Islam Karimov, the Communist Party apparatchik who transformed post-independence Uzbekistan into a brutal personal fiefdom while reaping political and economic benefits from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, has died in Tashkent. He was 78.
His death was announced Friday by state television after days of official silence. His daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, wrote on verified social media accounts that he had suffered a “cerebral hemorrhage” on Aug. 27.
Karimov will be buried Saturday in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, his birthplace, the government said in a statement.
His death threatens instability but offers slight chance of change in Uzbekistan, a landlocked, mostly Muslim country in Central Asia that Karimov ruled even before independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. At least publicly, he had not named a successor.
A wily political survivor who emerged unscathed from Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era corruption purges, Karimov maintained iron-fisted stability over his 31 million people during the 1990s while neighboring countries were roiled by political turmoil and even civil war.
To maintain his grip, he fostered Uzbek nationalism, harassed the political opposition and targeted independent religious centers of power, justifying mass arrests of Muslims as necessary in the struggle against Islamist radicalism.
Although he eschewed the golden statues and trappings favored by some post-Soviet dictators, Karimov dominated his country’s politics for a quarter-century in a similarly savage manner.
As parliament considered a 1998 law to place tighter restrictions on religion, ostensibly to combat extremism, Karimov exhorted: “Such people must be shot in the forehead! If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself!” Reports of macabre methods of torture, including the boiling of prisoners to death, followed.
Karimov’s brand of stability found support in Moscow and in the West as a bulwark against Islamist radicalism — Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan to the south — but he also led his country into economic stagnation. Although Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous nation, rich in hydrocarbons and valuable minerals, 16 percent of the country lives below the United Nations poverty line, and it has become known for forced labor.
Meanwhile, Karimov’s family is believed to have amassed fabulous wealth.
Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov was born Jan. 30, 1938, in Samarkand, in what was then the Soviet Union.
In the late 1960s, he married into a well-connected family, became a protégé of powerful Communist Party leaders and began advancing politically. As the Soviet Union collapsed, he quickly sidelined political opponents and charted an authoritarian path, winning presidential elections and declaring independence from Moscow in 1991.
Karimov’s most ferocious known act of repression came in 2005. After the arrest of 23 businessmen in the eastern city of Andijon, Uzbek security forces fired into a crowd of thousands with live ammunition. Karimov said the protesters were armed, while eyewitnesses claimed they were peaceful, and many were women and children. The government put the death toll at 187, but rights workers claimed it was far higher.
The relationship with the United States unraveled after the slaughter in Andijon provoked calls by Washington for an international investigation. Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military from Karshi-Khanabad, cutting off a key transit point for humanitarian relief to northern Afghanistan.
However, by 2008, the two countries had repaired the relationship, and the United States was using Uzbek territory to ship military cargo along a land route to Afghanistan. The Obama administration’s top diplomats — Hillary Clinton and John Kerry — continued diplomatic forays to Tashkent to maintain ties.