Uzbekistan: Is Medvedev Nudging Karimov to Step Down?
Bruce Pannier, blogging for Chaikhana at Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, caught the rumors that before the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana this week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stopped in Tashkent for a visit and supposedly urged long-time dictator Uzbek President Islam Karimov to step down voluntarily and ensure a peaceful transition of leadership in his country.
The story is based on speculation from a Russian expert on Central Asia who spoke on Kommersant FM, a commercial Russian radio show, on the eve of the SCO summit.
As we can see from the transcript, Sergei Zatsepilov, general director of the Center for A Just Foreign Policy in Moscow, was theorizing about Medvedev's plans before he headed off for a meeting with Karimov, which he believed involved an offer to leave peacefully:
The most important task Medvedev has on this visit is to pin down Uzbekistan and come to an agreement about this, before the conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a new system for Asian security created with Chinese participation. Uzbekistan is one of the key players in the region. Internal upheavals are quite likely in Uzbekistan. A change of government is coming, a change of the top leadership. Therefore it is important to do everything so that the transition of power was smooth and peaceful, and that the SCO takes upon itself the appropriate guarantees of security, and that the leadership of Uzbekistan cooperates closely with this organization. Then the bilateral issues of relations between Russia and Uzbekistan will be resolved much more constructively.
The Russian president himself isn't actually on the record saying anything like this, however. Instead, he is shown on Russian TV First Channel, talking about the impact of the Arab Spring and the need for cooperation to ensure a peaceful transition -- with a glum-looking Islamov some feet away, says Pannier. The text of the staged, televised conversation between the two leaders was published on kremlin.ru. After remarking about a 30-40% increase in trade turnover between Russian and Uzbekistan, Medvedev references events in the Middle East and North Africa, and seems to make a veiled allusion to Russia's and Uzbekistan's large Muslim populations:
This year began with the so-called "Arab Spring," which created a completely new situation both in the Arab East and the North of Africa. In all likelihood, the international consequences of what has happened will be drawn out for a significant period. We are interested that these events in this region develop according to an understandable and predictable scenario for us, since we are closely connected to many of these states by a large number of invisible ties. These are not only economic and trade relations, but numerous humanitarian and cultural ties. They can be very positive but can be complicated as well and sometimes even destructive in nature. Russia and Uzbekistan must discuss what is happening with our near neighbors, so that the national interests of our countries and our peoples are guaranteed.
Aleksei Mitrofanov, the Russian nationalist commenator and former parliamentarian who has been very wrong before about Uzbekistan, said that he did not think Russia sought Karimov's departure because it didn't have a candidate -- even though he guessed that the West did, in exiled Erk party leader Muhammad Salih, uznews.net reported.
Uzmetronom.com, a semi-official web publication that usually has this kind of conspiracy story du jour, merely a bit snarkily recycled the kremlin.ru transcript of the four-hour meeting, but didn't speculate about Medvedev's possible nudge of Karimov into retirement. A
correspondent followed another conspiracy angle, however, which was to analyze the SCO "family photo": it turns out Karimov is standing under Kazakhstan's flag, and Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva is standing under Uzbekistan's flag. The intrigue seems to involve Karimov's wish not to be photographed standing next to his nemesis, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and to get himself next to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Of course, Karimov is said to have his own very carefully selected succession plans that don't reference Russia.