Karimov's use of resources leaves air of instability

Most Uzbeks, with an average age of 27 years, have never known a ruler other than president Islam Karimov, who died on Friday at the age of 78. Karimov had ruled the country even before its independence from the Soviet Union, coming to power in 1989.

His demise comes at a delicate time in Central Asia as gerontocracy, recession and energy politics collide with popular, nationalist and religious aspirations.

Uzbekistan is pivotal because it has the largest population in Central Asia, and commands stretches of the two major rivers in an arid region, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.

It controls a large chunk of the populous and restive Ferghana valley, carved up between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan by Stalin’s gerrymandering.

It is a significant gas producer itself, but more importantly the main gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Russia and China have to pass through its territory.

Turkmenistan supplies 46 per cent of China’s gas imports; Uzbekistan another 2.6 per cent.

The country exemplifies many of the region’s problems. The economy is over-dependent on natural resources: unsustainable water use for cotton has caused the Aral Sea to shrink almost to nothing; oil production is in steep decline; and gas output has been steady but prices have slumped.

Other than the Chinese, international oil companies have had little luck investing in Uzbekistan’s corrupt and shadowy environment.

Many Uzbeks have had to seek work abroad, particularly in Russia, itself in recession.

Mr Karimov repressed opposition ruthlessly, and cracked down on what he saw as religious radicalism. The giant Central Asia-Centre gas pipeline runs through the notionally autonomous Karakalpakstan, where there have been separatist rumblings. Meanwhile the country’s 5.5 per cent Russian minority complains of discrimination.

Like his Central Asian peers, Karimov balanced between China, Russia and the West, although in 2005 relations with the US deteriorated sharply after the massacre of protesters in the Ferghana town of Andijan, and in recent years he had drawn away from Russia.

Uzbekistan also has disputes with its neighbour Tajikistan, cutting off winter gas supplies in retaliation for Dushanbe’s halt to water and electricity exports in summer. New Tajik dams are at the core of plans to send electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, under the Central Asia-South Asia project, or Casa-1000, but further worry Uzbekistan over its water security.

China’s One Belt, One Road strategy makes Uzbekistan even more important. Railways and pipelines through Uzbek territory avoid Afghanistan and the formidable Pamir and Karakorum mountains of Tajikistan and northern Pakistan. This route links Chinese projects in Turkmenistan and Iran with western China and its major interests in Kazakhstan. China, repressing its Uighur minority, also worries about nationalism and religious radicalism in the area.

The opaque Uzbek state apparatus controlled the news of the president’s passing, with his successor still unclear.

The glamorous Gulnara, his daughter, had already been elbowed aside.

Prime minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, reportedly hot-tempered and stubborn, is one possibility. But a compromise candidate may emerge from back-room manoeuvres, as in neighbouring Turkmenistan where Sapurmurat Niyazov was replaced by his dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov.

Although leadership in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan passed on smoothly enough, Kazakhstan, by far the region’s biggest producer of oil, coal and uranium, is approaching its own succession.

Like Karimov, president Nazarbayev, now 76, has ruled his country since independence, although with more subtlety and apparent openness.

Strikes and protests have become more frequent across the region, with economic hardship and steep currency devaluation. Russian minorities are a concern, given Russia’s propensity for fomenting ethnic separatism to pressurise its former Soviet neighbours.

And Russian adventurism in its “Near Abroad” would, more than ever, stir Chinese concerns.

Karimov survived and exploited Uzbekistan’s challenges, without seeking to solve them.

The new leader, when he or she emerges, confronts a difficult situation, with any instability in Uzbekistan at risk of spilling over to its neighbours. Moscow and Beijing will be watching news from Tashkent closely.

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.


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