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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbeks Wonder Who Will Rule Next

baltimore sunWomen selling produce in Karimov's hometown, Samarkand, which residents say is emptying as people look for work.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- If there is one common concern that people in Uzbekistan share, it is their president's silence.

Accused in the West -- and, quietly, at home -- of violating human rights and crushing dissent, President Islam Karimov has ruled Central Asia's most-populous nation since 1991. His current, and last, presidential term expires at the end of this year. But there has been no word on whether he plans to step down, or even whether there will be an election.

"No one understands what's going on. Everyone is kept in the dark," Nigara Khidayatova, head of the opposition Free Farmers' party, said in her apartment in the capital, Tashkent.

"Everything has gone completely quiet. We cannot predict anything -- whether there will be an election or whether it will be something completely unexpected," she said.

Diplomats and analysts suggested a number of scenarios: from last-minute constitutional changes allowing Karimov to extend his term by a few years or run for president again, to a referendum declaring him president for life.

"There is a feeling, even on the streets, that everything has come to a standstill, nothing is moving, everyone is waiting for something to happen," a Tashkent resident said.

A Western diplomat, who agreed with the constitutional changes scenario, said, "Of course we should not exclude the possibility that he might step down or name a successor."

Uzbekistan was once a key regional player that flourished in trade, culture and science. It is now one of the poorest nations in the former Soviet Union, despite being the world's second-biggest cotton exporter and sitting on significant oil and gas reserves. In one of the most unpopular reforms, many open-air markets -- a key element of economic life in the traditionally merchant society -- were shut down in 2002 as part of Karimov's campaign against black market trade.

With a third of the population of 27 million living below the poverty line, uncertainty is beginning to erode willingness to bow to authority for the sake of stability, observers say.

But such talk is confined to private conversations in a country where up to 8,000 political prisoners are in jail, said Surat Ikramov, a prominent human rights campaigner.

"This is what an authoritarian regime does. It creates a society in which people's rights are violated but people are deliberately kept poor," he said.

In Karimov's hometown, Samarkand, a Silk Road town southwest of Tashkent, locals said many unemployed have migrated to Kazakhstan and Russia looking for work.

"Samarkand was a real bazaar city -- bustling," said an elderly resident who asked not to be identified. "It's all gone dead now. The streets are empty. The men are leaving."

First elected in 1991, Karimov won re-election in 2000. He has several times used referendums to extend his term, and parliament extended his latest term until December 2007.

Western criticism of his rule reached its highest point in 2005 when troops opened fire on a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan. Witnesses said hundreds were killed.

"We feel that the world is deaf to our problems," Ikramov said. "There has been more criticism after Andijan, but Uzbekistan does not want to listen."

Ikramov, one among a handful of Karimov's outspoken critics, said he is still recovering from an incident in 2003 when unknown assailants beat him unconscious and broke his ribs.

Karimov has said he is safeguarding the country from Islamist militants who are trying to oust him and establish a Muslim caliphate. He has denied troops fired at civilians in Andijan and said that the 187 people who died were all either police or "terrorists."

Uzbekistan sank into further isolation after the events, with the EU imposing sanctions. Last year the EU tried to re-engage Uzbekistan by reviving talks on human rights, a policy some think has failed.

"I don't think Karimov genuinely wants to develop relations with the EU," the Western diplomat said. "He wants to get rid of the sanctions, not because it blocks our relations but because they are bad for Uzbekistan's image."