Fears Islamist groups could exploit death of Uzbek president

Uzbekistan's prime minister led the nation's Independence Day celebration in the capital of Tashkent amid rumours of the death of President Islam Karimov.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov pictured in November 2015. Picture: AP
Uzbek President Islam Karimov pictured in November 2015. Picture: AP

The government announced Sunday that the 78-year-old Karimov had been hospitalised, and his daughter issued a statement Monday saying he had suffered a brain hemorrhage.

Karimov has run an authoritarian regime in the Central Asian nation since 1989, harshly repressing any opposition and cultivating no apparent successor. On Tuesday, unconfirmed reports claimed that Karimov had already died.

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Russian news agencies yesterday said the Independence Day celebrations in Tashkent were led by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, who has been rumoured as a possible successor.

The uncertainty over Karimov’s health raises concerns that Uzbekistan could face prolonged in-fighting among clans over leadership claims, something Islamic radicals could exploit.

Some analysts have suggested that the United States could try to use a power vacuum to instigate “colour revolution” protests like those that drove out leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Yesterday a major concert planned for Tashkent to celebrate the 25th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union was called off - a possible echo of the Soviet practice of cancelling entertainment to signal a leader’s demise.

“It’s a place that runs on rumours,” said analyst Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Uzbekistan’s opacity makes assessing the potential threat of Islamic extremism difficult, Stronski said. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan over the years has been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, but how much presence it has in Uzbekistan is unclear.

“We don’t know how much these (Islamist) groups have penetrated,” Stronski said. “It’s something to be concerned about in the longer term, but I don’t see it as imminent.

Under the Uzbek constitution, if the president dies or relinquishes power, the president of the senate takes interim leadership for three months until new elections.

Prime Minster Shavkat Mirziyayev and a deputy prime minister, Rustam Azimov, are regarded as the best positioned to take over. Azimov, who is also finance minister, is viewed as likely the more liberal of the two.