Leader’s daughter says her 78-year-old father is hospitalised after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.
Moscow, Russia – Abdusamat is 27. The slim, swarthy and dark-haired owner of a tiny electronics shop in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was born in 1989, the year Moscow appointed Islam Karimov as top Communist official in the most populous republic of Soviet Central Asia.
Two years later, when Abdusamat was uttering his first words, his resource-rich motherland gained independence, and Karimov was elected its first president.
Abdusamat played football and video games, finished school and got a degree in economics. He worked in a bank, got married, sired two children, bought a car and a two-bedroom apartment. He opened his shop, rebuilt his parent’s house, started losing hair, buried and mourned his mother.
Karimov was still president.
The 78-year-old autocrat defied constitutional limits, arithmetic rules and post-Cold-War political progress by having his term extended in referendums in 1995 and 2002 and getting re-elected in 2000 and 2015. None of the elections have been internationally recognised as free or fair, while Uzbekistan became one of the world’s most repressive societies on a par with North Korea or Zimbabwe.
“He’s always been around,” Abdusamat told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. He refused to provide his last name because he does not want to lose his business. “You may like him or hate him, but Uzbekistan has known no other leader. He was everywhere.”
Now, he is not. Last week, Uzbek authorities announced laconically that Karimov was hospitalised to “undergo a complete medical examination”, and his younger daughter, Lola, said he was recovering from a brain haemorrhage.
The president has not been seen in public or on TV, and for the first time in Abdusamat’s life and Uzbekistan’s history, he did not take part in a lavish, September 1 show to celebrate Independence Day. During past celebrations, Karimov occasionally danced, clapped his hands and cheered next to performers, but this year’s show was canceled altogether – also for the first time.
The official obfuscation heightened rumours and fears. Land borders with neighbouring countries have been sealed, police patrols intensified security checks, businessmen such as Abdusamat panicked because of import disruptions, and even real estate prices dropped, half a dozen Uzbek nationals told Al Jazeera.
“The number of expensive houses for sale increased overnight,” Roza Kim, a realtor in Tashkent, told Al Jazeera. “But no one is buying.”
Uzbeks retell news from banned online media based outside Uzbekistan. One such news outlet, Fergananews.com, reported that Karimov allegedly died on Monday – while government officials and news agencies kept mum.
On Thursday, the website claimed that Karimov’s body has allegedly been taken to his home city of Samarkand, to be buried in Shahi-Zinda (The Living King), a complex of mausoleums of Central Asia’s rules – and a UNESCO heritage site. By Friday, the website went offline after a massive hacker attack.
In case of president’s death or incapacitation, the head of Uzbek parliament’s upper house has to fill in temporarily before an election takes place, to according to the Uzbek constitution. But no such thing happened, while analysts and average Uzbeks read the tea leaves guessing the name of their future leader.
“Karimov has become a hostage of his own policies,” the chief editor of Fergananews, Daniil Kislov, told Al Jazeera. “Having created a rubber-stamp parliament and laws that don’t work, having forgotten that he is not for ever, he did not groom a successor and has planted a gigantic political mine in his country’s future.”
Succession is a major problem in ex-Soviet Central Asia.
In oil-rich Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled since 1989 amid rumours that one of his daughters may replace him.
In Tajikistan, autocrat Emomali Rakhmon has been at the helm since 1992 – and is apparently grooming a son to succeed him.
In Turkmenistan, health minister Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov manoeuvred his way to presidency after the 2006 death of his eccentric, megalomaniac predecessor. And in impoverished, resource-poor Kyrgyzstan, two presidents have been toppled in the past 11 years amid a perennial political and economic crisis.
Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara, a 44-year-old socialite, singer and jewellery designer, held a couple of government jobs, created a gigantic business conglomerate and was seen as her father’s successor. But she has been under house arrest since 2014 after releasing hundreds of tweets that described a power struggle in her family, accused her mother and younger sister of practising witchcraft and revealed corruption of top government officials.
In the male-dominated and mostly Muslim Uzbekistan, she hardly could keep power, analysts say, singling out two top officials who could replace Karimov.
On the eve of the September 1 festivities, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a prime minister since 2003, laid flowers to the Monument of Independence – a symbolic ceremony that may point at who’s in charge now.
Mirziyoyev, 59, is known for his ties to Uzbek and Russian special services – a favourable thing given that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB spy.
He’s also been responsible for overseeing cotton harvesting, Uzbekistan’s cash crop, a widely detested nationwide operation that involves weeks of forced labour for hundreds of thousands of government employees, university students and, until recently, children.
Mirziyoyev’s rival is Rustam Azimov, a deputy prime minister and former economy minister who speaks decent English and has good ties with Western officials. A news report about his alleged arrest has been dismissed, but Uzbek officials did not show recent photos or video footage of Azimov.
Unsurprisingly, Uzbekistan’s neighbors and partners are also worried about the news from Uzbekistan – or lack of thereof.
The arid nation sits in the middle of Central Asia bordering Afghanistan, where hundreds of Uzbek Islamist militants have found shelter since the late 1990s, when Karimov began jailing thousands of Muslims who practised their faith outside government-controlled mosques.
Following Western criticism of his merciless crackdown on the 2005 popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijan, where government troops killed hundreds of mostly unarmed civilians, Karimov kicked out a US military base from an Uzbek airport on the Afghan border. However, he let NATO use another airport, and allowed transit of weapons and military equipment as the US-led coalition pulled out of Afghanistan.
Millions of Uzbeks work abroad, mostly in Russia and Kazakhstan, sending remittances to their families – and cautiously watching the developments at home. Although Karimov began a rapprochement with Russia after the Andijan massacre, he distanced Uzbekistan from the blocs Moscow is trying to build in the former Soviet Union.
Membership of one such bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union, could significantly ease the lives of Uzbek labour migrants in Russia by simplifying the bureaucratic hurdles they face.
“If whoever succeeds him makes Uzbekistan a member of the Union, we will all sigh with relief,” Tulkin Mamasadykov, a 34-year-old construction worker, told Al Jazeera. He said he faces police brutality and corruption, xenophobic remarks and racist slurs, but keeps working in Russia because in Uzbekistan “there is no work and no hope”.