Karimov’s Crumbling Kleptocracy

The Unraveling of Uzbekistan’s Soviet Relic State

Karimov's latest election "victory" may belie foundational issues in Ubekistan that simmer just above the surface. saeima / Flickr

Uzbekistan’s presidential elections have always been a charade. President Islam Karimov has ruled the country since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. It therefore wasn’t surprising that media around the world treated the outcome of the March 29 presidential election as a foregone conclusion far ahead of voting.

In a sign of his unapologetic autocracy, Karimov did not even bother to invent a pretext explaining how he could run for a fourth term in office when the country’s constitution limits the president to two. Even by regional standards, Uzbekistan is a rare case study in authoritarianism: Karimov’s 25-year tenure is a record in the region, and the president has treated Uzbekistan as a feudal kingdom working for his personal enrichment.

Although Karimov’s reelection was assured, the survival of the system he has created is not guaranteed. Uzbekistan’s future is increasingly uncertain: the Russian recession has brought a decline in remittances sent home from Uzbek laborers in Russia; religious repression has the potential to foment Islamic extremism; and fears of a leadership vacuum are becoming more pressing as the president—now 77 and allegedly in ill health—ages without a clear succession plan.


Uzbekistan’s financial system, more than that of any other post-Soviet nation, still bears the hallmarks of the command economy from whence it sprang. Karimov’s central government controls the hydrocarbons, mining, and agricultural sectors, which produce most of the country’s export revenues. Not surprisingly, these sectors are mismanaged, and the revenue they do generate goes to the ruling elites 

Many Uzbeks have had to survive recent winters without natural gas as the government, in a bid to increase hard currency exports, has sold gas abroad instead of on the local market. The Karimov regime has also used a system based on forced labor to pull in everyone from students and teachers to public- and private-sector employees to help harvest cotton. Foreign investors such as General Motors and the Scandinavian Telecoms

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