Sept. 1 marked Uzbekistan’s 25th year of independence and the first national celebration of it without the president, Islam Karimov, in attendance. A few days earlier, the Uzbek government announced that Mr. Karimov, 78, had suffered a serious brain hemorrhage — an unusual proclamation considering pronouncements about his health were often as glowing as those made by Donald Trump’s doctor.
Though the government has since reported his death, it was clear from the first announcement of his illness that Uzbekistan had changed. Uzbekistan was built largely around the cult of Mr. Karimov. Secretive and suspicious, he never named a successor.
Roughly half of the country’s population is under 25 years old: These Uzbeks have known no other leader than Mr. Karimov, who became president in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan became an independent state. Under Soviet control, Mr. Karimov held Uzbekistan’s top post, first secretary of the Communist Party, but he assumed the presidency by co-opting the nationalist platform of anti-Soviet groups he had once fought.
Under his leadership the Russian language and enforced atheism were replaced by Uzbek and a strict, state-controlled version of Islam. Statues of Marx were replaced by statues of Timur, the 14th-century Central Asian military leader, and a new slogan, “Uzbekistan: a future great state,” was plastered everywhere, along with pictures of Mr. Karimov’s face.
As the first president and constant dictator, he defined for the nation what it meant to be Uzbek: In his speeches and books — required reading for students — Mr. Karimov asserted that Uzbeks have an inherently superior, uniquely moral quality, but that this quality could be developed only through unquestioning fealty to him as the arbiter of Uzbek values, and to the state.
Dissent, and risk your soul, he warned.
But the true peril lay in his brutal suppression of independent thought. Intellectuals, journalists, imams and ordinary Uzbeks had their own ideas of what “Uzbekness” was, and their own visions for an ideal society.
These visions often corresponded to what was already written in the Uzbek Constitution, which promised freedom of speech and religion and the opportunity to engage in commerce free of government control. Many Uzbeks also sought to explore different varieties of their Muslim faith
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But the Constitution was essentially a sham document, and Mr. Karimov’s perceived enemies were brutally silenced, jailed, exiled or killed, often under the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorism. In the spring of 2005, the government gunned down hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijon, and in 2002, two prisoners were reported to have been boiled alive.
Uzbekistan had rejected Soviet doctrine, but the Soviet practices of surveillance and show trials remained. Uzbekistan has jailed more political prisoners than all other former Soviet republics combined.
After the massacre at Andijon, Mr. Karimov marketed it to Uzbeks as a show of the nation’s strength, blaming foreign conspirators and writing a book called “The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone.”
But Uzbeks were always told they could depend on him, and in fact, they had no choice. Whom they will depend on now remains a serious question, as state elites — whose reputations for brutality rival Mr. Karimov’s — jostle for power with no clear victor in sight.
Mr. Karimov’s Independence Day speech may have been canceled, but the Uzbek state media insists that the nation is well, publishing propaganda articles with headlines like “Festive Mood Is Hovering Everywhere.”
Uzbeks who loved Mr. Karimov — and there are many who did — will mourn his passing. Others mourn because they fear for a greater loss of stability in a country already troubled by widespread poverty and a scarcity of gas, food and water. But some Uzbeks have already been mourning for years — for the Uzbekistan that Mr. Karimov never allowed to exist, and for the promises that were never honored in practice.
For 25 years, Uzbeks were told they lived in a “future great state.” That slogan, still ubiquitous, never came with a timeline. Previously, when one would ask Uzbeks when they thought Uzbekistan would change, they would always say, “When Karimov is gone.”
That day, both longed for and dreaded, may be here. What is Uzbekistan without Islam Karimov? For the first time in independent Uzbekistan’s history, the future has arrived.
by Sarah Kendzior
Source – The New York Times