After 25 years under one notoriously brutal ruler, Uzbekistan is experiencing politics.
To be sure, this isn't politics as one might usually think of it: There are still no opposition parties allowed in the country, the media are still not free to report independently, and anyone who steps out of line is still likely to end up imprisoned, in exile, or dead.
The general thuggery of the regime isn't changing, but a certain kind of politics has nevertheless emerged in the form of an open competition for power between two leading regime figures: Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the dreaded secret police, the National Security Service of Uzbekistan (SNB), and Gulnara Karimova, international jet-setter, aspiring fashion designer and pop star, business magnate, and eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov. Two others -- Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- are also in the mix of possible contenders.
Karimova has recently been the center of the show, with numerous allegations thrown at her. Abroad, she had already lost her ambassadorial role in Geneva a few months ago, and she's been the subject of fraud and corruption allegations in France, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Back home, however, her world is now imploding. Prosecutors have arrested one of her close associates. The authorities have opened an investigation into the disappearance and alleged abuse of another former staff member who Karimova apparently believed had cheated her. She claims someone has beaten up some of her bodyguards. The government has seemingly frozen some of her bank accounts, and she is now reportedly forbidden to leave the country. And there are at least three separate official inquiries into her charitable foundations -- groups she often used to try to mask her reputation as what a U.S. diplomatic cable termed "the single most hated person in the country."
The force believed to be behind this unprecedented wave of attacks on Karimova is someone who could presumably challenge her for that ignominious title: Inoyatov, possibly in combination with her other rivals. As the president's chief enforcer -- the one who oversees Uzbekistan's vast system of political oppression -- Inoyatov might seem the least likely to turn on his boss's own flesh and blood. But this is precisely what's drawing attention.
There are three prevailing theories about what's going on. First, that the 75-year-old Karimov's health is failing -- which means that he may no longer be able to control competing elites like he used to. Rumors of his fading health have circulated many times before, though.
The second possibility is that Karimov finally learned what his daughter, "Googoosha" (his pet name for her and her stage name when she's singing), was getting up to abroad, prompting him to rein her in. Maybe he finally learned about the financial scandals in Europe. Or perhaps he found out she was chatting with human rights activists and journalists on Twitter -- a definite no-no in a country that doesn't allow foreigners to pry. Foreign correspondents can rarely get visas and have been deported when attempting to visit Uzbekistan. International human rights organizations are kept out; the country has repeatedly refused to allow visits from U.N. rapporteurs, and Tashkent won't even allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to operate normally. There's also speculation that Karimov was angered by his daughter's insatiable appetite for publicity. The president may have felt that her penchant for tweeting photos of herself in yoga poses and revealing clothing was unbecoming of an ambassador and first daughter.
The third theory is that it's all some elaborate ruse by father and daughter to test everyone's loyalty. Usman Haqnazarov, the pen name of an anonymous writer known for exclusive scoops on the ruling family, has asserted that the whole story is a stratagem to provide cover for "repatriating" Gulnara's ill-gotten gains directly back into state coffers. It sounds overly complicated, but some find it impossible to believe that Karimov is not ultimately behind every twist and turn in the country. He's been in absolute charge for the past two and half decades, after all.
But the ultimate reason behind the new split is less important than its visibility. Such an open rift among A-list elites has never happened before in independent Uzbekistan's leadership, which, like any authoritarian regime, abhors dissent of any kind (and especially so close to the top). This is new. And if you're an Uzbekistan-watcher starved for events and information, it's clearly a big deal.
Of course, this doesn't change the day-to-day reality for most people in the country. Dozens of peaceful opposition figures, human rights activists, and journalists are languishing in prison for no other reason than their peaceful civic activism. Several thousand more Muslims, but also many Christians, have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges for exercising their religious beliefs outside strict state controls. Nor is there any freedom of assembly. In 2005, government forces shot dead hundreds of mainly peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijan.
Torture in police custody and in the prisons is systematic. The story of a prisoner being boiled alive a few years ago is now legendary, but it's hardly unique. Just two months ago, for example, police in the city of Parkent continuously beat 24-year-old Zahid Umataliev on the legs, head, face, and body with rubber truncheons after charging him with stealing a cell phone. After he was sentenced to 15 days detention on fabricated charges of "resisting arrest," Umataliev was savagely beaten over the next six days to force confessions from him.
There's no freedom of speech. Independent journalists regularly end up in prison. In September, for example, authorities arrested Sergei Naumov, a journalist known for his independent reporting, under circumstances that appeared orchestrated to keep him from carrying out his work.
And then there's Uzbekistan's tradition of deadly forced labor -- including child labor -- in the cotton industry. Every year, the state forces millions of its own citizens -- students, doctors, nurses, and teachers -- to leave their families and spend several weeks living and harvesting cotton in the fields, where they're exposed to pesticides and extreme weather. They receive little to no pay for their work, while the elite gets rich from it.
The dispute we're now seeing between Inoyatov and Karimova is ultimately about control of this empire of oppression and spoils. In the absence of democratic institutions to resolve conflicts, the logic of authoritarianism allows little chance of compromise. It's strictly winner-take-all. Whoever wins, though, the sad reality is that Uzbekistan's people will continue to lose unless the new leader commits to making meaningful human rights improvements, including allowing meaningful political participation for the country's citizens.
It's extremely hard to imagine that secret police chief Inoyatov, or anyone he might back for the leadership, will ever make significant positive changes. Karimova also offers little hope. She may have tried to "talk torture" on Twitter last week in relation to her beaten bodyguards, but her complaints are hardly credible, particularly since she failed to speak about endemic torture in the country in several Twitter exchanges with us (hereand here) when she was Uzbekistan's representative to the United Nations in Geneva, where the U.N. Human Rights Council is located. But she never answered the detailed letter we wrote to her, as she'd promised to do on Twitter, and never gave any indication that she was serious about improving the country's abysmal human rights record.
In short, in this battle for power, neither side's past record suggests that anything's going to get better in Uzbekistan any time soon. In fact, things could actually get worse.
Uzbekistan is a country locked down so tightly, where authoritarian unity under Karimov has been so unquestioned, that no one can say for sure what will happen now that these small cracks are appearing. Such division at the top is unprecedented, and it could give others ideas: People may see Karimov as on the way out, and power as up for grabs. If the Karimov family's rule is open to question, Inoyatov's may be as well. Radical ideas and armed insurgent groups are active in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Such a doomsday scenario may seem far-fetched at the moment. But when an authoritarian state starts unravelling -- particularly when its list of abuses is long and horrific -- it unleashes pent-up forces no one can predict. Who saw Syria coming?
It's another good reason the United States, the European Union, and other key states should publicly hold the Uzbek government accountable for its severe human rights abuses. For years, Washington and Brussels have mostly given Uzbekistan a pass, raising human rights concerns behind closed doors and lifting the limited sanctions they had placed on Tashkent in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, even as Karimov failed to make any meaningful improvements. He was seen as too useful to condemn too much, especially after 9/11 and the Afghan intervention made geography Karimov's best ally. He was seen as a "guarantor of stability" in the region. And that was certainly true -- insofar as stability meant one ruler keeping a lid on things no matter the method.
The problem is that the lid now seems to be coming off. While Washington and Brussels cannot predict or control the outcome of Uzbekistan's current experiment with "politics," they should do more to demonstrate publicly to the millions of ordinary Uzbeks watching this drama unfold, that human rights, not the name of the new ruler, will determine their relations with Tashkent.
Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) is European media director for Human Rights Watch.
Steve Swerdlow (@steveswerdlow) is Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.