Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov died today, the government announced, ending over a quarter of a century of his iron-fisted rule in the Central Asian nation with no clear successor lined up.
“Dear compatriots, it is with huge grief in our hearts that we announce to you the death of our dear president,” a state TV presenter said, reading an official statement.
Authorities said Karimov, 78, was pronounced dead at 8.55 PM (local time) following days of speculation that authorities were delaying announcing his passing after he reportedly suffered a stroke over the weekend.
The strongman’s funeral will be held in his home city of Samarkand tomorrow as the country begins three days of mourning, the statement said, with Uzbekistan now facing the greatest moment of uncertainty of its post-Soviet history.
Loyalist Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev is heading the organisation committee for the funeral, suggesting that he could be in line to take over long-term from Karimov.
Officially senate head Nigmatulla Yuldashev should now become acting president until early elections are held.
Karimov’s youngest daughter Lola wrote on Facebook that “he has left us…I am struggling for words, I can’t believe it myself”.
Long lambasted by rights groups as one of the region’s most brutal despots who ruthlessly stamped out opposition, Karimov was one of a handful of Soviet strongmen that clung to power after their homelands gained independence from Moscow in 1991.
Karimov portrayed himself as guarantor of stability and bulwark against radical Islam on the borders of Afghanistan, crushing fundamentalist groups at home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Karimov’s death “a great loss for the people of Uzbekistan” in a telegram to interim leader Yuldashev, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is set to jet in for the funeral.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who appointed Karimov to head the former Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan in 1989, told Interfax news agency that Karimov was “a competent man with a strong character”.
Born on January 30, 1938, Karimov was raised in an orphanage in the ancient city of Samarkand, before studying mechanical engineering and economics and rising up Communist Party ranks.
Rights groups – which have long accused Karimov’s regime of the most heinous abuses including torture and forced labour in the lucrative cotton industry – said his time in power had been a catastrophe for Uzbekistan.