News of the death of President Karimov, broken by Ferghana News on the evening of the 29th of August 2016, has yet to be confirmed. Regardless, these rumours have – once again – sparked lively debate regarding succession in Uzbekistan. It is most likely that Karimov has already chosen a successor to replace him; a move that he would have made to prevent political infighting in his absence, and maintain the political status quo.

The lingering question this morning, however, is whether this successor has the gravitas required to assert themselves in an environment recently marred by Uzbekistan’s elite networks jostling for power. Commentary is already focused on individuals who are most likely to ‘fill the gap’ left by the President – whether this is a family member, or a trusted member of his inner circle remains to be seen. However, names being thrown about include: Shavkat Mirzoyev (Prime Minister), Rustam Azimov (Minister of Finance), Rustam Inoyatov (SNB), and even daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.

Network Dynamics
Uzbekistan's elite networks are mostly divided along blood kinship and regional lines, the most influential ones being the Tashkent and Samarkand clans. As the clans are an integral part of informal politics and remain at the heart of protectionism and resource distribution, they are the principal benefactors as well as beneficiaries of Uzbekistan’s vast natural resources. Due to these elite dynamics, clans often mobilise (either against one another or in cooperation against more powerful network) to protect their interests and strengthen their political/commercial position.

Because fierce competition between the country's top clans dictate Uzbekistan's political environment, speaking specifically of Karimov's inner circle becomes too narrow a topic. Current members of the inner circle include National Security Council (SNB) Chief Rustam Inoyatov (Tashkent clan – often referenced as Karimov’s ‘grey cardinal’), Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (Tashkent), and Prime Minister Shavkhat Mirzoyev (Samarkand). However, Karimov’s inner circle is known more for its tension between competing factions than its role as the President’s group of close confidants – this inherently places additional uncertainty in the pending succession scenario.

The Battles Within
While these clans have dominated Uzbek politics since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, key players within these groups and those of Karimov's inner circle, have often been cast aside as a result of internal conflict. Uzbekistan’s clans see politics as a zero-sum game and often engage in tactics and use informal mechanisms of influence to eliminate their competitors. For instance, former Presidential Advisor Ismail Zhurabekov was brought up on corruption charges in 2004 and removed from power. He is often noted as the one who brought Karimov to power in 1989. Before Zhurabekov’s fall from grace, he was the Head of the Samarkand clan, which Karimov feared was moving to take control of the country.

One of the more public battles within Karimov’s inner circle was the international scandal surrounding his daughter, Gulnara. Stemming from her involvement in corruption and bribery allegations with international telecoms companies in 2013, this battle exposed tensions within the President's inner circle and culminated with her house arrest in July 2014. Led by Inoyatov and the Tashkent clan, Gulnara has been completely removed from succession talks while her network and close allies have been arrested or significantly lost their political influence.

Meanwhile, a more recent case highlighting struggles within the inner circle began in February when authorities arrested Asaka Bank Chairman Kahramon Oripov on money laundering charges and black market currency exchange. Two months later, some executives from General Motors Uzbekistan – including Deputy Prime Minister Ulugbek Rozukulov (a protégé of Finance Minister Azimov) – were arrested for an illegal import/export scheme of GM vehicles. Rozukulov was considered one of Karimov’s trusted associates, entrusted with maintaining tight control over state enterprises. But the GM scandal indicates that he has fallen out of favour, with associated speculation that the influence of his ‘protector’, Azimov, has also significantly diminished.

The supposed decline of Rozukulov and Azimov has allowed others to move closer to the President. One notable personality is Deputy Head of the SNB, Shukhrat Gulyamov. Known as the “hero of Andijan” for his ruthless suppression of protests in Andijan 2005, Gulyamov is now considered the third most powerful actor in Uzbekistan behind the President and Inoyatov. Where he fits in the question of succession and the emergence of a new power hierarchy, however, remains to be seen.

Is a Family Dynasty Realistic?
According to a report posted on the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan’s website, President Karimov held a meeting in April 2015 with some of his closest advisors stating that preparations should be made for the succession of his youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, to the presidency.

While Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, is silenced and her political and economic power diminished, Lola’s star certainly has been rising. Throughout 2015, she was brokering soft relations with the US and European politicians through Uzbek art and crafts. Karimova-Tillyaeva and her husband, Timur Tillyaev, are reportedly emerging as informal protectors of the Karimov’s clan. However, questions remain as to whether she is a viable presidential candidate, and more importantly, if the political elite will accept a hereditary transfer of power.

