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The founding father of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov and the sources of his political philosophy
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Islam Karimov was named founding father of Uzbekistan, who pulled the country from would-be collapse after the evaporation of USSR; and built present-day Uzbekistan relying on the following sources of political philosophy: hierarchy of power, where president is the main state engine and step-by-step transition to democracy - an aversion to the dark Soviet past and vigorous endeavors to fill ideological and cultural vacuums; revitalization and revival of the economy by promoting diversification, protectionism and realistic conduct in foreign policy, which was based on balancing and geographical rationale.    

Independence is priceless, since it is a matter of "blood and iron"[1]; however, far more invaluable is to preserve it, along with preserving sovereignty – as being independent without the latter is to be as though a bird without wings. The independence of Uzbekistan was not gained through “blood and iron”, but abruptly granted after an unexpected demise of the Soviet Union. Having been on the brink of ruin, Central Asian Republics, inclusively Uzbekistan, were “ballasts for Russia”[2]. “Why should we bail out these strife-torn regions of Central Asia, who share nothing with us? We should be much better off on our own…”[3], said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, one of the principal economic advisers to President Yeltsin. And Uzbekistan was left with harsh socio-economic situation to row it alone. Nevertheless, devoutness, foresight, courage and leadership of the first President Islam Karimov were pertinent to overcome all possible hurdles. Karimov was named founding father of Uzbekistan not for gaining independence, but for being guided by his wise political vision, did not let the country mushroom into chaos as in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that still cannot recover from, for preserving sovereignty and lying solid bedrock for further development.

Karimov appeared in the right place at the right time. Uzbekistan was in need of courageous leader indeed, who would save the country from collapse. Many can think that these are high-sounding and empty words, but his assertiveness and courage were manifested in three slips. The first slip to the Communistic Party was in the cabinet meeting held on June 24, 1989, when he said: “Henceforth, we cannot keep living the old way, and the time itself will not enable us”[4]. The second slip was on October 21, 1989 – enactment of a bill “On state language”, when Uzbek became the state language. And the third one was in 1990, when the institution of presidency was established in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov became the second President after Mikhail Gorbachev himself. These steps are worthy of commendation, since they were the messages implying lurch for independence, and should be evaluated as courageous acts because totalitarian Communist Party was alive and still able to suppress opposition.

The other bright example of the embodiment of his courage was the Namangan events. After gaining independence, a group of diversionists, on December 9, 1991, took hostages in the building of executive committee in Namangan, and made an emotional appeal to establish Islamic Republic of Uzbekistan. Having been a candidate for the Presidency, Islam Karimov came to Namangan the next morning. He entered the building alone, and went unguarded and unescorted into the mob, poisoned by the ideas of religious dogmatism. Taking away the microphone from Tohir Yo?ldoshev (cofounder of terroristic organization the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, now Turkestan), Karimov asserted that it is impossible to build Islamic state in Uzbekistan. (These fragments were recorded[5]).

Whatever reform took place in Uzbekistan, it was the initiative of the president. Karimov became the engine of the whole state policy and was the generator of reforms.  This was predominantly on his own, because during the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s there were few whom he could rely on in conducting state policy: there was a shortage of qualified workers in public management sphere. Hence, on April 19, 1995 Islam Karimov signed the decree “On establishing State and Nation building Academy under the President of Uzbekistan”[6], which produced several sophisticated politicians who nowadays hold state positions and on August 29, 1997 law “On national manpower development programme” was adopted.

“Realists value order above freedom: for them the latter becomes important only after the former has been established”[7], said Robert Kaplan. Logic behind his incremental approach in reaching democratic society was to preserve order. After gaining independence, Karimov realistically perceived that Uzbekistanis are not ready for sheer democracy, because having been in the grip of totalitarian regime of USSR for so long time, they did not know what the democracy is. To reach it, a step-by-step, not "shock therapy", should be resorted to, planned Karimov; otherwise Fergana and Namangan events could break out once more, which could have spillover effect encompassing the whole Uzbekistan.

