Eyes On Central Asia: The Death Of Islam Karimov And Its Implications


On September 2nd, the leader of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died after suffering a stroke. Although being the leader of a small post-Soviet republic in Central Asia, his passing, along with the release of the nation from his iron grip, marks a potentially large change affecting the geopolitics in the region.

Uzbekistan sits directly in the center of the Central Asian region, thus geographically and naturally given an important precedent in the area. Situated close to major powers in the region (Russia and China), as well as bordering the volatile northern region of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan acts as a major focal point for geopolitical maneuvering and negotiation, as the United States, Russia, and China have all tried to leverage increasing influence over the nation, especially in terms of its importance as an oil source nation and base for containing terrorism. Consequently, Uzbekistan leverages its position to gain the most benefit, especially being wary of the American democratization agenda and the post-Cold War goals of Russia in maintaining its own influence over Central Asia. Especially with Karimov’s isolationist and nationalistic “ideology of national independence,” where he viewed Uzbekistani history as culminating up to the creation of an independent state run by his regime, Uzbekistan remained very much an independent player in the geopolitical landscape of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan’s relationship with the United States is a clear example of Uzbekistan’s importance and independent stance in the region. Shortly after Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, US-Uzbekistani relations grew immensely, as the US and Uzbekistan came together to form bilateral trade agreements, with US military and economic aid flowing into the nation. Following 9/11, Uzbekistan leased the Karshi Khanabad Air Base for use by the United States Airforce and Marine forces. This was especially important during the intervention into Afghanistan, as it marked the closest US airbase to the nation. However, the close US-Uzbekistani relationship ended in 2005 with unrest in Uzbekistan, especially due to the Andijan Massacre, where Uzbekistani Security Forces killed between 400 to 500 protesters in an anti-government demonstration. After the US condemnation of the violence and attention on Uzbekistani refugees, the lease to the airbase was revoked. This was illustrative of Karimov’s personal power, as he personally gave the US 180 days to vacate the airbase amid Uzbekistani rumours of UK and US influence in causing the demonstrations.

This should, however, also be compared and contrasted to Uzbekistan’s relatively sparse membership in regional organizations, being only consistently committed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 1991, specifically providing the headquarters of the anti-terrorist branch and network of the SCO. This is especially important since Uzbekistan withdrew itself from collective security arrangements and integration with the Russian-backed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1999, generally taken as a sign of wariness in regards to re-emerging Russian influence in the region.

Consequently, the passing of Islam Karimov could perhaps mark a distinctive turn in Uzbekistani political views. With the sudden passing of a totalitarian leader in a post-Soviet nation, a power struggle to fill in the inevitable vacuum for leadership could soon ensue. As the nationalistic touch that Karimov defined as the distinctive ideology of Uzbekistan was very much personified in his leadership, it could soon give way to regional affinities with the powers that dominate the region. As seen in Karimov’s funeral, neither Russia, China nor the US made any explicit demonstrations of their intentions in the region, with all sending low-level delegations to the nation, a subtle message to perhaps dissuade any watchdogs trying to foretell the future foreign policy of the nation.

Although Uzbekistan’s future is yet to be told, the path for the reintegration of an independent nation breaking away from its totalitarian past requires the reestablishment of popular support and a stable parliamentary arena of debate to foster open dialogue. Similar to other nations in Asia, the allure of China’s economic wealth may provide an ample source of consequential influence, especially in regards to China’s plan to construct a trade route through Central Asia under the auspices of the “One Belt, One Road” program. In turn, Russia’s continued observation of Central Asia always provides a source of contention to any other infringement of their influence in Central Asia. In addition, the US’s interest in maintaining a stable Central Asia, perhaps away from Chinese or Russian influence also plays a key role in the region. No matter the outcome, the arrangements of Uzbekistan’s future could provide a framework to base around the transition for future Central Asian republics. As they similarly have strong post-Soviet power figures, strong handed governments, and heavily resource-based economies, the eventual transition of their governments from such first generation governments to perhaps more democratically minded ones can be mirrored from Uzbekistan’s present events. However, especially minding the potential for infighting and civil war, it should be closely monitored to avoid any unneeded violence or bloodshed, considering the, very possible, potential for this to occur.