Uzbeks experience "mass anxiety, mourning and worry" after president's death

The only president Uzbekistan has ever known has died, after 25 years in power. Uzbek scholar Sarah Kendzior says the country's first president, Islam Karimov, was "comparable to Stalin."
In this 2015 file photo, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov greets people during the festivities marking the Navruz holiday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government has confirmed that President Islam Karimov is dead. (The Associated Press)
Listen8:14
Islam Karimov was a brutal, authoritarian leader, but he was also the only president Uzbeks have ever known. Today, the country's parliament and government announced that after 25 years in office, the president has died. The news confirms days of speculation and uncertainty about the president's health. 
In this file photo taken on March 12, 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush, right, meets with the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, left, in the Oval Office at the White House, in Washington. The Interfax news agency Friday Sept. 2, 2016 cites an Uzbek government statement saying President Islam Karimov is dead. ((Kenneth Lambert/AP))
Now, left with a country largely created in his image, people in Uzbekistan are wondering what the future will look like, and if long-suppressed opposition voices might have an opening.
As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch spoke with Sarah Kendzior, a researcher at George Washington University's Central Asia program, about who Karimov was, and about the future of Uzbekistan. 
In this photo taken in 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Uzbekistan's President's Islam Karimov, right, meet in Moscow, Russia. ((Vladimir Rodionov/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP))

Laura Lynch: What kinds of abuses did he (Islam Karimov) commit in his 25-year rule? 

Sarah Kendzior: Oh gosh, you're going to need an hour for this. Everything. Persecution of political dissidents, of religious groups, of any kind of Muslim who wanted to practice independently of the state, he had forced labour, particularly in the cotton fields, he basically decimated the economy, embezzling money, breaking down businesses and stealing their profits, to the point that the prime source of income for Uzbeks is migrant labour. There's a resource shortage, a shortage of gas, people burn manure to stay warm in the winter, they have trouble getting water, the infrastructure is decaying. It's been very repressive, relying on the same kind of mass surveillance and intimidation system that you see in the Soviet system under rulers like (Joseph) Stalin, I think he's comparable to him. 

LL: How hopeful are you that Karimov's death will provide an opening for opposition parties, and those critical of government?

SK: I'm not hopeful at all, because almost everybody who was in those parties had to flee the country, and in order for them to return, they would need to be allowed back in. Opposition figures who I know who live outside, when they've tried to do that, have either arrived and had things like their cellphone and computer so that the state could spy on them, or they were just immediately sent back, and not allowed. I know people who have wanted to go back and visit their family for 10 or 20 years and they haven't been able to do it.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Sarah Kendzior.

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