Islam Karimov, one of the world’s most repressive leaders whose generation-long rule in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan was marked by Orwellian purges and Shakespearean family squabbles, was laid to rest Saturday in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand.
The heavily guarded funeral capped an odd few days during which Uzbek officials refused to confirm Karimov’s death, even as leaders from Turkey, Iran and Georgia offered condolences.
The official announcement said that Karimov, one of the last Soviet-era strongmen to retain power, died of a stroke Friday at the age of 78. But rumors of his death had been circulating online since he was hospitalized Aug. 27.
State-run television showed thousands of people lining the streets of the capital, Tashkent, as the funeral cortege carried Karimov’s body to the airport for the short flight to Samarkand, the city of his birth. They stood silently under blue, white and green Uzbek flags, many of them weeping and throwing flowers.
Official accounts described the scene as a spontaneous expression of grief, but several Uzbeks reached by phone said government employees, medical workers and school teachers were ordered to turn out and given flowers for free.
“We were forced to do things when he was alive, and even after his death, we are forced to pretend we’re mourning him,” said a math teacher, who asked to be identified only as Azamat, for fear of retribution.
At the airport, Karimov’s wife, Tatyana Karimova, and younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, both dressed in black and wearing head scarves, were shown crying as the body was loaded onto a plane. His older daughter, Gulnara Karimova, once seen as the heir apparent but now believed to be under house arrest, did not appear to be present.
Thousands of men and dignitaries from 17 countries filled Samarkand’s historic Registan square to pray in front of a palanquin containing Karimov’s body. (Women did not participate in the Muslim funeral rites.) Some of the men took turns to carry the body to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis for burial.
Many Uzbeks have known no other leader than Karimov, who rose to power in 1989, when the country was still a Soviet republic. He ruthlessly repressed all opposition: His forces machine-gunned hundreds of peaceful protesters to death during a 2005 uprising, jailed thousands of dissidents — and even boiled some of them to death, according to human rights activists.
Muslims who did not practice their faith in government-sanctioned mosques were also rounded up as suspected members of banned Islamist groups, a crackdown that intensified after eight car bombs exploded near key government buildings in Tashkent in 1999.
“As a politician, Karimov was a Soviet apparatchik with the brutality of a nomadic chieftain,” said Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based political analyst whose Fergana News site was among the first to report Karimov’s suspected death Monday and was the target of a hacking attack four days later.
Karimov came up through the ranks of the Communist Party and was appointed the country’s effective leader by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he distanced himself from the Kremlin and proved adept at playing Russia, the United States and China off one another.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Karimov allowed U.S. forces to use Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad air base for combat missions in Afghanistan. But he evicted them after coming under sharp criticism for his 2005 crackdown.
The two countries later resolved their differences, with Karimov allowing Uzbekistan to be part of the Northern Distribution Network, a supply route for Afghanistan, and the U.S. agreeing to the sale of nonlethal military equipment to his government.
Karimov once had aspirations to make Uzbekistan the main power in Central Asia. With more than 30 million people, it is the region’s largest country and sits at a strategic crossroads near Russia, China and Afghanistan.
But the country he leaves behind is desperately poor, despite significant gold and natural gas reserves. The decline in global energy prices is one reason, along with the loss of remittances from large numbers of workers who can no longer find employment in Russia. But analysts also blame years of corruption and heavy-handed state policies.
Under Karimov, the Uzbek economy remained tightly centralized, with government workers, university students and, until recent years, even schoolchildren reportedly forced to take part each year in the cotton harvest.
Convinced that the country’s high birthrates were stalling development, Karimov is said to have ordered tens of thousands of women who agreed to caesarean sections to be secretly sterilized, according to rights groups.
Suspicious of any potential rival, Karimov did not name a successor. According to the constitution, his responsibilities will pass to the head of the Senate until elections are held within three months.
But such votes have always been a foregone conclusion. Karimov’s only challenger in 2000, Abdulkhafiz Dzhalalov, said he voted for Karimov.
The Senate leader, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, is not seen as a contender for permanent office.
Also out of the running is Karimov’s oldest daughter, a high-profile businesswoman, fashion designer and pop singer who fell from grace around 2013 after being accused of pocketing bribes in connection with telecom licenses in Uzbekistan. In social media posts at the time, she lashed out at top officials in her father’s government and accused her mother and sister of being friends with sorcerers.
The opacity of the presidential selection process has some analysts dusting off the old Soviet playbook to try to figure out who might become the country’s new leader.
A key signal could be the selection of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, rumored to be the Kremlin favorite, to oversee Saturday’s funeral.
“In the Soviet period, the person who was chairman of the funeral commission was the successor,” said William Courtney, a Eurasia specialist at the Rand Corp. who served as the U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan. “Things are so Soviet-like in Uzbekistan, that may be a tipoff.”
Mirziyoyev, who comes from the same Samarkand clan as Karimov, on Saturday hailed the late president “as a great and dear son of our people."
“Our people and Uzbekistan have suffered an irreplaceable loss,” he was quoted as saying at the funeral.
Mirziyoyev’s deputy, Rustam Azimov, who serves as finance minister, and Rustam Inoyatov, the aging head of the powerful National Security Service, are also seen as candidates to succeed Karimov. That could mean jockeying for power.
“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 Friday.
The fear is that Islamist militants in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country could take advantage of any infighting to gain a foothold, or that a conflict might be unleashed with the country’s Tajik minority.
Faced with such uncertainty, Courtney said the country’s governing elites would want to project an image of strength, and any power plays were likely to remain firmly behind closed doors.
“My guess is that we are going to see a controlled succession without a whole lot of surprises, and a government policy that’s not going to be much more open either politically or economically than they have had,” he said, “at least initially.”
Special correspondent Mirovalev reported from Moscow and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles.
7:15 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This story was originally published at 11:05 a.m.