to support Iran against U.S. policies.
The Department of State’s 2003 International Religious Freedoms Report describes Uzbekistan as “generally tolerant of religious groups” but also references instances of discrimination. A central part of the transition between leaders may be how religious groups react to the change in leadership. Will they use this opportunity to force the government to allow for more religious freedom, as their constitution guarantees, and if so, how far will they push for that to be honored?
Uzbekistan’s leadership class is opaque. There is no obvious choice for a successor to Kasimov, which makes it difficult to judge how the populace will react to change or what reforms (if any) may take place. Recent history has shown that regime change from a longstanding leader can prove difficult. Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria all stand out as places where young populations took advantage of opportunities for substantial policy alternations at the time of regime change.
With few regional examples and much at stake, this largely unknown leadership transition could attract global attention and take on international significance. In a power vacuum without a clear leader or political will, the country’s new direction and next alliance remains unclear. As unlikely as it seems, and although the country has been a minor global player up to this point, Karimov’s death may just have begun Uzbekistan’s geopolitical life.