(MOSCOW) — Islam Karimov, who crushed all opposition in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan as its only president in a quarter-century of independence from the Soviet Union, has died of a stroke at age 78, the Uzbek government announced Friday.
Karimov will be buried Saturday in the ancient city of Samarkand, his birthplace, the government said in a statement.
His younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, said in a social media post Monday that he had been hospitalized in the capital of Tashkent after a brain hemorrhage Aug. 27. On Friday, she posted again, saying: “He is gone.”
Little other information was available. Media freedom and human rights have been harshly repressed ever since he became leader in 1989 while it was still a republic of the Soviet Union.
One of the world’s most authoritarian rulers, Karimov cultivated no apparent successor, and his death raised concerns that the predominantly Sunni Muslim country could face prolonged infighting among clans over its leadership, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit.
“The death of Islam Karimov may open a pretty dangerous period of unpredictability and uncertainty in Uzbekistan,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Tass news agency.
Given the lack of access to the strategic country, it’s hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be. Over the years, the group has been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and it has sent fighters abroad.
Under the Uzbek constitution, if the president dies his duties pass temporarily to the head of the senate until an election can be held within three months. However, the head of the Uzbek senate is regarded as unlikely to seek permanent power and Karimov’s demise is expected to set off a period of jockeying for political influence.
Karimov was known as a tyrant with an explosive temper and a penchant for cruelty. His troops machine-gunned hundreds of unarmed demonstrators to death during a 2005 uprising, he jailed thousands of political opponents, and his henchmen reportedly boiled some dissidents to death.
He came under widespread international criticism from human rights groups, but because of Uzbekistan’s location as a vital supply route for the war in neighboring Afghanistan, the West sometimes turned a blind eye to his worst abuses.
Noting Karimov’s death, President Barack Obama said in a statement the U.S. “reaffirms its support for the people of Uzbekistan.”
“This week, I congratulated President Karimov and the people of Uzbekistan on their country’s 25 years of independence,” Obama said in the statement. “As Uzbekistan begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to partnership with Uzbekistan, to its sovereignty, security, and to a future based on the rights of all its citizens.
Uzbekistan, a country of 30 million people famous for its apricot orchards, cotton fields and ancient stone cities along the Silk Road, had been one of the Muslim world’s paragons of art and learning.
But Karimov cracked down on any form of Islam that wasn’t patently subservient to him. His leadership style was epitomized by propaganda posters often displayed in Uzbekistan that depicted him alongside Tamerlane, a 14th-century emperor who had conquered a vast region of West, South and Central Asia.
He was known to shout and swear at officials during meetings and it was widely rumored that in bursts of anger he would beat officials and throw ashtrays at them.
Under Karimov, the economy remained centralized, with a handful of officials controlling the most lucrative industries and trade. A 1996 ban on the free convertibility of the national currency, the som, blocked trade and foreign investment, while unemployment soared and poverty was widespread.
Endemic corruption stymied development, despite considerable resources of natural gas and gold, along with its cotton exports. Millions of Uzbeks have flooded into Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan to support their families with remittances that amount to a sizable part of the country’s GDP.
Karimov was suspicious of the West and infuriated by its criticism of his human rights record, but he also dreaded Islamic militancy, fearing it could grow into a strong opposition.
He unleashed a harsh campaign against Muslims starting in 1997 and intensifying in 1999 after eight car bombs exploded near key government buildings in Tashkent. The explosions killed 16 people and wounded more than 100.
“I am ready to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, for the sake of peace and tranquility in the country,” Karimov said afterward. “If a child of mine chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”
In the next few years, thousands of Muslims who practiced their faith outside government-controlled mosques were rounded up and jailed for alleged links to banned Islamic groups.
In 2004, a series of bombings and attacks on police killed more than 50 people and sparked a new wave of arrests and convictions.
Following 9/11, the West overlooked Karimov’s harsh policies and cut a deal with him in 2001 to use Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad air base for combat missions in Afghanistan.
During a May 2005 uprising in the eastern city of Andijan, Uzbek troops fired on demonstrators, killing more than 700 people, according to witnesses and human rights groups. It was the world’s worst massacre of protesters since the 1989 bloodbath in China’s Tiananmen Square.
Angered by U.S. criticism of the crackdown, Karimov evicted U.S. forces from the base.
He later quietly softened his position, allowing Uzbekistan to be part of the Northern Distribution Network supply route for Afghanistan, whose utility declined when Russia dropped out of the network in 2015. The United States in turn agreed to start the sale of non-lethal military goods to his regime.
Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov was born on Jan. 30, 1938, and studied economics and engineering in what was then a Soviet republic, rising through the Communist Party bureaucracy.
In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made Karimov Uzbekistan’s Communist Party chief in the wake of a huge corruption scandal that involved top Uzbek officials. At the time, Karimov was seen as a hard-working and uncorrupt Communist.
On March 24, 1990, the local parliament elected him president of the Uzbek Socialist Republic, and in December 1991, just days after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Karimov won the presidency in a popular vote.
Shaken by a series of ethnic and religious riots in the turbulent years surrounding the Soviet collapse, Karimov was obsessed with stability and security. He said Uzbekistan would follow its own path of reform and would build democracy and a market economy without the turmoil and crises of most other former Soviet nations.
After his 1991 election, the fledgling democratic opposition was banned and forced into exile. The media were muzzled by censorship. Law enforcement and security services grew increasingly powerful and abusive, and the use of torture in prisons was labeled “systematic” by international observers.
Karimov’s death would “mark the end of an era in Uzbekistan, but almost certainly not the pattern of grave human rights abuses, said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “His successor is likely to come from Karimov’s closest circle, where dissenting minds have never been tolerated.”
Karimov was a distant leader. His annual New Year’s address to the nation was always read by a TV anchor. His wife rarely appeared in public, and his vacations were never announced.
But the public was constantly reminded of his leadership by banners with quotes from his speeches posted on buildings and billboards.
All of his election victories were landslides, but none were recognized as free or fair by international observers. His only challenger in 2000, Abdulkhafiz Dzhalolov, said he himself voted for Karimov.
His nephew, opposition journalist Jamshid Karimov, was forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution after a series of articles criticizing his uncle and other officials.
Karimov’s oldest daughter, Gulnara, generated media buzz over her immense wealth, fashion shows and music videos done under the stage name GooGoosha. Sometimes touted as a potential successor, she was both admired and despised at home.
In 2014, she used her Twitter account to accuse Uzbekistan’s security services of orchestrating a campaign of harassment against her and deceiving her father. Her tweets then stopped, prompting speculation that she and her 15-year-old daughter were under house arrest in Tashkent.
Word of Karimov’s death began spreading even before the Uzbek government announced it Friday night, with officials in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan saying leaders from those countries would attend his funeral and the Turkish prime minister offering condolences. Uzbekistan celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, which is perhaps why the government had delayed any news about Karimov.
Photos carried Friday by the respected Central Asian news website Fergana.ru showed what appeared to be undertakers in Samarkand working on a plot in the cemetery where Karimov’s family is buried.
The Samarkand airport said it would be closed to all flights except specially approved aircraft Saturday, according to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s website.
Uzbek opposition blogger Nadezhda Atayeva said Friday that Uzbek authorities appeared to be cracking down on communication channels. Speaking from western France, she said an opposition contact told her via Skype that government officials had been told to turn off their phones and Internet speeds had slowed. As he spoke, she said, the signal went dead.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.