On August 28, 2016, Uzbekistan announced its President, Islam Karimov, had been hospitalized, but officials gave few details about his condition. On September 2 after a week of conflicting reports, the government confirmed that Karimov had died and the following day a funeral was held in his hometown of Samarkand.
The 78-year-old Karimov served as Uzbekistan's only President from the time of its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Prior to his death, his deteriorating health caused observers to speculate about the insular country's process for choosing a new leader. Family relationships and clan dynamics play a significant role in the country's political structure. A disputed succession for the powerful office of President could affect the domestic stability of Uzbekistan and have broader implications for U.S. interests throughout the region.
Uzbekistan has a highly authoritarian and personality-driven political system. Although the country has both presidential and parliamentary elections, they are not generally considered free or fair. Uzbekistan has no significant opposition groups, and fundamental political freedoms such as the right of assembly, expression, and free association are strictly curtailed.
Uzbekistan's clan rivalries are central to the country's political dynamics. Some observers have suggested that in recent years, a power struggle has been playing out between a clan centered on the capital, Tashkent, and the Samarkand clan, which dominates the west of the country. Other observers have suggested that control over powerful institutions such as the military and security services is more critical in determining the outcome of a succession struggle.
An actual, long-term succession decision is likely to take place via private, informal processes. On September 8, the parliament appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev as acting president. In accordance with Article 96 of Uzbekistan's constitution, it is expected that general elections will be held within three months.
Potential successors include at least four key figures, including Prime Minister Mirziyaev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, National Security Service Chief Rustam Inoyatov, and President Karimov's daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
Shavkat Mirziyaev has served as Prime Minister since 2003, and he was appointed acting president a few days after Karimov's funeral. He is said by some analysts to be relatively well-disposed toward Russia, which could suggest a possible departure from Karimov's policies that reduced Russian influence in Uzbekistan.
Rustam Azimov has held economic and finance-related positions for many years and is thought of as relatively technocratic. He currently works as Uzbekistan governor for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, one of the two main regional multilateral development banks, and he may be the most economically liberal of the potential successors.
Rustam Inoyatov is head of the National Security Service (SNB). He is suspected of being behind efforts to undermine Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara, once seen as a possible successor (see below). Some sources suggest that he is unlikely to become president himself, but any successor will need Inoyatov's support—he has been referred to by news outlets as a "kingmaker."
Karimov has no sons. Some observers consider President Karimov's younger daughter Lola to be a possible successor. She currently manages two children's charity organizations and serves as Uzbekistan's ambassador to UNESCO. Until 2013, Karimov's elder daughter Gulnara was considered a possible successor, despite reports of her deep unpopularity. After being placed under house arrest in connection with a far-reaching telecommunications industry corruption scandal, she is no longer considered a viable candidate. Lola said in a 2013 media interview that she had not spoken to her sister in over a decade. Gulnara reportedly did not attend her father's funeral.
The State Department notes that given its geographic location and large population, Uzbekistan plays an important role in U.S. efforts to promote regional economic integration and stability. Uzbekistan officials have expressed concern about the growth of extremism within its borders and in the region.
In January 2015, Uzbekistan received over 300 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program to support the country's counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts. Additionally, for FY2015 the State Department reported $507,000 spent on International Military Education and Training (IMET), $740,000 spent on International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), and $540,000 spent on Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR).
In recent years, Congress has modified the conditions on U.S. State Department security assistance to Uzbekistan. Omnibus Appropriations for FY2003 (P.L. 108-7) required that the Secretary of State certify that Uzbekistan was making substantial progress in meeting commitments to promote democracy and respect human rights, though the legislation allowed for a waiver on national security grounds. Subsequent appropriations legislation retained these conditions, with some modifications, through FY2015 (P.L. 113-235). The only specific condition related to the provision of aid to Uzbekistan in the FY2016 appropriations legislation is a notification requirement (P.L. 114-113).
Congress may also consider the following: