Mourning Islam Karimov
Last Saturday, on September 3rd 2016, people in Tashkent woke up earlier than usual to pay a last farewell to Uzbekistan’s first president – Islam Karimov. He was in power for exactly 25 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The national holiday to celebrate the independence of the country was set for September 1st, and on September 2nd 2016, the president suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage.
People in Uzbekistan were shaken by this information, although the rumours about the critical medical situation of the president had been circulating for days. The Moscow-based oppositional media organisation Fergana news reported his death on August 29th, without citing any reliable sources. Such reports confused the Uzbek people, fuelled speculation and made everyone worry about the president’s health. Meanwhile, the Uzbek media remained silent, and in the evening on September 2nd suddenly announced his death.
Between the official confirmation of Karimov’s hospitalisation and the announcement of his death, the media did not issue any official statements or information related to the president’s medical condition. This generated various rumors and divided society into two camps: those who believed he had already passed away, and those who thought he had recovered and that the conflicting reports constituted another information attack on Uzbekistan by hostile forces. People discussed the issue widely on social media and even created pages in support of Karimov to pray for his health. The opposition figures who claimed he was dead were silenced in public by Karimov’s followers.
The uncertainty surrounding Karimov’s health consolidated support for the president and increased people’s insecurity about the state’s future. From the capital to small villages and Uzbek diasporas in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and the West, people followed every piece of news on the subject. The media rushed to describe Karimov’s life and career as well as evaluate his legacy and contribution since independence, but also speculated about what would happen if he is gone, which was unacceptable for many Uzbeks. As Uzbekistan’s political scene since independence was completely dominated by Karimov, who has been portrayed as responsible for every policy area, for an average citizen his death was unimaginable.
The fact that the death of Karimov was officially announced five days after the rumors began helped to build tensions within society and a suspenseful atmosphere. The public announcement of the time of his body’s transfer to Samarkand sparked a very emotional public response. Clearly, some state agencies recommended employees join the procession of mourners to pay tribute to the President for the last time. However, the general atmosphere of mourning has been genuine. In every corner of the country the local councils, or Mahalla, were activated to inform the people about the president’s death. In Samarkand, a large number of volunteers were involved in organising the funeral. Some leaked photographs from the preparations were published by the media and shared on social networks, which further exacerbated people’s emotional reactions.
It would be inaccurate to describe the funeral procession as a farce fully orchestrated by the authorities and people’s mourning as fake, as some of the media did. Most of those who participated in the march did it voluntarily, as most Uzbeks highly respected the late president.
Some of the reasons for this respect are clear: first of all, Karimov’s official image was that of the national leader. Karimov’s personality cult was not officially promoted – his name was not featured in the public space, and there were no monuments or geographical areas dedicated to him. Instead, he promoted the image of a strong state, the only entity to manage political, economic and social issues. Such an approach made him look like a modest person and a patriot who would do anything for his country. The arrest of Karimov’s own daughter, Gulnara, following a corruption scandal in 2014, was a clear example of this approach, which demonstrated to the people that the interest of the state, its integrity, is the highest good that cannot be compromised – even for the sake of family. For Uzbek people who inherited Soviet political thinking, this act was very symbolic. As such, Karimov appeared as a prefect counterexample to the other leaders in Central Asia, who developed personality cults from Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan to the leaders of the Nation in Tajikistan and in Kazakhstan. Discreet, minimalistic and straightforward, Karimov perfectly reflected the image of a traditional Uzbek head of the family.
Thanks to the tight control of the media, Karimov’s position had remained unchanged over the years. Moreover, the political crisis related to Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa and even Europe was used very effectively by state propaganda to consolidate Karimov’s image as a beacon of stability and peace in the region. Given the Islamist rebellion in the 1990s, the Civil War in the neighbouring Tajikistan and the close proximity to Taliban-controlled and war-torn Afghanistan, many Uzbeks believe that Western-style democracy threatens regional stability by facilitating the development of radical Islamist forces. This further has strengthened people’s attachment to Islam Karimov and his firm rule.
With a strong grip over the media and the population, Karimov developed a system of political particularism without referring to any traditional ideology or building strong alliances with other states. It was also virtually impossible to figure out the government’s position on domestic and international policy issues. People were encouraged to be modest in every respect and nationalism has been on the rise, although respect for ethnic and religious minorities has been officially promoted. Although the nation has seen the revival of Islam in comparison to the Soviet period, the state strictly controlled religious organisations and any sign of dissent or intolerance towards other views was punished.
In his foreign policy, Karimov always emphasised Uzbekistan’s sovereignty and independence from outside influences, be it Western or regional. While this generated confusion and the lack of understanding on the part of foreign experts interested in the region, it allowed the country to independently shape its policies. All these elements were greatly appreciated by the Uzbek people and constituted a source of national pride. In particular, a high proportion of the educated middle class supported Karimov’s policies, as his regime did not allow people to grow excessively rich and repressed the radically religious elements of the lower classes. Moreover, almost all economic sectors have been kept under state control and the regime has been successful in maintaining the balance of power among businessmen.
For all these reasons, people of Uzbekistan willingly participated in the last journey of their president. In the Uzbek tradition, when someone dies, regardless of their flaws and mistakes they made over their lifetime, people show their respect and join in the mourning. This is especially true in the case of the first president of independent Uzbekisan, who ruled the country for almost a quarter of a century. When he was still alive, he was often referred to as “Dada”, which in Uzbek means father – without an order or recommendation from the government.
Akhmed Rahmanov is a Tashkent-based research fellow at IPSE (Institut Prospective & Sécurité en Europe) and an editor at Novastan.org.