Uzbekistan: Ascension or How
The head of state Islam Karimov aspires for presidency again. Election of the president of Uzbekistan is scheduled for December 23, 2007, but its outcome is already a foregone conclusion - as well as the name of the man to rule the country another seven year term. How was Karimov elevated to the pinnacle of political power in the first place almost two decades ago? Here is a story told by a man who knew the Uzbek political establishment and how things were done in it in the late 1980s. It answers this question, at least partially.
In 1989, the Central Committee of the CPSU voted to make Rafik Nishanov, the head of the Uzbek republican organization, Chairman of the Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
Former ideologist and diplomat (Soviet ambassador to Sri-Lanka and Jordan), Nishanov was ideal for the head of a house of the Soviet parliament.
Someone had to be elevated to Nishanov's post in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Yegor Ligachev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, promoted Salijan Mamarasulov. (Ex-secretary of the Andijan Regional Committee of the CPSU and former Irrigation and Agricultural Engineering Minister in Uzbekistan, Mamarasulov was First Secretary of the Surhandarja Regional Committee of the CPSU then.) With a peasant's appearance and physique, straightforward and easy to deal with, Mamarasulov had been spared in the purges that followed the so called Cotton Investigation in Uzbekistan as uninvolved.
According to Mamarasulov himself, he turned the offer down as an honor but way too risky and suggested Islam Karimov, the head of the Kashkadarja region, instead.
Organizational Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU considered other candidates as well (Mirzaalim Ibragimov, First Secretary of the Ferghana Regional Committee Mamajan Juldashev, and the former head of the Samarkand Regional Committee Nazir Rajabov) but not one of them met the requirements. In other words, not one of them could be trusted. It was decided therefore to follow the advice of Boris Istomin (formerly Second Secretary of the Tashkent Regional Committee of the CPSU, he was running the Agricultural Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU then) who pronounced Karimov promoting correct views in the matter of agrarian policy in Uzbekistan.
There were several other factors in Karimov's favor as well: his recent criticism of the Uzbek mentality which he believed had resulted in cotton yield write-ups and therefore in the scandalous Cotton Investigation, his pointed disassociation from other regional leaders save for Yefimov (Moscow had made this former officer of the Soviet Airborne Troops the head of the Navoi region), and even the fact that his first and second spouses were Russians.
It should be noted here that mixed marriages were a considerable factor since the first years of the Soviet era in Central Asia. The wife of Akmal Ikramov, the very First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party, was a Jew. Usman Yusupov who succeeded Ikramov as the republican leader in 1937 (the period of repressions) had a wife from Ukraine. Abdujabbor Abdurahmanov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Uzbekistan then, had a wife from Tatarstan. (In fact, this trend applied to other command heights as well.)
Back to Karimov. With "nationalism" and everything "nationalist" being an anathema in the wake of the Cotton Investigation, the would-be leader of Uzbekistan had to have some additional ties with Moscow and Russia as a guarantee of loyalty to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Tatiana Karimova was expected to play this part... but Moscow miscalculated.
Here follows a story by a journalist who represented a Moscow-based newspaper in Tashkent in the 1980s.
"I had to make a trip to Moscow in 1989, and some acquaintances of mine asked me to take with me a parcel for Ahmajon Muhtarov, editor of Kishlok Hakikati. Muhtarov was a grizzled journalist who had worked for Lenin Bairogi, the Samarkand regional newspaper, since the age of 16. By the way, it was Editor-in-Chief Sharaf Rashidov who employed Muhtarov as a courier. Keeping an eye on the youngster, Rashidov appreciated his brains and hardworking nature and eventually elevated him to some office job.
Muhtarov became editor years later. I'd say he was an extraordinary man indeed. When he moved to Tashkent to become editor of the republican Kishlok Hakikati, colleagues elected Muhtarov chairman of the Uzbek Journalistic Union. He never gave them a reason to wish they had chosen someone else.
Muhtarov used to say that journalist only had two valuable things - his quill and his notebook - and therefore needed help and encouragement. It was Muhtarov's persistence that overcame bureaucratic barriers, and it was to his efforts that lots of journalists owed apartments and personal autos. It was really something, you know, in the Soviet Union with its eternal shortages of virtually everything.
The Uzbek Journalistic Union nominated Muhtarov for the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Muhtarov was running for it against Izvestia observer Alexander Bovin, a man known all over the USSR, and came in first.
