Dermot Tatlow / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
Uzbekistan's President, Islam Karimov, has a well-deserved reputation as one of the former Soviet Union’s most brutal dictators. What is less appreciated, however, is his role as a master political ironist.
Born in 1938, he trained as an engineer and economist, rising through party structures to become President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. His hardline instincts led him to support the anti-Gorbachev coup in 1991. But when it became clear that it had failed he opportunistically switched sides and declared Uzbekistan independent.
His rule got off to a grand start. In 1992 he claimed: ‘Much of what we have failed to achieve for centuries has been attained during the first year of our Republic’s independence.’ If true this would have been impressive – under late Soviet modernization Uzbekistan experienced a rapid increase in living standards and Central Asian states actually achieved higher literacy rates and a greater percentage of indigenous PhDs than the US.
In fact, under Islam Karimov pensions and real wages have been massively devalued, the universal healthcare system has crumbled and full employment evaporated. To paraphrase one academic: it is remarkable how quickly Uzbekistan has gone from being largely incomparable to the Third World to being largely indistinguishable from it.
To be fair, Karimov is not solely responsible for this tragedy – the loss of subsidies from Moscow hit the republic hard. Nonetheless, deeply rooted corruption and the expense of maintaining his own cronies in power have slowed down economic growth and kept much of the population in poverty.
If Islam Karimov has not met the material needs of his people, he has at least attended to their spiritual yearnings. Alarmed at the loss of the certainties of communist ideology, he has invented a replacement – ‘the ideology of national independence’. From this perspective all of Uzbekistan’s history is seen as culminating in Karimov’s regime. This delusion would be happily ignored by most people were it not for the fact that its merits are emblazoned on roadside slogans and proclaimed in all news media. Students are even obliged to sit exams in it.
For someone claiming to have overseen the fulfilment of Uzbek history Karimov has modestly kept his personal life from public view. However, the messy divorce of his daughter, Gulnara Karimova, from wealthy US-Uzbek entrepreneur, Mansur Maqsudi, has spotlighted the opulence enjoyed by the Karimov circle. An asset division imposed by a New Jersey court awarded Karimova $4.5 million worth of jewellery, at least $11 million in cash and investment holdings in foreign banks and a $4 million Moscow penthouse. She also got to keep business holdings valued at $60 million, including retail and ski resort complexes, nightclubs and telecommunication investments.
To maintain this hold on power and wealth Karimov has constructed a façade of democratic elections. Disappointed at polling a mere 86 per cent of the vote in 1992 he entrenched his position by cracking down on opposition forces. The media was secured as a mouthpiece for his regime and attempts by ordinary people to protest injustice are answered harshly. To support his claim that Uzbekistan is ‘a society of democracy and social justice’ he created a number of spurious ‘political parties’. This has clearly educated the people of Uzbekistan in democratic principles. At the presidential election in 2000, Karimov’s vote had risen to a more respectable 92 per cent – even his token ‘opponent’ admitted that he himself would vote for Karimov!
For the last decade Uzbekistan observers have warned that the absence of legitimate avenues for an impoverished population to express dissent could prove explosive. Sure enough, since the late 1990s hostility and bitterness to the Karimov regime has grown. The Government’s response to both violent and non-violent underground opposition movements has been harsh: mass arrests and imprisonment of political suspects, show trials, executions, torture and extra-judicial killings. This is contributing to a widespread sense of discontent. Ironically, Karimov has created an Islamist opposition where none existed before.
To bolster his position, Karimov has sought alliances with foreign patrons. In spite of promising that Uzbekistan ‘will never join aggressive military blocs or alliances’, Karimov allowed the US to use Uzbek territory as a launch-pad for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. As a reward, American military assistance has risen 1,800 per cent, credit has been increased and US criticism of Karimov’s ghastly human rights record muted. However, with a decline in Uzbekistan’s utility to Washington, Karimov feels that he has not been getting the support that he deserves and has begun courting Russia’s President Putin.
Nonetheless, with or without foreign support, resentment is hardening at home. In early 2004 almost 50 people died in what appeared to be a poorly organized attempt by ordinary Uzbek citizens with Islamic sentiment to start a violent campaign against the authorities. In a moment of sublime irony Karimov denounced them as ‘those who are envying Uzbeks’. Whether this was an envy of poverty, corruption, state brutality, lack of religious freedom, bogus history or sham democracy, he did not say. Increasingly short of friends who appreciate his unique sense of humour, time may be running out for this most ironic of dictators.