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A Looming Power Vacuum Threatens Uzbekistan

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The 25-year rule of Uzbekistan’s first and only President may be over. The state of Islam Karimov’s health is unknown after his daughter said he had suffered a brain hemorrhage on Aug. 29. His death was already reported by independent media and, if confirmed, would throw this power center of Central Asia into uncharted territory:


Karimov has ruled this country of 30 million since Mikhail Gorbachev made him First Secretary of Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989. After being elected President following independence in 1991, he crushed his political opponents, rigging elections–he won his fourth term in 2015 with 90% of the vote–and imprisoning and killing dissidents. Torture and other abuses are said to be commonplace; his regime allegedly killed a pair of religious prisoners in 2002 by boiling them alive.


Karimov has no heir apparent, and his eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova, once tipped to be his successor, fell from grace and has not been seen in public since 2014. Experts say the head of the regime’s fearsome security arm, Rustam Inoyatov, may choose a successor from Karimov’s Cabinet to prevent a power struggle, but the uncertainty could imperil the entire region.


Uzbekistan is rich in resources and occupies a strategically key stretch of land between the Middle East and China but has become isolated and impoverished under Karimov’s rule. Without an effective leader to control internal squabbles or fix an ailing economy where corruption is endemic, there may be a long-term risk of Islamic extremists–like those fighting across the border in Afghanistan–seeking to take advantage of a country in crisis.


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