A transition to Karimova-Tillyaeva would provide guarantees for the Karimov clan, in particular, safeguarding their assets and ensuring political protection from domestic attacks. However, her ability to lead the country is questionable. While her limited public profile and attempts to maintain a positive image both domestically and internationally (especially compared to her sister) work in her favour, Uzbekistan’s highly paternalistic society requires aggressive and direct political authority. The most high-profile position Karimova-Tillyaeva has held is her current role as Permanent Representative of Uzbekistan in UNESCO. This position, however, hardly amounts to executive experience. Although she is associated with a variety of domestic companies that manage Chinese imports and heads charity projects, most business decisions are left to her husband.

Lacking the political acumen to lead the country, the question of Karimova-Tillyaeva’s succession turns to whether Timur Tillyaev, an influential entrepreneur who has growing political ambitions of his own, would eventually take the lead. While the focus thus far has been on the President’s youngest daughter, it is difficult to separate her political prospects with that of her husband – a fact the elite have certainly taken into consideration. Some experts argue that he should not be eliminated from consideration, but like his wife, political support becomes the defining obstacle.

One of the key qualifications the elite will be looking for is the next President’s ability to moderate political disputes and posses the capacity to balance competing interests. As previously stated, Karimova-Tillyaeva lacks the executive skills to manage such as task. This could inevitable lead to a weak presidential successor who is susceptible to external influence from Uzbekistan’s dominant regional clans, in particular, the Tashkent or Samarkand networks.  Any one of these groups that are able to co-opt the next president will inevitably gain greater influence at the expense of the other. She has little to offer to elite networks operating in the country and evidence to suggest that she will be able to balance elite interests as her father has successfully done since independence is slim.

An inter-related issue is the level of trust the elite have in the Tillyaev family. First, the family has lived in Geneva since 2010, and although she is the President’s daughter, she could be deemed an ‘outsider’ for her lack of political engagement and her distance from the inner workings of elite politics. The degree of trust may also extend to her husband – perhaps on of the largest fears is that the succession of Karimova-Tillyaeva would ultimately lead to the rise of her husband’s clan.

The Tillyaev family have alleged ties to the Tashkent clan, and allegedly, Chief of the National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov. In the past this has reportedly worked to the Tillyaevs’ benefit as Inoyatov and the SNB have allegedly provided political cover for the family’s business ventures. Also, Timur Tillyaev is reportedly connected with the powerful entrepreneur Salim Abduvaliyev. While this may initially benefit the Tashkent clan, the concern would be that Tillyaev’s immediate network of allies would begin to occupy key government positions, possible those that the Tashkent clan currently covet as their realm of influence.

Backroom Dealings: Establishing a New Power Hierarchy
The question of succession remains the key political issue that will drive or hinder Uzbekistan’s economy in terms of foreign engagement. While the rumours of a hereditary succession (especially with the absence of Gulnara) provide room for political analysis and speculation, the succession process remains opaque and unpredictable. Although there are barriers surrounding Karimova-Tillyaeva’s transition to the presidency, it is unwise to rule out such a scenario; especially given the connection between Inoyatov and the Tillyaev family.

Possibly the most obvious immediate successor is Prime Minister Mirzoyev – one of his greatest assets has been the support that he too has enjoyed from Inoyatov. According to established sources in Tashkent, Inoyatov has – at least previously – been of the opinion that Mirzoyev balances elite politics; and, Gulnara’s fall from grace, and Azimov’s alleged diminished influence, has merely strengthened his positioning. The biggest obstacle to Mirzoyev’s acceptance, however, is the issue of his Tajik ethnicity.

Presuming that President Karimov has been grooming a successor over the past year, and elite networks have been re-establishing their positions of influence vis-à-vis one-another, then the most probable succession scenario would resemble that of Turkmenistan in 2007 when back-room negotiations saw Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov replace Saparmurat Niyazov. Although, political realignments and elite network balancing took place following Berdymukhamedov presidency, the initial transition was seamless.

In all likelihood, Uzbekistan's political elite would favour such a change so as not to disrupt their business interests or spark political turmoil in an already unstable political region (i.e. Afghanistan, regional relations, or economic downturn). There is little doubt that Inoyatov will be running these discussions, and has been mandated to ensure that whoever inherits the presidency must be able to balance clan interests and sustain a similar level of loyalty among political elites.