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Strongman's death stirs uncertainty in Uzbekistan and region

Strongman's death stirs uncertainty in Uzbekistan and region Strongman's death stirs uncertainty in Uzbekistan and region

The death of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov after 27 years in charge with no clear successor lined up plunges his homeland into uncertainty and poses serious questions for a region dominated by strongmen, AFP reports. 

A day after Karimov, 78, -- who ruled the strategically important Central Asian nation with an iron fist -- was buried in his hometown Samarkand, a heavy police presence remained Sunday on the streets of the capital Tashkent.

National flags with black ribbons attached were lowered as the country marked a second day of official mourning and people began looking to a future without the only leader the country has had since it gained independence in 1991. 

"We don't know who will come after Karimov," one taxi driver in the Uzbek capital, a former army officer in his fifties, told AFP, without giving his name. 

"Will the prosperity that he has brought us continue?"

Long lambasted by rights groups as a brutal despot who crushed all dissent, Karimov was one of the Communist Party bosses who managed to cling to power in their homelands after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

While decision-making in the tightly-controlled system he presided over for more than a quarter of a century is almost impenetrable, experts agree that Karimov's long-term replacement looks set to come from the small inner circle who have divided up economic control of the country. 

For now the frontrunner appears to be Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, known as a technocrat enforcer, after he headed the committee that organised Karimov's funeral and led the tributes. 

"The chances for a power struggle are probably low, if only because the elites benefit from the current system and have every incentive to work things out," said Scott Radnitz, a regional expert at the University of Washington. 

"But I should emphasise that all analysts are operating with a lot of uncertainty because of how opaque the system is, and because this is unprecedented."

- 'Change is coming' -

Faced with Karimov's demise the authorities in Uzbekistan appeared to revert to a tried and tested script.  

After announcing last Sunday that he was hospitalised they cloaked news of his true condition in a veil of secrecy reminiscent of how leaders' deaths were handled in the Soviet Union.

But the silence only sparked a swirl of speculation as opposition outlets abroad reported he had died and foreign leaders began sending condolences even before his death was officially announced late Friday.

The questions now hanging over Uzbekistan bring into sharper relief the futures of other countries across the ex-Soviet region next door to conflict-wracked Afghanistan, where rule by strongmen autocrats is the norm.  

Over the border in energy-rich Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, 76, is now the only man still standing among those who ruled without a break since the Communist era, and seems to have no heir apparent.

In Turkmenistan the 2006 death of long-time ruler Sapamurat Niyazov saw a smooth handover to another tough guy, his one-time dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 59,  while in Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, 63, is pushing to become leader for life.  

"The stability of (Uzbekistan's) neighbours also pretty much fluctuates relative to the blood pressure of their presidents," wrote Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow centre.

"Change is coming for sure to Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. The only thing that is unclear is what kind of change and what kind of succession awaits these countries."

- International approach -

For analysts and rights activists there seems little chance that Karimov's death will lead to greater democracy or a dramatic improvement in the atrocious human rights record in Central Asia's most populace country any time soon.

During his time in power Karimov played the West, Russia and China off against each other to stave off total isolation for his regime and soften criticism of the worst abuses.

Now international and regional players appear likely to see maintaining the stability imposed by Karimov's brutal rule in a volatile region as the priority. 

And that means that calls from rights groups for the West to pressure any new leadership to make serious reforms or radically clean up its act look set to fall on deaf ears. 

"Any semblance of justice in the country will require deep political changes and a new, principled approach from Uzbekistan’s international partners," Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said.

"Something which has been totally lacking in recent years."

By Max DELANY

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