Obituary: Islam Karimov
Ruler of Uzbekistan who was favoured by the West despite the exceptional brutality of his regime
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, who died last Friday aged 78, was one of the nastiest of the dictators who rose to power in central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union; yet he was a man with whom the West was prepared to do business, and was regarded as a "key ally" in the US-led war against terror.
Karimov rose to power under the USSR, becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR. In 1991, he promoted himself to "elected" president of the new independent republic of Uzbekistan.
He adapted old Soviet methods to the new era, replacing the hammer and sickle with a phoenix and crescent moon, and the KGB with a near-identical security bureau, the SNB. Using the excuse of maintaining stability in a turbulent region, he set about imposing one of the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships in the world.
Karimov's economic policies owed nothing to ideas of perestroika and made Stalin's five-year plans look almost enlightened. In the 15 years following independence, he closed the country's borders, slapped a 70pc tax on imports, shut down bazaars, forbade the development of private property rights and imposed stringent price controls.
Soviet-era collective farms remained unreformed; laws were passed ending cash trading and forcing all business transactions to go through state-owned banks. Living standards, low even in Soviet times, collapsed. Only Karimov and his cronies prospered thanks to his practice of forcing collective cotton farms to sell their produce to the state at a nominal fee, then selling it on the international market at enormous profit.
Criticism was suppressed; religious observance was restricted. By 2005, 10,000 dissidents languished in the country's jails where, according to a UN report, there was "rampant" use of torture, with electrocution, chlorine-filled gas masks, drowning and rape. In 2002, two of Karimov's critics were boiled alive - an "accident with a kettle". Not that Karimov made any bones about his methods. "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives... to save peace in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I would rip off his head myself," he said.
Yet he became a favoured western protege after becoming the first regional leader to support the US "war on terror" following 9/11. In return for the use of an airbase at Khanabad for "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, Karimov was rewarded with US aid worth $200m a year. There were other considerations. Uzbekistan holds a strategic position at the heart of the Central Asian oil and gas producing region, which meant America and Britain played down Karimov's tyranny.
Islam Abduganievich Karimov was born in Samarkand on January 30, 1938, the son of an ethnic Tajik mother and Uzbek father. Orphaned as a child, he was raised in a state orphanage. He studied engineering and economics and, in 1966, joined Uzbekistan's State Planning Department and became chairman in 1986.
Ironically, it was Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to purge parties of corrupt officials that provided Karimov with his opening. In 1989, with his rivals removed, he was elected First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. In 1991 his hard-line stance led Karimov to support the anti-Gorbachev coup attempt. But when the coup failed, he executed a U-turn. He outlawed the Communist Party and declared Uzbekistan independent.
Elected in a marred presidential campaign, Karimov reinvented himself as a patriotic Uzbek Muslim. He was then "re-elected" several times, the result of a ban on all genuine opposition parties.
Karimov, who was married twice and has three children, was the subject of frequent reports of ill-health and suffered a stroke on August 26.