His words were not as a token gesture to mislead the world community, but gradually Karimov started implementing democratic reforms. At first, a unicameral parliament was established in 1994, then, in 2004, a bicameral parliament – Oliy Majlis (Senate and Legislative Chamber) – started functioning[8]. Moreover, the role and the place of women in politics and society have increased steadily. In 1991, the Business Women's Association of Uzbekistan was established and it still promotes women`s interests in this realm. The number of women represented in the government and parliament is quite representative. For example, in the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis, 16 per cent are women and in the Senate – 17 per cent[9], taking into account that Svetlana Artikova is the Deputy Chairman of Senate.

“…The sculptor can more easily carve a fair statue from a rough block, than from the block which has been badly shaped out by another”[10], said Niccolo Machiavelli.  An aversion to the dark past in the political view of Karimov manifested itself in almost every book of him. It was directed to carve badly-shaped-by-others block – to the current and younger generation so as to show them how thorny and dark past the Uzbeks experienced under the yoke of USSR. “Without being aware and having any intention to familiarize with the richest history and culture of the people and unique features of the region, they (communists) began to break down and change the life of the republic in a different, bad, way. …persecution of customs, traditions and culture was unleashed; the scope of the Uzbek language usage was circumscribed. Even wearing national costumes were prohibited. The situation even reached a point that people were even afraid of celebrating weddings, organizing funerals in accordance with longstanding traditions”, said Islam Karimov[11]. Always reminding others of the dark past, the first President cordially strived to reshape the current (older) generation that still had a persistent communistic mindset and to make the younger generation keep the terrible past the Uzbeks experienced in their minds.

“Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev have had no uplifting ideas to offer, no ideology of any kind, in fact: what they do have in their favor is only geography. And that is not enough”[12], said Robert Kaplan. That is not enough to build “healthy”, with strong immunity and patriotism, nation. Recently, I participated in the conference at Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Getting acquainted with the Russian people, I hardly heard any good words from them about their Motherland: they spoke mostly on the shortages of Russia and only, notwithstanding the latter is a great power. This was unpardonable overlook of the Kremlin. That is why, ideological, cultural and identical issues kept in step along with economic and social reforms in the political philosophy of Karimov.

“Along with making every possible effort our generation to be as good, wealthy and sufficient as other nations, moral (ma'naviy-ma'rifiy) education plays equally paramount role. If we dismiss this important factor, then we will lose our sacred values and historical memories once and for all”[13], said Islam Karimov. With the aim of implementing aforesaid, “The idea of national independence” as a subject has been taught at secondary and high schools from 1993 and “National idea: main conceptions and principles” – at higher education institutions. Furthermore, there have been TV programs, documentaries, and family films inextricably interlinked with culture and history of Uzbekistan and intra-family relations which have been broadcasted often.   

Aversion to the Soviet past did not spring from nowhere, but – besides being culturally suppressed by communist ideology prohibiting practicing religion and customs – harsh socio-economic situation in Uzbekistan. Describing social and economic situation in the country, Karimov wrote: “Statistics show that the per capita income of about 9 million or 45 per cent of population of Uzbekistan does not exceed 75 rubles. And if you take into account that the minimum subsistence level is evaluated in about 85 rubles, you can judge for yourself how difficult it is for these people to make ends meet today. … One cannot consider the situation normal when only 5 percent of rural residents are provided with sewage and water supply, about 50 percent with normal drinking water, 17 percent with natural gas, etc.”[14]

Furthermore, Uzbekistan within the Soviet Union, was no more than raw materials' source for the Center. “Cotton fiber went and goes beyond Uzbekistan at low fixed prices, and what do we get? We get 84 percent of the labor input from cultivating cotton and only 16 percent of the income from its primary processing. Other republics receiving our cotton – the inverse proportion: a ready-made shirt, woven and sewn in Russia brings a huge profit. It means that we work hard by the sweat of our brow and others gain profit. That is what it means to be a “cotton workshop” of the country”[15], said Karimov.

