Why you should care
Everybody likes this bad boy.
In Uzbekistan, every day is like Christmas — well, at the presidential palace of strongman Islam Karimov anyway. The gifts come from afar, from the likes of Vladimir Putin (who has forgiven almost a billion dollars of Uzbek debt) and Barack Obama (who has ponied up 300 armored vehicles). Just what has the 77-year-old ruler of this little-known country done to warrant the favors of the world’s most powerful men?
He has been in the right place at the right time.
The right place would be a country that is a former part of the Soviet Union and has an 85-mile border with Afghanistan. The right time is an apparent reprise of the Cold War era, with the U.S. and former Soviet Union at odds over everything from Syria to Ukraine. Karimov’s ability to play Russia and the U.S. against each other has gained him a lot of wiggle room. No one pressures him to change his despotic ways.
Little-known dictators: Sixth in a series
Which are? Twenty-four years — and counting — of cruelty in most of its variations. Karimov encourages forced child labor, has killed hundreds of unarmed protesters and has been known to boil prisoners alive. He is short and squat, and his face is covered with age spots, but this is not frailty. His detached demeanor instills fear. In 2014, his eldest daughter was placed under house arrest for speaking up against him. Freedom House rates Uzbekistan’s government as the “Worst of the Worst,” alongside those of Central African Republic, North Korea and Somalia.
Unlike the other countries on Freedom House’s sh*t list, Uzbekistan is in good shape economically. The nation is self-reliant on oil, and its gross domestic product is growing by 8 percent year over year thanks to exports of gas, gold and cotton. “The economy has done well under Karimov’s policy of self-sufficiency and economic diversification,” says Kathleen Bailey, an adjunct associate professor at Boston College, noting that the rate of extreme poverty fell from 28 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2011. Strong ties to Mother Russia help: Moscow last year decided to write off most of Uzbekistan’s $890 million debt, and though Karimov has criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine, his government still sells Russia plenty of gas.
Little is known of Karimov’s early life: He grew up in a Soviet orphanage, but no one knows exactly who his parents were or how they died. He studied engineering and economics before joining the Communist Party, and after the Soviet Union fell, he won Uzbekistan’s presidential election. Ever since, he has led the country, though its constitution limits presidents to two terms. Besides trampling over democratic rules, Karimov has retained Soviet traditions like using forced labor in state-run operations. Uzbeks ages 15 to 17 — and sometimes children as young as 9 — spend school vacations alongside teachers picking cotton for virtually no pay. No extra credit either. (His press office did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.)
How is anyone supposed to speak up after seeing how he killed all those civilians?
Protesting is difficult and dangerous. In 2005, Karimov sent a clear message to dissents by ordering the shooting of unarmed protesters and killing more than 1,500 of them in what’s known as the Andijan massacre. “How is anyone supposed to speak up after seeing how he killed all those civilians?” says Sanjar Umarov, chairman of the opposition party Sunshine Uzbekistan, who was imprisoned and tortured by Karimov’s regime in 2007. Dozens of human rights activists and journalists languish in Uzbek prisons on politically motivated charges. Even Karimov’s kids aren’t immune: Gulrona, once a pop diva, is still locked inside her home on corruption charges.
Religious persecution is also on the rise. Uzbekistan is a majority-Muslim country, but in a classic maneuver, the dictator has used the threat of jihad to crack down on opponents. The nonprofit Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan estimates that more than 10,000 people are imprisoned on charges related to “religious extremism.” Many have been executed extrajudicially — meaning they got no trial — and two have been boiled to death. You cannot escape. In 2012, Obidhon Nazarov, a young Muslim cleric who had stood up to Karimov, was shot in the stairwell of his home in Sweden.
None of this is likely to improve in the short run. Consider the geopolitical context: Pakistan is an unreliable ally against the Taliban, and a planned drawdown from Afghanistan could threaten what stability the region has. Analysts say the U.S. needs Karimov — especially the Uzbek military base, which is handy for getting troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan — too much to challenge him. But stuck with Karimov, the U.S. has done more than turn a blind eye to his abuses; opponents say it’s supporting his regime. In 2012, Obama lifted a ban on assistance to the capital, Tashkent, and earlier this year, officials announced a donation of military equipment. Asked to comment on the risk of human rights abuses, the U.S. State Department referred OZY to a statement by a deputy secretary of state that was not directly on point.
Karimov just won the latest opaque election with a predictable 91 percent of votes — even a new coalition between the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan and the Social Democratic Party of Uzbekistan couldn’t make a difference. Which is why Bailey believes “the reign of Islam Karimov will end when he dies.”
Granted, that may not take long. Karimov collapsed a few months back, and the 77-year-old is rumored to be ill. While his death would pose more problems for Uzbekistan, after a quarter of a century under Karimov’s rule and 70 years of Soviet control before that, it would also mean a fresh start.