I wrote a 3000-word essay for World Politics Review on Uzbekistan’s history as an independent state, the rise of Islam Karimov, the death of Karimov, and the challenges for his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The essay explains how and why authoritarian leaders backed by force also try to establish popular legitimacy — which may prove difficult given Uzbekistan’s political and economic crises:
Here, Mirziyoyev may run into serious problems. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan’s prosperity declined as its sense of nationhood solidified, with patriotism offered as a balm for persecution and poverty. Under Mirziyoyev, frustrations at the declining quality of life may finally be publicly expressed, for Uzbeks would no longer be insulting Karimov, but his unproven successor.
Critiquing Mirziyoyev is unwise, from a safety perspective, but it is not quite the attack on national identity that critiquing Karimov was. Should Mirziyoyev fail to improve Uzbekistan’s material conditions, he may be accused of insulting Karimov’s legacy, even though he is merely continuing its brutal ways. Karimov created a compelling illusion, and if Mirziyoyev cannot find his role—or construct one for himself—in the national mythos, he may take the fall.
There has always been a divide between the Uzbekistan presented in propaganda and the Uzbekistan of people’s everyday life, between the laws and protections written in the constitution and the oppressive behavior of officials on the ground. If Uzbekistan continues its downward economic spiral, that split may be represented in another way: between Karimov, the lost Uzbek ideal, and Mirziyoyev, the grim Uzbek reality. There may be calls from the public, perhaps peaceful, perhaps violent, for that reality to change. And should that occur, a new way of being Uzbek, one actually determined by Uzbek citizens, may finally emerge.