On August 29, the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Karimov had been in office since the founding of Uzbekistan following the fall of the Soviet Union. Given his long tenure in office and the uncertainty that always surrounds the transfer of power in an authoritarian regime, there are concerns about the stability of Uzbekistan, in particular, and Central Asia, in general.
In this report, we will frame the geopolitical importance of Uzbekistan. We will offer a short history of the country, focusing on how outside powers conspired to play various tribal groups against each other to support the effective colonization of the region. We will examine the role of clans in Uzbekistan and how managing clan relationships is key to maintaining power. We will use this analysis to discuss potential successors to Karimov and the likelihood of future stability. As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.
This is a political map of Central Asia. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the “stans”1 were established as independent nations. Kazakhstan has the largest land mass but Uzbekistan has the largest population.2 Uzbekistan is a key nation in the region and is the only one that shares a border with all of the other stans.
As the map indicates, Central Asia is bound to be influenced by Russia and China, the two surrounding major powers. The plains region of Central Asia was along the famous “Silk Road” trade route that ran from China to Europe. In the 19th century, Great Britain had an interest in the region to protect India. From 1830 to the late 1800s, Russia and Britain jockeyed for control of the area in what was called the “Great Game.” Tribes in the region became accustomed to outside invaders traversing this part of the world.
Imperial Russia eventually gained control of the region. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist government created socialist republics. Stalin was responsible for creating the current borders for the stans. Using a time-honored method deployed by colonialists, Stalin intentionally drew the borders in such a manner as to separate tribal groups that would have naturally gravitated together and put groups together that would have preferred to be apart. This tactic was also used by the British and the French in the Middle East.3
(Courtesy of www.stratfor.com)
Uzbekistan is divided among seven clans. Surveys suggest that Uzbeks self-identify by clan, religion and nation, in that order. Three clans are considered the most powerful—Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana. There are also four smaller clans—the Jizzakh, Kashkadarya, Khorezm and Karakalpak—who avoid engaging in power conflicts with the three powerful clans. The lesser clans are more interested in their regional businesses and local governments. During the Tsarist period, the Samarkand clan was culturally dominant, while the Fergana clan had the largest population. In 1930, Stalin moved the capital city from Samarkand to Tashkent to boost the weakest of the major clans.
During the Soviet era, Moscow tended to rotate Uzbek leaders from the three major clans into positions of power in order to prevent any single clan from becoming dominant. The fear was, of course, that if one clan became pre-eminent, it might opt for independence, á la Tito in Yugoslavia. This pattern began with Stalin in the late 1930s and continued through the devolution of the Soviet Union.
Islam Karimov was named party secretary in 1989 and was in power during the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. He was then appointed president when Uzbekistan declared its independence. He was a member of the Samarkand clan but as president he tried to build an independent power base with the other two major clans, which upset leaders within his own clan. Accordingly, throughout his administration, Karimov was concerned that powerful members of the Samarkand clan would foment a coup against him.