Uzbekistan mired in uncertainty with veteran leader ill

Moscow (AFP) - Ex-Soviet nation Uzbekistan has plunged into unchartered territory after strongman leader Islam Karimov, who has dominated the country for over 25 years, was rushed into intensive care with a brain haemorrhage.

While conflicting rumours of Karimov's condition buzz through the Central Asian nation, one thing is sure -- the strategic country is facing a moment of uncertainty unparallelled in its post-Soviet history.

"The developments are unprecedented," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP.

"The entire state has been Islam Karimov, Islam Karimov has been the state for over quarter of a century ruling with an iron fist."

Former Soviet apparatchik Karimov, 78, whose brutal crackdown on dissent has been widely criticised by rights groups, has been at the helm of the strategic country bordering Afghanistan from since before it gained independence from Moscow in 1991.

His younger daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva announced on social media Monday that he was in a "stable" condition in hospital after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage over the weekend.

Since then the authorities in the tightly-controlled state have released no further official statement on his health.

- 'No one knows' -

While there has been no confirmation of Karimov's latest condition and he could in theory stage a recovery, the gravity of his illness has left many in the country now facing up to the prospect of life without the only ruler they have ever known.

"Uzbeks have known for a long time that that moment would arrive, so no one would be surprised, but no one knows what will happen next," said Scott Radnitz, an associate professor at the University of Washington told AFP.

Despite being dogged by persistent health rumours, Karimov lacks a clear successor after being re-elected to a fifth term in 2015 with more than 90 percent of the vote. The country has never held an election judged free and fair by international monitors.

"There are two questions now: First, is there a plan for succession we don't know about? Second, even if there is, will the principals stick to it?" Radnitz said.

In theory the head of the senate should step in if Karimov dies or is incapable of ruling, but analysts dismissed him as a water-carrier.

Instead those tipped to take over more long term in the case of Karimov's long illness or death include Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an independent Uzbek political analyst based in France, told AFP.

"I think in the corridors of power they have already started fighting," Rabbimov said, while predicting the elite will be keen to ensure the transition is "more or less stable."

"On the one hand the political elite is fighting each other and regrouping but on the other, they understand they need to keep control of the country. They have gained massive wealth under Karimov."

Critics accuse Karimov of ruthlessly eviscerating all opposition in the cotton-rich country -- most prominently with the alleged massacre of hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005.

But the veteran operator has managed to play Russia, the West and China off against each other to keep his regime from total isolation.

Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch said that while "certainly we could get more of the same or we could get even worse" in terms of human rights from any new leadership, this was a moment for "maximum leverage" from the West for Uzbekistan to clean up its act.

"The fear is that in order to avoid any future leader of Uzbekistan running closely into the embrace of the Kremlin they'll need to reserve their criticism," Swerdlow said.

"The truth is if Western diplomats are looking at this objectively is that Uzbekistan has always charted a course away or independent of Moscow and will likely continue to do so."

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