In the struggle for Central Asia, what I've sometimes called the Great Game II, Uzbekistan plays a key role in terms of its geography, resources and its position within the Turkic world. Indeed this new Great Game is but a facet within a larger struggle now being identified as Cold War II. The stakes are high.
Karimov was one of several figures that survived the breakup of the USSR and became a nationalist. Uzbekistan was one of several countries that essentially had no identity, and to some degree still does not. The convoluted Central Asian map was deliberately created by Stalin in order to divide and conquer. The fallout is still being dealt with as it is in many other places where the British and French drew lines. From the Indian Subcontinent to the Middle East and Africa, the consequences of Imperial 'line-drawing' leaves a long and often destructive shadow.
Karimov's Uzbekistan has had to navigate between the interests of Russia and the West but has also been affected by the turmoil within the Turkic world which stretches from the Caucasus to the Chinese frontier. Uzbekistan has also been affected by the fallout of the endless series of wars in Afghanistan dating back to the 1979. Initially part of the Soviet Union and its war during the 1980s, the Afghan Civil War and the rising Islamism of the1990s spilled over within their borders. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 also led to tension and stress within Uzbekistan. At the time they were 'leaning' to the West and allowed the United States to set up a logistical air base on their soil. Today, the Uzbeks are navigating a more centrist approach but it would probably be safe to say they lean toward Russia.
Karimov was at the helm through much of this taking over as Uzbek First Secretary in 1989 while it was still part of the Soviet Union.
The country has been plagued by ethnic tensions, Islamic groups, some homegrown and others acting as proxies for other regional players.
Karimov's own family has been plagued by tension and scandal. His famous daughter Gulnara has allegedly been under house arrest for the past couple of years, a symbol of the shadowy power struggles that rack the country.
Karimov's death runs the risk of unleashing a new wave of intrigue, schemes and struggles across the region. Moscow will certainly resist American attempts at incursion or manipulation. At this point Putin has been utterly demonised in the West, so why wouldn't he resist Washington's attempt to install a puppet in Tashkent?
Already Western media is ignoring the past US relationship with Karimov and is beginning to paint him in a very negative light. While true, it doesn't tell the whole story with regard to US policy. The coverage almost seems a ploy to argue for intervention on the basis of human rights, one of the West's favourite but disingenuous tools over the past several decades.
Uzbekistan contains large untapped natural gas resources. A double landlocked country, the biggest economic and geopolitical struggle for the region is getting the resources out. This has played a significant part in Afghanistan's troubles as everyone wants to control the nation as a means of transit. This brings other players into the equation. China, India, Pakistan and Iran all have a stake in the outcome as do Afghanistan, the United States, Russia, China and the other Central Asian nations.
While Uzbekistan is hardly the greatest place to live, or a land that is known for its freedom, at this point stability is probably the best hope of its people, the region and certainly the handful of Christians who live within its borders. The intrigue and tensions with the West have made life for Christians much more difficult. American Evangelicals encourage agitation and US influence in the world. In places like Uzbekistan this leads directly to increased tensions for Christians.
This comes in the form of an Anti-Western crackdown which is concerned about foreign influence, money flowing into their country to fund dissidents and espionage. The fears are justified. Islamic countries like Uzbekistan have to deal with the rise of Islamism, also generated by Western actions. This leads them to steer a middle course, turning to Islam in order to maintain credibility with the populace and appropriate the 'Islamic' narrative. In order to crack down on the extremists, they will often tack to a conservative position, granting legitimacy and hopefully preventing alienation and antagonism. Economic stresses don't help, especially in a place like Uzbekistan where state revenue comes directly from resource exploitation. The lack of a real economy can often lead to radicalisation among the young. Christians are caught up in the middle of all this and feel pressures both from the state and the Muslim street.
Western pressure for resources destabilises nations like Uzbekistan and the larger region. This unleashes a chain reaction that bodes ill for Christians who due to the long Sacralist history of Christendom are associated with Western culture and power.
It is to be lamented that most Western ministries that focus on Christian persecution try to pressure the US State Department to put more pressure on these regimes, in other words, threaten them to capitulate in the realm of human rights. For these regimes such a surrender in the realm of free speech and media means they open a door for their own social dissolution. Often the effect on Christians is negative. The theology of calling on the state is flawed and the after-effect in the land of focus is often disastrous.