The death of President Islam Karimov ushers in an uncertain period for this divided central Asian republic which risks sparking the growth of a fledgling Islamist terrorist movement.
There has not been a change of leader for more than a quarter of a century, and there has never been an open democratic transfer of power. Stability in Uzbekistan matters, not just for its 30 million strong population, but for each of the other ‘Stans’ as it borders all of them.
The idea of a place called Uzbekistan emerged in the 15thc when a tribe called the Uzbeks settled there. It’s thought they were part of the Mongol Golden Horde. There were various sub divisions of the tribe and three of these clans emerged as the strongest in their own particular region. They are the clans from the Fergana Valley, Samarkand, and Tashkent.
The clan system survived the region being taken into the Russian Empire in 1876, and then becoming part of the Soviet Empire until breaking free in 1991. However, during Stalin’s reign there was a forced movement of populations and redrawing of borders which has left all of the ‘Stans’ a legacy of being weak nation states with populations often more loyal to ‘tribe’ and region than to the state.
The game of the imperialists in Moscow, whether Czarist or Communist, was to ensure the clans remained divided but equally strong, so that one could not become so powerful as to unite the country. This was partially behind Stalin’s decision to move the capital from Samarkand to Tashkent in 1930.
President Karimov was from the Samarkand clan and in recent years had moved to weaken the clan from the Fergana Valley. The Tashkent clan, which is influential within the intelligence services, was happy to go along with this. Now all three will be seeking assurances from the others that their power structures are safe whilst simultaneously jockeying to increase their power as much as possible.
Into this mix comes a small, but growing Islamist threat. More would be jihadists have gone abroad to fight from there than any other central Asian republic. An unknown number have returned and will know that the current uncertainty in the country may offer them an opportunity to feed off the instability. There has been a spate of armed attacks over several years in all of the republics. What centre of gravity there is for the Islamist/insurgency movement is in the Fergana valley which tends to be more religiously conservative than Tashkent or Samarkand. The valley is ethnically mixed, with the majority population being Uzbek, but there are large numbers of Tajiks and Kyrgyz and the valley itself extends into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The clans are aware that as they maneuver against each other, they run the risk of sparking clan and or ethnic violence with the added danger of the jihadists seeking to take advantage of such a situation. It is this which may restrain any from going too far in a bid for power
Population – 30, million
Ethnic Groups – Uzbek 80%, Russian 5.5%, Tajik 5%, Kazakh 3%, Karakalpak 2.5%, Tatar 1.5%, other 2.5%
Religion – 88% Muslim. Mostly Sunni.
Borders – Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
Energy – 18th largest natural gas reserves. 10th largest gold deposits. 10th largest copper producer. Large deposits of uranium.
Agriculture – Mostly self-sustaining.