The recent death of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years, has raised the issue of his succession earlier than expected. No known successor has been identified, which could pose a threat to the country’s stability by way of popular dissatisfaction and an intra-elite power struggle. The initial outlook is not optimistic: in periods of transition within autocratic regimes, such as Uzbekistan, mechanisms of elite instinct take control in order to avoid complete regime breakdown. Put simply, preserving the status quo becomes a priority, and in Uzbekistan, clan-based networks will likely ensure that succession ensures continuity.

There are three possible outcomes for Uzbekistan in the coming months: political transition through elections, appointment of a successor through intra-elite consensus, or a takeover by an external group. The latter scenario is the least likely.

In Uzbekistan, where the average age is 27, the question of how to replace Karimov is an important one. The answer lies in the self-protective characteristics of the regime and the relevant elite networks.

Other than in Turkmenistan, where Gurbangyly Berdimuhamedov was groomed to succeed Sapharmurad Niyazov, Karimov appears to have failed to prepare a leadership transition before his death. This is important for the potential impact transition may have on elite networks and the established expectations of resource distribution between them. As Karimov will no longer act as a balance between various clan-based informal groups, potential successor such as Mirziyoyev (Samarkand clan) and Azimov (Tashkent clan) will have to garner support from other influential elite figures. At the moment, it is expected that Rustam Inoyatov (72), head of the National Security Service since 1995, will play a crucial role in “appointing” a new leader – he, arguably, is the current lynchpin to Uzbekistan’s future.

It is expected that one of the two ministers in Karimov’s inner circle will accept the responsibility of preserving the system by leading a smooth transition into the post-Karimov period.

Firstly, Shovkat Mirziyoyev (58) - the incumbent Prime Minister of Uzbekistan who hails from the same Samarkand clan as Islam Karimov - has been named a possible successor. Serving as PM since 2003, Mirziyoyev has been a longstanding ally of Karimov, and was entrusted control over the country’s agricultural sector. According to various regional analysts, he has close ties with Russia, which could provide him both intra-elite and external support. However, his authoritarian character is unlikely to gain support among the population.

The second possible candidate is Rustam Azimov (56), the Western-educated Minister of Finance who represents the Tashkent clan within government. Contrary to Mirziyoyev, Azimov is considered to be a more sophisticated personality with knowledge of finance and dealing with Western investments. As Uzbekistan deals with an economic stagnation - connected with the deteriorating Russian economy, and subsequently decreased remittances from migrant workers working in Russia - significant economic reforms will be necessary. This will especially be needed to avoid further political unrest, which would definitely pose a threat to resource and wealth distribution among the clans. Based on economics alone, there is a high likelihood that Azimov will be given the opportunity to liberalize and reform the economy of Uzbekistan for the sake of required continuity, especially given that he would be more cautious in consolidating power in contrast to Mirziyoyev, whose authoritarian modus operandi could deepen cleavages between the clans.

Inoyatov, with his influence as the head of security service, could function as an arbiter in a possible ‘clash of the clans’, a development that would work more in Azimov’s favour given that they are both from the same Tashkent clan that has consolidated its elite influence throughout key ministries linked to security and interior affairs. Over the past years, this clan has gained significant influence in Karimov’s circle, to the point that it successfully ousted Karimov’s eldest daughter from politics without facing objection from the President. Notably, Gulnara Karimova did not attend her father’s funeral.

On the other hand, the absence of Karimov as a national leader standing above the on-going rivalry between the two most powerful clans in Uzbekistan can unfold in another way. When the first rumours about the death of the President reached the media, some Uzbek outlets reported that Rustam Azimov was put under house arrest, a claim officially denied by his ministry in a press release.  In recent days, several local media outlets reported that a small-scaled protest in the province of Surkhandari (on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan) had taken place against the potential candidacy of Mirziyoyev. However, in the wake of these reports, Mirziyoyev and Azimov stood next to each other at the President’s funeral. This could either be interpreted as a sign that a certain consensus exists between the rival clans, or merely a façade out of respect to the deposed leader.

In any case, because selecting a new leader in Uzbekistan will be a historic hallmark, it has the potential to either overcharge or supress current internal dynamics. Regardless of the outcome, the elite instinct will definitely force both clans to prioritize the protection of the regime over deepening existing cleavages, making the transition much smoother than one could expect. A violent transition would not only harm domestic stability in Uzbekistan itself, but also damage regional dynamics where Uzbekistan enjoys a special advantage as an energy corridor bordering all Central Asian countries.

Even if the demise of Karimov results in a shift within the intra-elite mechanisms, stability will remain the key priority of transition for all parties involved.