Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, who died on Friday at the age of 78 after suffering a brain haemorrhage, saw himself as the protector of his Central Asian nation against militant Islam.
But to his critics, Karimov was a brutal dictator who used torture to stay in power in the former Soviet republic for 27 years.
Under his rule, Uzbekistan, a country of 32 million people straddling the ancient Silk Road that links Asia and Europe, became one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian nations.
Karimov regularly warned of the threat posed by militant Islamists to the stability of the vast, resource-rich Central Asian region. “Such people must be shot in the head,” he said of Islamists in a speech to parliament in 1996. “If necessary, if you lack the resolve, I’ll shoot them myself.”
But his critics accused him of exaggerating the dangers to justify his crackdowns on political dissent
Karimov, who steered Uzbekistan to independence from Moscow in 1991, tellingly chose Tamerlane, the 14th century Central Asian ruler and conqueror with a penchant for mass murder, as the country’s national hero.
He brooked no dissent, stubbornly resisted pressure to reform the moribund economy and jealously guarded Uzbekistan’s independence against Russia and the West.
In a typically feisty rebuff to Western calls to respect human rights, Karimov said in 2006: “Do not interfere in our affairs under the pretext of furthering freedom and democracy, Do not...tell us what to do, whom to befriend and how to orient ourselves.”
Uzbekistan’s relations with the US and the European Union were frozen after Karimov’s troops brutally suppressed a popular uprising in the eastern town of Andizhan in May 2005. Hundreds of civilians were killed, according to reports by witnesses and rights groups.
Karimov shut down a US military airbase in Uzbekistan, established after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. The West imposed a set of sanctions on Uzbekistan and slapped a visa ban on senior Uzbek officials, prompting Karimov to seek improved ties with Russia.
But as the West slowly softened its stance on Uzbekistan, a producer of cotton, gold and natural gas, Karimov provided a vital transit route for cargo supplies for the US-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
As ties with Russia again grew strained, Uzbekistan in 2012 suspended its membership of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which groups several former Soviet nations and is seen by some analysts as a regional counterbalance to NATO.
Karimov did not designate a successor and analysts say the transition of power is likely to be decided behind closed doors by a small group of senior officials and family members. If they fail to agree on a compromise, open confrontation could destabilise the nation that has become a target for Islamist militants.
With speculation rife over the issue of succession, some key figures who may play a crucial role in deciding who runs a post-Karimov Uzbekistan are:
Shavkat Mirziyoyev - A 59-year-old former regional governor who has been prime minister since 2003 and is personally in charge of agriculture, a key sector of the economy. Many Central Asia experts see him as a possible successor to Karimov.
Rustam Azimov - A fluent English speaker who headed a local bank at the age of 33, the 57-year-old finance minister is seen as relatively liberal-minded and competent. Azimov has been a key figure leading uneasy talks with international financial institutions critical of Uzbekistan’s slow reforms and heavy interference in the economy.
Rustam Inoyatov - The 72-year-old has run the powerful SNB security service for 21 years and is widely seen as Uzbekistan’s main kingmaker. Inoyatov’s influence spreads far beyond the SNB and he is actually in control of the army and police, many of whose senior officers come from his feared secret service.
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva - Karimov’s younger daughter is also expected to have a say in deciding who will succeed her father, analysts say. The influence of Uzbekistan’s 38-year-old ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO has risen in the past couple of years after Lola’s elder sister Gulnara – an outspoken and extravagant socialite and fashion designer – was reported to have fallen out with her father and placed under house arrest.