Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov made a television appearance on March 27, apparently aimed at dispelling rumours he was either dead or seriously ill. Karimov had not been seen in public for more than a week - and no explanation for that has been given - and an online attack by his daughter Gulnara on his most likely successor Rustam Azimov on her Twitter feed had raised speculation a succession battle was already underway.
Yet while the reports have proved to be a false alarm, Karimov's week-long absence from public life again raised questions about the country's future when his rule does come to an end.
On March 28, Karimov was show on Uzbek state television meeting with Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. Karimov and Idrissov were shown discussing a strategic partnership treaty that is due to be signed by the presidents of the two countries in June. Later, Reuters cited a Kazakh diplomatic source confirming that Idrissov had met with Karimov on March 27.
Rumours that Karimov had suffered a heart attack started on March 22, spread by the People's Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a group of Uzbek opposition activists living in exile, who claimed that 75-year-old Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since independence in 1991, had suffered a massive heart attack on March 19.
The PMU, whose leader Muhammad Solih is based in Norway, said its information came from a report by an unnamed correspondent in Uzbekistan. The group followed up on March 24 by saying the report had been confirmed by a journalist working for the state media, who said Karimov was seriously ill. Solih said in an interview with the BBC that the information "is very reliable: the information is coming from most secret groups."
However, Russian news agency RIA Novosti has published an official denial of the reports. A source in the Karimov administration is reported to have told RIA Novosti on March 22 that Karimov was "in excellent form as always".
Karimova used her Twitter feed on March 26 to deny the rumours surrounding her father's health, writing that it would be "more than crazy" to say that he was ill, and that he had danced for 20 minutes during the Nauruz new year celebrations on March 19. However, her online attack on Vice Prime Minister Azimov fed speculation that potential successors are already struggling for supremacy.
The most senior banker in the country, Azimov used to run the National Bank of Uzbekistan (NBU) in the 1990s that controlled almost all of the country's hard currency at a time when the republic was desperately short of reserves. As the authority with the responsibility for distributing the $1bn to private enterprise from the approximately $3bn the country earn at the time from cotton exports, Azimov was in a position to make or break any business in the country. Indeed, according to NBU documents seen by bne at the time, in 1997 he allocated half of the entire hard currency earmarked for private business to the Coca-Cola plant that was run by Karimova's husband, Mansur Maqsudi, an American businessman of Afghan origin, whom she has subsequently divorced. Azimov also masterminded the reforms of the banking sector, but the NBU remained the predominant force thanks to its stranglehold over the country's reserves of dollars.
Over the last decade, Azimov has been continually promoted and is one of the longest surviving members of Karimov's entourage. With his now being vice prime minister, he basically runs the economy. He has long been a leading candidate to take over from Karimov, though Karimov's daughter has built up a vast empire of her own and may have her eye on her father's job.
Karimova's main accusations against Azimov concern the construction of a solar cell plant at the Navoi free economic zone, one of the Uzbek government's flagship investment projects, which Karimova claims was "secret" and "not transparent".
Back in the mid-2000s, Karimova, the eldest of Karimov's three daughters, appeared to be the most likely successor to the Uzbek presidency. But despite becoming one of the country's most powerful oligarchs, dubbed the Uzbek "robber baron" in US embassy cables published by Wikileaks, she has since stepped away from formal involvement in Uzbek politics, and has increasingly made her life abroad. In addition to serving as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and the UN, Karimova has established herself as a fashion and jewellery designer, and sings under the name "Googoosha".
Meanwhile, other powerful figures within the elite, among them Uzbekistan's long-standing Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev and National Security Service head Rustam Inoyatov, have increased their power bases in recent years. However, Azimov is the most likely successor, with rumours from Tashkent in mid-2012 that he had actually been selected by Karimov as his preferred successor. Azimov has become increasingly prominent, and in December was chosen over Mirziyayev to represent Uzbekistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security grouping, summit in Bishkek. He also controls the Republican Fund of Reconstruction and Development, which holds around $11bn in revenues from Uzbekistan's exports of gas, cotton, uranium and other raw materials.
Karimov's rule has become increasingly authoritarian and all political dissent has been ruthlessly crushed. The last serious challenge to his authority was the May 2005 Andijan massacre, when troops opened fire on demonstrators killing more than 500 people.
Since Andijan, Karimov has become more reliant on the army and security forces to maintain his hold on power. He has also initiated political changes since 2010, including increasing the powers of the parliament to allow MPs to dismiss the prime minister. While these have been officially billed as a move towards democracy, they appear to have been intended to strengthen Karimov's position against other top politicians, thus increasing his hold on power.
With no history of a peaceful handover of power in Uzbekistan, although the most likely outcome when Karimov's rule comes to an end is a struggle within the elite, there is still the danger that a power vacuum or lengthy struggle for the presidency could result in wider unrest.
After two decades of authoritarian rule, resentment among the population over issues such as living conditions, corruption and power shortages is high. Suppression of religious activity has also created a tinderbox of resentment among parts of the county's mainly Muslim population. Violence within Uzbekistan could also have a destabilising effect on the country's neighbours in the densely populated Fergana Valley, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which have large Uzbek minorities and are the site of frequent small-scale ethnic clashes.