Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Is Uzbekistan Heading For a Clan Revolution

As Central Asian leaders continue to observe the fallout from the sudden death of Islam Karimov. The premature demise of one of Central Asia’s long standing political players has created a significant power vacuum within the state.

The fallout from this vacuum has the potential to go three ways. Firstly, Uzbekistan could collapse into political turmoil as the three largest regional clans from Samarkand, Tashkent and Ferghana, compete to consolidate and expand their power structures. The resulting infighting will destabilise the Uzbek state and society leading to regional diasporas and potentially the rise of terrorism.

Another path open to Uzbekistan is that its new leader will walk the country out of its current stagnancy and seize the opportunity to economically and politically move beyond the hardships characterised by Karimov’s 25 year rule. However, given that civil strife is an anathema in most Central Asian nations it is likely that Uzbekistan will just get a new hand on the wheel and everything will continue as normal.

Clan Struggle

Nevertheless the power vacuum created by Karimov’s death will create significant ripples in Uzbekistan’s political landscape. Thanks to Islam Karimov’s iron grip on the Presidency, Uzbekistan’s regional clans have often been an obscured part of Uzbekistan’s political landscape. They are a real and imminent danger to the stability of this nation. Currently the country is divided among 7 clans. If you want to check out the geographical locations of the clans follow the link on  Stratfor.

While the seven clans are divide along provincial lines it is the larger three, Samarkand, Ferghana and Tashkent that are most likely to initiate clan conflict. The smaller regional clans of Jizzakh, Khorezm, Karakalpak and Kashkadarya are more subjugated to the larger clans and tend to keep their focus on their own regions. While these alliances are currently holding, it would take little for these pacts to become destabilised.

Islam Karimov, like the Soviets before him, kept the destabilising jostling of the clans at bay by rigidly sticking with a system of balancing the clans’ power throughout his rule. Aided by his own lack of clan, thanks to his orphancy, Karimov was considered an outsider and as such could sit above the disputes due to his lack of regional ties.

However, Karimov was not immune to the clans’ disfavour. In 1999, for example, several car bombs were set off in Tashkent after his removal of one of Taskent clan’s political elites from the Interior Ministry (MVD). Likewise in 2004, the Interior Ministry (MVD) and the National Security Council or SNB (formerly the KGB), which are linked respectively to the Samarkand and Tashkent clans, appeared to have a turf dispute with bombs exploding across Tashkent and Bukhara.

A Time for Stability or Subversion?

So far there has been little turmoil in Uzbekistan since Karimov death. The succession of Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev, the long-time Prime Minister, to the position of Interim President has experienced no issues.

This is despite the fact that legally the Interim President should have been the Senate Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev. Presumably this is because Mirziyoyev is a member of the Samarkand clan and is supported by Tashkent heavy weight, Rustum Inoyatov, the head of the SNB.

According to EurasiaNet.org, Uzbek Journalist Elparid Hadjayev admitted that this transition was not surprising.

“I think that Nigmatilla Yuldashev would have felt very uncomfortable in the position of interim president. He is not a popular figure [and] most people in the country don’t know him. Clearly that is why they picked a person that is in control of the situation in the country,” said Hadjayev.

Furthermore, Mirziyoyev is a logical choice because of his foreign affairs record as Prime Minister and his close ties to Russia.

International Pressure

The importance of international players in Uzbekistan’s presidential contest cannot be understated. Russia and China both see the value in promoting a friendly face into the contest. Russia, for example, has recently wished for more pro-Russian leadership in Tashkent. In the past five years Uzbekistan has been keeping Russia at arm’s length, by holding off from joining with Russia’s plans to establish a Eurasian Union and its 2012 rejection of the Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

China is likewise concerned about the presidential transition but for differing reasons. A Karimov led Uzbekistan was a linchpin in China’s Silk Road Initiative and China has invested heavily in infrastructure in the country. Currently China uses Uzbekistan as a key gateway to the LNG suppliers in the west with three main China-Central Asia Natural Gas Pipelines traversing the entirety of Uzbekistan, and a fourth under construction. Furthermore, Uzbekistan supplies resource hungry China with gas, gold and uranium. So it is hardly surprising that Beijing has sought to upgrade its diplomatic ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Cloudy with a Chance for Revolution
While the transition to an Interim President has been smooth and considerate of the country’s need for economic stability, the next few months have the potential to be very tumultuous.

In Uzbekistan the constitution decrees an election to elect a new president must be held 3 months from now. It is during this period that rivalries will explode as political elites and their clans jockey for the greatest piece of the political and economic pie. The current incarceration in a mental institution of President Karimov’s daughter Gulnara Karimova, the Harvard educated one time billionaire and groomed successor to his presidential throne, by Interim President Mirziyoyev is just the first shot of the Mirziyoyev campaign to secure power.

Then there is Mirziyoyev’s rivalry with Rustam Asimov, the deputy Prime Minister and former close confident of Islam Karimov. Previously a trusted advisor to President Karimov, Asimov has in the past few months been slowly removed from the inner circle of power by Mirziyoyev and SNB Head Inoyatov.

The direction this rivalry will take is not clear. Certainly if Mirziyoyev decides to hold onto power by any means possible the prospect of a colour revolution, like those of the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000’s is not out of the question.

Added into this volatile situation is the involvement of China and Russia who each have a different agenda in Uzbekistan. China, according to several analysts, are desperately unsure about Mirziyoyev and the security of their assets in Uzbekistan. If they refuse to do business with him and the Samarkand clan due to his volatile reputation there is a significant risk that separate clans could utilise this as a means to make their own grab for power.

Russia meanwhile is an old hand at playing one clan of against another to get what they want. During the days of the Soviet Union Russian authorities would regularly make power sharing arrangements with differing Uzbek clans, often supporting Samarkand over Tashkent or vice versa to manipulate their hold over the country. If Russia views China as interfering with its own economic and security plans for Uzbekistan, it will support another clan in their quest for political power.

A rivalry between Russia and China’s differing needs played out in the Uzbek theatre will increase clan rivalries as each group will view the economic and political advantages of garnering international support for their rise to power as paramount. If Mirziyoyev refuses to call the elections and the clans will turn violent, this will destabilise not just Uzbekistan but China and Central Asia politically and economically as well.

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