Muhtarov became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. It was a period when the parliament became a structure discussing truly pressing problems. Its sessions lasted weeks and months, keeping deputies in Moscow. And that was how it came about that I was asked to take some fresh fruits and vegetables from Tashkent to Muhtarov in Moscow.
I phoned Muhtarov when in Moscow and arranged for a meeting next day in Moskva, the hotel that catered for deputies of the Supreme Soviet. My ID took me past watchmen at the entrance, I took elevator to the necessary floor, found Muhtarov's suit, knocked, and entered. There were three men inside. One of them was Academician Erkin Yusupov, dean of the Tashkent State University and deputy of the Supreme Soviet. I recognized him at once. Muhtarov was the second. As for the third man present, he seemed vaguely familiar. It took me a moment to match a name to the face. He was Karimov, First Secretary of the Kashkadarja Regional Committee of the CPSU.
"I do not know if I'm the man for it. I mean, I'm just an economist, without much in terms of experience in party work," Karimov was saying. "I'm convinced that you will do just fine. And of course, you can always count on our help," was Muhtarov's reply.
Karimov was startled to see me enter and immediately began sizing me up. (Can't say he was favorably impressed with my casual outfit and long hair. At least, that was my feeling.) Muhtarov introduced me, saying I was a representative of a central newspaper and so on. Karimov said it was nice to meet a representative of so respectable a newspaper, shook hands all around, and left. The Academician followed suit soon. I apologized for having interrupted something but Muhtarov said it was all right because they had already discussed everything. Saying that some profound changes were about to commence in Uzbekistan, he invited me to dinner. We did not return to the matter again.
Talking to my fellow Uzbek deputies in Moscow, I got the impression that vicious struggle over the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was under way.
The Central Committee of the CPSU still undecided, Muhtarov was actively promoting Karimov for the vacancy. Karimov had some other supporters in the Supreme Soviet as well, namely Yusupov and poet Abdulla Aripov. Their combined effort eventually persuaded the Central Committee and Karimov was made the republican leader.
My second meeting with Karimov, already the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party, took place on the premises of the editorial office of Halk Suzi or People's Word.
Appearance of the first issue of the newspaper on December 1, 1991, was celebrated with pomp. Dinner was arranged at the cafeteria of Shark Publishers, and invitations were sent to numerous guests. I was standing in front of the entrance when a Volga car pulled over nearby and Karimov emerged from it. He was alone, without the usual retinue of minor functionaries. It was clear that he was somewhat at a loss, not knowing what to do now or where to go, and he was just standing there on the curb.
I approached Karimov. We shook hands, and he began asking me the usual questions about health and things in general. Small talk done away with, he asked where the celebration was taking place. I took him to the canteen and approached Muhtarov. "You have a guest," I whispered in his ear. "It's all right," he said.
"Just find him a vacant seat somewhere, will you?" -
"No, you'd better take a look."
Muhtarov did and, seeing Karimov, immediately rose, went over to the guest, and personally led him to the table. Karimov toasted the newspaper and its staff, wished everyone all luck and success, and departed soon afterwards.
That is how things were done then. Seeing the corteges accompanying him nowadays, I cannot believe that the same man rode the same streets without escort not so long ago.
Friction between Karimov and Muhtarov began soon. One of the clashes between them was fomented by a publication that criticized the CPSU and stated that the one-party system had failed, that a multiparty system was needed in the republic to represent interests of all strata of society. Pieces and publications like that were all the rage then.
Karimov was the president already. As the former First Secretary of the Republican Committee of the CPSU, however, he felt he had to defend esprit de corps. (The time when he would condemn the CPSU and criticize Russia as the successor to the USSR would come later, you know.) At the moment, however, the publication kicked up a major quarrel between him and Muhtarov. I was present in Muhtarov's office once when he was arguing the matter with Karimov over the phone.
"I'm talking to Karimov the citizen now, not the president," Muhtarov said. "Even if you like this one-party arrangement, it does not mean that the whole population must uphold this view too. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion on any issue, and that includes the matter of political parties."
Muhtarov was sacked soon after that and Halk Suzi staff went on strike. (It was something truly unprecedented in the history of media. It was the first time - and so far the last - journalists expressed their disagreement with the powers-that-be in this manner.) The strike lasted over a week and Muhtarov was reappointed. In any event, he was sacked again soon afterwards, and that was final. All of this must have taken its toll because Muhtarov passed away before long.