Stemming from these factors, revitalization and revival of the economy by promoting diversification and protectionism became part and parcel of his philosophy. The only way Karimov thought success could be achieved was diversifying the economy that had been the victim of monoculture of cotton. Initially, he diversified agricultural sector. Before, farming lands were only for cotton cultivation, then the government started giving lands for growing vegetables. As a result, “in 2000 the sown area in comparison with 1985 declined by 25.7% and the gross cotton harvest – by 30%, respectively”[16]. Then, government activated privatization policy very quickly. As for fostering domestic markets, the government increased protectionism. If the price of foreign-made car “A” cost, let’s say, 10 000 USD, then an imported one costs double - 20 000 USD. It was far cheaper for people to buy domestic cars. Moreover, Uzbekistan has been skeptical about free-trade agreements, especially with economic giants. The result is not bad. If the economy of Kazakhstan depends on petrodollars, Turkmenistan – on gas export, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on revenues coming from migrant workers abroad (mainly Russia and Kazakhstan), then Uzbekistan has nothing to be used by outer powers to leverage our economy and, and consequently our policy, since it has been diversified.

Given its geographic location and the deep scars left from the Soviet past, Islam Karimov had to be a proponent of the main principles of Realpolitik, which provided stability and inviolability of sovereignty in Uzbekistan. “…the legacies of geography, history, and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place”[17], said Robert Kaplan. The situation was fragile after the demise of USSR, because the legacies of territorial delimitation undertaken in 1924 resurfaced when Central Asian republics have become independent: territories ethnically belonging to Uzbekistan had become part of Kyrgyzstan and the same with Tajikistan. On top of this, water problems became strained (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, being upstream countries that used water as the leverage over downstream counties, as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). Provided the abovementioned factors, outer powers found a golden opportunity to wedge into regional issues, and it laid a path for New Great Game in Central Asia. Taking into consideration these realities, Islam Karimov resorted to the art of balancing.

“The balance of power”, according to Mackinder, “because it grants each nation its security, forms the very basis of freedom”[18]. The way Karimov used this tool was quite different than what great powers do. Actually, what the school of political realism considers is great power politics: whatever principles proponents of Realpolitik elaborate, they are directed at relations between “superpowers”, and minor states are no more than their objects. But the first President of Uzbekistan did vice versa: he considered “superpowers” conversely, as objects in his political philosophy. Keeping a balance in cooperation between Russia, USA, and China and conducting multi-vector foreign policy, he made these powers compete with each other in the region. Notwithstanding the competition for these powers was zero-sum game, Uzbekistan benefited from this, since great powers were striving for attracting the attention of Uzbekistan in order the latter to choose one of them to closely cooperate. For example, the only one who could say “No” was Karimov. Several times, Uzbekistan’s membership in CSTO was suspended (while no one member could do this because of fear of Russian aggression). Moreover, in spite of several provocations by Russia to pull Uzbekistan back to the Organization, Karimov withstood them. Russia launched missiles in Syria from Caspian Sea[19], which could be evaluated as provocation directed at Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (countries out of CSTO).

Also, periodical publications and announcements of Russian officials about the threat of ISIS from Afghanistan (IRA) were directed at misleading neighboring IRA countries - because the number of ISIS militants is unable to threaten Central Asia. Karimov could say “No” to the military base of USA in Khanabad in 2005 after Andijan events. Uzbekistan said “No” to the Chinese economic expansion in the region, rejecting free-trade agreement with SCO. The foothold behind Uzbekistan that allowed it to say “No” was Karimov`s art of balancing. Islam Karimov could preserve the sovereignty of the country.

Geography also played its own part in the foreign policy philosophy of Karimov. As Napoleon said, “to know a nation's geography is to know its foreign policy”[20]. Uzbekistan is one of the two countries that is double landlocked (the second one is Liechtenstein). Given this factor, Karimov could not ignore adjacent countries, since in order to have an access to the Indian Ocean or connect with other economies such as China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and others, for good or ill, he had to cooperate with neighboring countries for them to provide transition to Uzbekistan. Hence, Central Asia has been designated as a priority in foreign policy concept of Uzbekistan[21]. More important, Karimov wanted to unite the region. He said: “All the Central Asian states must get together to form a new confederation…”[22], what now new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev continues.   


