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By Kamran Bokhari

While the world continues to be captivated by ever-growing crises in the Middle East, the nearby region of Central Asia is headed toward destabilization, as our 2016 forecast suggests. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been ruled by geriatric strongmen for over a quarter of a century, going back to the days of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan is at great risk for instability, given that its president has been hospitalized after a reported stroke with no clear succession plan among regional clan rivalries. Since Uzbekistan borders each of the countries in the region, instability there could destabilize in the rest of Central Asia as well.

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s 78-year-old ruler and the only president the country has had since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been hospitalized, according to reports on Aug. 28. According to official state media outlet UzA, Karimov is receiving in-patient treatment and unnamed medical specialists said that “a full medical examination and subsequent treatment will require a certain period of time.” Uzbekistan is an extremely opaque nation, and thus it is difficult to ascertain the precise status of Karimov’s health. That said, Tashkent has never before released information on the health of the ailing president, which is why it is reasonable to assume that a leadership transition is finally at hand.

Uzbekistan is not your average authoritarian state. Many autocratic regimes, despite the overwhelming influence of the ruling family and friends, develop institutions. In sharp contrast, multiple clans from Uzbekistan’s various regions have long been struggling for power. Karimov was able to rule because he could balance the clans from the country’s three principal regions (Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana) and four lesser ones (Jizzakh, Kashkadarya, Khorezm and Karakalpak). In addition, Karimov’s family has been at war with itself – as is evident from the publicly acrimonious relationship between his daughters, Gulnara Karimova and Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.

This combination of two pictures shows the elder daughter of Uzbekistan's president, Gulnara Karimova (L) and her sister and Uzbekistan's representative to UNESCO, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva. Gulnara has accused her sister of destructive behavior and ties to sorcerers, in a public row that has exposed rifts in the Central Asian ruling family. MUHAMMAD SHARIF/MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
This combination of two pictures shows the elder daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, Gulnara Karimova (L) and her sister and Uzbekistan’s representative to UNESCO, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva. Gulnara has accused her sister of destructive behavior and ties to sorcerers, in a public row that has exposed rifts in the Central Asian ruling family. MUHAMMAD SHARIF/MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

This means there is no clear line of succession and great risk of a power struggle. The regional bases of the various top clans in the country increases the risk of civil war, though it is possible that the massive costs of infighting could push the elites to negotiate a power-sharing settlement.

However, a negotiated settlement is unlikely because Uzbeks have been ruled with an iron fist for some 140 years, during which there has been zero tolerance for dissent. From 1876 to 1917, Uzbekistan was under the control of czarist Russia. Then the country disappeared behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union for nearly 75 years. On Sept. 1, Uzbekistan will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its independence.

Many within the fractious ruling elite see Karimov’s death or incapacitation as an opportunity to enhance their power. Such openings are rare, and there are many who do not want to pass up such a historic opportunity. Of course, some have long wanted to maximize their power, but feared the potential anarchy from making a move against Karimov and thus remained aligned with him. Those calculations no longer hold when the incumbent leader is approaching the end of his rule.

All the factions have been preparing for this day and some may have already been engaged in negotiating the new balance of power for this day. No side can truly trust the other and thus suspicions abound about true intentions. In such a situation, the impending transition is not just a historic opportunity, but also a major threat. Thus, each clan has an imperative to make sure that its interests are safeguarded after all is said and done.

Authoritarian regimes do not have established processes to manage power transitions. In Uzbekistan’s case, the situation is even more dire, as it has never experienced a transfer of power. Aggravating this situation is that the usual suspects, i.e., the various factions that form the country’s mainstream, aren’t the only ones eyeing the transition. Since the 1990s, the country has produced the largest jihadist movement in all of Central Asia. It is unclear to what extent insurrectionist Islamists are present in the country to take advantage of the emerging power vacuum. However, Uzbek nationals have been engaged in various jihadist theaters such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and more recently Syria, in the wake of the Islamic State’s rise.

These factions are also hoping to exploit the situation. Their agenda is not confined to the national boundaries. They would love to use Uzbekistan as a springboard to expand into the wider Central Asian region. Uzbeks comprise the largest ethnic community in the Fergana Valley, which is a hotbed of Islamist activity. The region extends into neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, making it a channel to spread instability beyond the country’s borders.

In our 2016 forecast, we predicted that there is no way Central Asian can remain immune from the crises that surround it. Russia is facing a massive financial crunch due to the decline of energy prices. The region’s other major stakeholder, China, is also in crisis because of the global economic downturn. The Middle East is in a state of growing anarchy, which has a natural spillover effect into South Asia.

Indeed, we have seen both civil agitation and armed attacks in the Central Asia’s largest country, Kazakhstan. Not a week goes by without a report about authorities in a Central Asian country either cracking down on radical Islamists or engaging in enhanced security measures. Meanwhile, their economies are not doing well, given the decline of energy prices, which has directly affected Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Kyrgyzstan is more stable than the other three countries, but are chronically poor.

Uzbekistan, however, holds the key to the future of the region. The country is located at the heart of Central Asia. What happens there will affect the entire region. Therefore, the quickly approaching post-Karimov era is not solely a domestic political problem, but rather one that has potentially massive geopolitical ramifications.

Kamran Bokhari
Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is a regular contributor to and former senior analyst (2015-2018) with Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Bokhari is now the Senior Director, Eurasian Security & Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, DC. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the Coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @Kamran Bokhari