Preparing for — and provoking — life after Karimov

In the wake of Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to Brussels this week, there’s been lots of acrimonious shouting in the West about what the European Union shouldn’t do about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, but not much about what it should. That’s because few want to face a grim reality: a fracturing of Uzbekistan’s political elite is probably the best hope for a chance to promote human rights, civil society, and liberal democracy. Seizing that chance, however, would require a taste for realpolitick and risk.

When in 2009 the EU lifted the sanctions that had been imposed after the Andijan massacre, it argued that confrontation had failed: Uzbekistan had simply turned to Russia and China for trade and left Europe out in the cold instead of the other way around. From then on, Brussels would try direct political and economic engagement, coupled with gentle prodding and long-term thinking.

“Yet, in the 15 months since the sanctions have been lifted, the EU’s ‘constructive engagement’ policy has shown scant results,” Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, wrote in an editorial this week for TOL.

It has also left Europe seeming diplomatically and ideologically impotent in the face of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

The reality couldn’t be more different. The Karimov regime may be brutal, but it is not all-powerful; in many respects it resembles a house of cards.
Not long after the Andijan massacre, Chris Seiple of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote, “Stability in Uzbekistan is a function of three constituencies: key ministers, major clan networks, and, increasingly, the people.”

Although Uzbekistan’s power structure is shadowy and complex, in terms of the country’s ruling elite, these appear to be divided up among several patronage networks, with two centred around Tashkent and Samarkand (Karimov’s own) the most significant ones.

Karimov has worked hard to keep those two at odds with each other. Relatively frequent cabinet reshufflings and partitioning and re-partitioning the country’s military, security, and police forces between them have kept the two networks on their toes – perhaps dangerously so. Strings of explosions in 1999 and 2004, for instance, may have been a power-play between them.

In the meantime, Karimov has concentrated wealth and influence into the hands of his immediate family, quietly sapping it from the power bases he once relied upon.
Meanwhile, according to, the government uses an estimated 12,000 local mahallacommittees to manipulate the general population. These committees serve a variety of legitimate social functions but also collect intelligence. Their relationship with locals is often complicated, varying in trust and dependency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it has nevertheless served to link local society to the government and thus create a strong well of public support for the Karimov regime.
Despite this, everyday life is not well. Although unemployment statistics are unreliable, reports that the number of unemployed and underemployed has been terminally high and has actually been increasing.

All told, Uzbekistan is a society of ever more losers in a system increasingly geared toward maintaining the wealth and power of a tiny clique – and it’s precisely into this gap that Europe may be able to insert itself.

For if the Samarkand and Tashkent networks can be described as clans, the Karimovs are in effect becoming a third one, with loyalties to neither. From a classical Madisonian viewpoint, there’s a healthy balance countries should strike between too many factions and too few; Uzbekistan is quietly but inexorably tilting out of balance, and doubtlessly many within the Karimov regime are concerned, if not alarmed, by this.

Further, despite European fears, the Karimov regime has seemed fairly anxious to regain access to their markets, to say nothing of the Karimov family itself, which has been investing heavily in real estate on the Continent. Whatever Russia and China could offer, there is simply greater financial return for Uzbekistan in the deeper and more complex European economy.

If the EU wants to get serious about promoting change in Uzbekistan, it already has the tools it needs. First, it must reimpose the sanctions, but aim them squarely at the Karimovs and not yet upon the country as a whole. Inevitably, the Karimovs will tap into government coffers – something they’ve already been doing tacitly but could be forced to be more blatant about.

Second, the EU should consider coordinating, behind the scenes, with the Samarkand and Tashkent networks. Bruno de Cordier, a Central Asian security and conflict specialist at the University of Ghent, points out that Karimov is 73, explaining, “He will go away naturally in the forseeable future, which makes it necessary to keep a foot in Uzbekistan for who what succeeds him.”

“Much depends on how a change of ruler, which will sooner or later happen in Uzbekistan, will go though. There are certainly reasonable people within the regime who might come forward in the future,” he adds.

The key is for Europe to identify such individuals and make them a straightforward offer: real liberalisation, not to mention real rule of law, in exchange for meaningfully expanded trade. Brussels could also remind them that individualised sanctions can always be re-directed at Karimov’s successors, too.
Of course, while making such deals, it would be wise for Brussels not to interfere in the affairs betweenthe networks, which could backfire if they started to perceive the Europeans as a common enemy. Indeed, the goal is to get them to view Karimov, and even more importantly, the authoritarian structure of his regime, as the true enemy.
Unfortunately, though, that means a certain amount of violence in the lead-up to the new regime, and afterward, continued and significant corruption at the highest levels of office, will probably be inevitable. The first may simply have to be suffered; as for the latter, the important thing to do in response is for Europe to actively promote real job growth among the general population.

As for Russia and China, there is little either could do to stop this process. For one, because its end results would also be in their best interests, and for another, because it would place almost all the momentum in European hands. Letting both know, through back channels, that the Europeans would not stop Russian and Chinese business investments but would in fact encourage them – indeed, perhaps as a method to promote job growth – might be an effective carrot to buy their complicity.

This is, of course, a risky strategy, requiring real commitment. I also recognise that for many experts and observers of Uzbekistan, my analysis may be either too simplistic or, conversely, my proposals insufficiently fierce, amounting to nothing more than smart sanctions and naivety in the face of the complexity and depth of corruption in the country.
However, at least this is a more nuanced approach, rather than the rigid dichotomy of confrontation and unconditional engagement. And if implemented, and if it became successful, the payoff would be huge: an Uzbekistan that both Uzbeks and the international community can bear to face.