On September 1, 2016, on the day when the whole nation celebrates Independence, the first President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov passed away. Notwithstanding, the independence was not achieved, but granted, is associated with Islam Karimov. Owing to his wise political philosophy, Uzbekistan stands on its own feet today, conducting sovereign domestic and external policies. After assuming power, Shavkat Mirziyoyev asserted that the new administration would follow his suit. In order to understand the internal situation in Uzbekistan and its foreign policy conduct, one should take into account that the role of leader is paramount. An incremental approach in reaching democracy take: dealing with the Soviet past of the country, diversification, protectionism in economic sphere, and geographic rationale and balancing in foreign policy.  

Otabek Akromov is currently a senior student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, majoring in International Relations. He is a research assistant in Center for Advanced International Studies. His research interests lie in the area of security, religion, anthropology and ideology. Otabek is also a close observer of new trends and developments in Middle East and Central Asia.











[1] Otto von Bismarck.Politics is the art of the possible. Centrpoligraf Press, 2015. p. 27.

[2] Russia is losing the struggle for Central Asia to China. October 1, 2009. Retrieved from https://regnum.ru/news/1210913.html

[3] Rahsid A. The resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 3.

[4] «Uzbek Model» – main factor of wellbeing of our nation. July 24, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.uza.uz/ru/business/uzbekskaya-model-razvitiya-vazhnyi-faktor-blagopoluchiya-nashego-naroda-24.07.2013-24498

[5] Islam Karimov in Namangan, 1991. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqf_8zGIrMg

[6] Decree of the President of Uzbekistan. Tashkent, April 19, 1995. Retrieved from http://lex.uz/pages/getpage.aspx?lact_id=181727

[7] Kaplan R. The revenge of geography: what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate. Random House, New York, 2012. p. 24. 

[8] The history of development of parliamentarianism in Uzbekistan. Retrieved from http://senat.uz/ru/about/

[9] The role of women in politics is gradually increasing . November 6, 2016. Retrieved from http://uzbekistan.lv/zhenshhiny-uzbekistana-igrayut-vse-bolshuyu-rol-v-politike/#

[10] Machiavelli N. Discourses on the first decade of Titus Livius. The Project Gutenberg EBook, p.41. Retrieved from www.gutenberg.org/etext/10827

[11] Karimov I. O'zbekiston mustaqillikka erishish ostonasida, Uzbekistan, 2011. p. 145

[12] Slaughter A. Power Shifts: The Revenge of Geography, by Robert D. Kaplan. October 5, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/books/review/the-revenge-of-geography-by-robert-d-kaplan.html

[13] Karimov I. Yuksak ma'naviyat – yengilmas kuch. Toshkent « Ma'naviyat », 2008. p. 3-4.

[14] Karimov I. O'zbekiston mustaqillikka erishish ostonasida, Uzbekistan, 2011. p. 28-30

[15] Ibid. p. 306

[16] Cotton sector of Uzbekistan: priorities and perspectives. February 15, 2000. Retrieved from http://rustm.net/catalog/article/690.html

[17] Kaplan R. The revenge of geography: what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate. Random House, New York, 2012. p. 23.

[18] Mackinder H. J. Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in Politics of Reconstruction. Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1919, 1942, p. 205; Parker W. H., Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 211– 12.

[19] Gander K. Russia launches missiles at 'Isis targets' in Syria from Caspian Sea - as Turkey claims Moscow is targeting rebels. October 7, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/russia-in-syria-russia-launches-missiles-against-isis-from-caspian-sea-a6684631.html

[20] Brzezinski Z. The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books, 1997, p. 37.

[21] Foreign policy concept of Uzbekistan prohibits foreign military bases. August 3, 2012. Retrieved from http://vestikavkaza.ru/news/Kontseptsiya-vneshnepoliticheskoy-deyatelnosti-Uzbekistana-vvodit-zapret-na-inostrannye-voennye-bazy.html

[22] Rahsid A. The resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 4.

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