The President of Uzbekistan is dead – finally, officially.
Despite funeral arrangements in his home town well under-way, foreign governments sending – then retracting – condolences, news agencies releasing and denying confirmations, as well as governments announcing they will be attending the funeral, no official announcement was made until almost 18:00 GMT+1 from the Government of Uzbekistan.
Islam Karimov, the first and only President of independent Uzbekistan, is thought to have died on Sunday or Monday. With the 25th anniversary of the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union on August 31st and Independence Day celebrated on September 1st, the final confirmation of his death appears to have been delayed.
For those who work in similar countries, this feels normal. But let’s not lose sight of how strange it is: A national funeral is planned for the Head of State of a country, without any formal notification that they have died.
Global commentators will not mourn his death. They will point to the decades of human rights abuses – from political prisoners and forced labour to boiling people alive as part of a regime of torture.
Despite the farcical nature of Uzbekistan’s propaganda machine – and the regime that the President presided over – the fact remains clear: the only President a generation of young people have known has fallen. The hugely respected research on Central Asia, Sarah Kendzior, summarises:
Outside, the world will either deplore his Presidency or won’t even see the news of his death. But inside Uzbekistan the atmosphere will be different.
The pubic scenes will not be similar to those we witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt – or even Libya in the first few days – when dictators fell. It will not be jubilant. No machine guns will fire in the air. No hashtag will proclaim a new era in the history of the nation.
For young people, it will be a bewildering experience.
Today, young people will be confused and scared. They face an uncertain time – and probably the biggest political, social and cultural event to shape their entire lives. Their futures will be decided from this moment. They have every right – and are right – to be afraid of what could happen next.
Karimov has forged an Uzbekistan where a single individual – himself – is synonymous with the foundations of the country. Immediately, for many, there will be confusion. The way in which their country is imagined – the very idea of their country – will have changed overnight.
This is challenging to describe in words – particularly for those reading in Europe. This is not the same as Princess Diana’s death, that of adored celebrities– or even what it will be like when the United Kingdom’s Queen dies. The whole premise on which the state is built has been shattered; not by revolution or armed struggle, but by age. In the UK, it would be like democracy itself falling.
In my work across former Soviet Union states – particularly in Central Asia – young people are not oblivious to their situation. They know the country they live in – better than any of us. But this doesn’t make the reconceptualisation of their country an easier notion to grapple with. They know the situation they live in, but now they don’t even know how that situation fits within the bigger picture – and the events swirling and unfolding in secret.
For young people, the months and years ahead are uncertain. A new President, albeit a new figurehead of the same regime, is unlikely to change their experience of daily life or improve their situation.
But slowly, something might change in their minds.
Manuel Castells, in his 2015 book, notes the change happens not only from a “counter-power” – an uprising against formal institutions that represent oppression – but for a change in mind-set in the individuals. In Egypt, the revolution wasn’t just about individuals physically protesting on the streets; it was the removal of fear in the mind of activists that allowed them to consider participating. In Uzbekistan, a popular revolution is not likely. But the loss of a President will change the way they consider their place in the country and the institutions that govern their lives – however small initially.
The next President might be better or worse – who knows? – but it is the disruption in their minds that will have the biggest effect.