In the last year, Uzbekistan has been home to several debates and discussions about a possible power change. A tough battle for power has been going on between the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and her business network, and the head of the security services, Rustam Inoyatov, and other members of presidential family. The latest chapter of this family saga is the interview that the president’s grandson, Islam Karimov-Maksudi, Gulnara’s eldest son, has released to the Russian channel REN-TV. In the interview, the 21-year-old Oxford student talked about the assassination attempt on his mother and her ‘unofficial’ house arrest. He blamed unknown ‘powerful’ individuals for being behind this situation, and stated that he believes his grandfather is not responsible. Gulnara Karimova has been tied to ongoing money-laundering investigations in Sweden and Switzerland. In Uzbekistan, several of her media outlets have been taken off the air, while her Terra Group media-holding company is being investigated for bribe-taking. Gulnara accused her younger sister and her mother, along with the security services agency, of being behind her judicial proceedings.
The interview generated a number of questions, in particular about the reason why the young Karimov-Maksudi decided to deliver the interview. Ardadiy Dubnov, a Russian political scientist and CIS expert, believes this entire story was made up in Tashkent. The expert has been quoted stating that ‘there are no revelations in [Islam Karimov-Maksudi’s] interview – it is just the next natural step in this propaganda campaign.’ Indeed, the expert said, the interview is aimed at confirming Gulnara’s image as a fighter against the corrupt regime, her family and those ‘obscure forces’ that are taking over the country. This is what she needs to do in order to soften the opinion of her by the West, especially regarding her current criminal charges, concluded the political scientist.
According to Alisher Ilkhamov, Central Asia expert at Open Society Foundations, the idea that interview was a desperate attempt to reach out to President Karimov, who ‘supposedly’ does not know what is going on, is not plausible. He identified the possibility that the president is so weak that he is no longer in control of the situation in his family as ‘the myth of the uninformed Father Tsar.’ He also did not discard the possibility that Islam Karimov-Maksudi may seek political asylum in the UK.
Another expert, Bahrom Hamroev, director of the Help Consulting and Legal Center, commented that the interview was a move backed by pro-Western circles in Tashkent, which are getting ready for a change in power. Hamroev believes President Karimov will be replaced in the 2015 election by the first deputy of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Rustam Azimov, a pro-Western political figure. Hamroev also declared that he thinks Karimov does not want to be president anymore, and that the president’s declaration about his unwillingness to leave after the 2015 election is a window-dressing to reassure Russia of Uzbekistan’s loyalty.
Other elements also seem to support Hamroev’s hypothesis, pointing to a withdrawal of Karimov from the political scene. Beyond the rumors about Karimov’s precarious health condition and his advanced age, the president also ordered a constitutional reform last March, which runs counter the tendency Karimov has been pursuing since early 1990s. The constitutional reform indeed did not strengthen presidential powers. Instead for the first time it strengthened the Prime Minister’s and Parliament’s control over the government. Given that this might be Karimov’s last chance to reform the constitution, he might be willing to genuinely change the balance of power among state institutions.
Islam Karimov became president of Uzbekistan in 1991, 25 years ago, a record he shares with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president. His possible fatigue, the strained relations he has with his family and his age suggests that what is at stake is not only the issue of succession, especially given that opposition leaders from Uzbekistan are either outside the country or dead, but also the issue of the survival of the regime itself after the death of its president.