President Karimov’s Search for a Safe Succession
On November 12, President Islam Karimov gave a speech to a joint session of the Oliy Majlis, Uzbekistan’s parliament, which surprised observers. While reiterating the usual empty declarative statements that distract from his authoritarian rule, the president identified a new succession procedure in the event he should become incapacitated or die, and changed the way the prime minister is appointed.
Under Art. 96 of the current Constitution, if the head of state falls ill, within 10 days the Oliy Majlis must elect an interim president from its own ranks to serve for a three-month period until presidential elections. The current law leaves open the question about who rules during the initial days after the president’s departure, but we can safely say that whoever grabs power within the three-month period will either be “elected” or serve as king-maker. Given the rubber-stamp nature of the current parliament and its dependency on the executive branch, the executive will likely dictate the vote. While the current Constitution is ambiguous about how this candidate will emerge de jure, de facto it’s likely the new leader will by approved by the forces most influential after the president’s demise, and will have to be loyal to the law-enforcement agencies and the army.
Karimov’s new proposals defines the process somewhat better; if the incumbent is unable to fulfill his duties, the Senate chairman will temporarily take over his powers and then hold elections within three months. This change has suddenly thrown into the spotlight the current Senate chair, Ilgizar Sobirov, who has held this position since 2006. Little is known about Sobirov, who was originally from Khorezm, a province traditionally weakly represented in the halls of power by contrast with Tashkent, Ferghana and Samarkand. Now, Khorezm’s weakness could turn out to be its strength.
Sobirov was elected in 1999 from the 209th Koshkupyr District of Khorezm province. In September 2010, his 25-year-old son, an M.A. student, was killed when his Chevrolet Captiva collided with a tractor. The scarcity of background information about Sobirov, a stern-faced, middle-aged man at the apex of power along with the prime minister and chair of the legislature, possibly indicates that he previously worked in the National Security Service. This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that from 1999-2004, he was the deputy chair of the Oliy Majlis Committee on Defense and Security, and from 2005 held the post of the analogous committee in the Senate until his election as chair.
His re-election to the post of chair in January 2010 indicates that he had the support of the president. But is Sobirov the man Karimov is looking to become his heir?
In the event of Karimov’s death, the docile parliament will likely rapidly fall under control of strongmen from the president’s administration or the power ministries and the Cabinet of Ministers. This could happen if Sobirov does not have real levers of influence and the backing of influential figures higher in government. Recently there were rumors that the Senate was creating its own security organization, something like the security service for the president, not under the control of the National Security Service or the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It’s possible that the already-powerful presidential security service could fall under control of the Senate. If this rumor is confirmed, it is quite plausible that Karimov’s new initiative would result in Sobirov taking power.
Karimov’s second initiative is consistent with the first – nominating the prime minister via political parties that gain the majority of seats in the Uzbek parliament's Legislative Chamber. This would change the existing Constitution provisions (articles 93 and 98) under which the president has the exclusive right to nominate the prime minister.
Why would Karimov agree to such constraints? At age 72, he is worried about the consequences if he voluntarily steps down and assumes the post of a senator-for-life, a role provided for him in the Constitution. He is right to fear a situation where the new head of state will find it hard to withstand the temptation to sacrifice the past leader, due to populist pressure or the need to return the wealth accumulated by the president’s family to the state. Karimov is equally eager to minimize the incentives for the current prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to use his perch to seek the president’s replacement. So what is Karimov’s exit strategy?
The media has intensely speculated about whether Karimov will install his daughter Gulnara in power. But recent events cast doubts on such a scenario. Zeromax, the Swiss-registered conglomerate which Gulnara was rumored to control, was seized by the government and declared bankrupt, and its nominal CEO Mirjalol Jalilov was arrested. These developments coincided with reports that $600 million wound up in Karimova’s bank account. Meanwhile, Karimova has been busy trying to insert herself into the celebrity world of Europe and the U.S. with fashion shows and charity events; the “Princess of the Uzbeks,” as she is known, appears to want to settle in Europe with the lifestyle to which she is accustomed, not stump in the provinces at home.
There’s also no grounds for assuming that Karimov will follow the scenario of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and put himself into the prime minister’s seat – that would not solve the problem of his succession. Karimov also doesn’t have the energy of the younger Putin to perform this punishing job, and his health will progressively fail.
From all appearances, Karimov hopes to secure not only a peaceful end to his rule but favorable terms for his relatives after he dies, and he sees the manipulation of the constitution to look as if there is a “democratization” of the transition mechanism as the way out. But does this initiative have anything to do with a real division of powers?
Let’s remember the reason the parliament is not an authentic democratic institution in the first place: elections are not free and fair, the media is not independent, and there is no freedom of association or assembly. Without such liberties, ultimately there can’t be real political competition between parties and the president’s proposals can’t ensure an actual separation of powers. Apparently on orders from above, on the eve of the president’s speech, the two leading parties enacted a polemical farce. The Popular Democratic Party suddenly began criticizing the Liberal Democratic Party, which supposedly represents business interests, for safety problems in toys imported from China now flooding Uzbek markets. This “toy show” failed to impress the public, especially those who know the party debates are all manufactured in the president’s administration.
So no real division of powers is likely, but some sort of institutional changes will be in the works following the president’s speech, with some checks and balances within the administrative branch itself, which essentially includes the parliament in its current rubber-stamp incarnation. The novelty of the new proposals is that even so, the parliament will become less decorative, and acquire some of the regalia of power. Its mission may be to counterbalance and compete with other centers of power. This competition should benefit Karimov who, like an Uzbek version of Den Xiaoping, would remain in the shadows and play referee in an extended game of power.