MOSCOW • The death of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov after 27 years in charge, with no clear successor lined up, plunges his homeland into uncertainty and poses serious questions for a region dominated by strongmen.
Yesterday, a day after Mr Karimov, 78 - who ruled the strategically important Central Asian nation with an iron fist - was buried in his hometown Samarkand, a heavy police presence remained on the streets of the capital Tashkent. As Uzbekistan marked a second day of official mourning, people began looking to a future without the only leader that the country has had since it gained independence in 1991.
"We don't know who will come after Karimov," said one taxi driver in Tashkent. A former army officer in his 50s, he said without giving his name: "Will the prosperity that he has brought us continue?"
Long lambasted by rights groups as a brutal despot who crushed all dissent, Mr Karimov was one of the Communist Party bosses who managed to cling to power in their homelands after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While decision-making in the tightly controlled system he presided over is almost impenetrable, experts agree that his long-term replacement looks set to come from the small inner circle who have divvied up economic control of the country. For now, the front runner seems to be Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the technocrat enforcer headed the committee that organised Mr Karimov's funeral and led the tributes.
"The chances of a power struggle are probably low, if only because the elites benefit from the current system and have every incentive to work things out," said regional expert Scott Radnitz at the University of Washington.
The questions now hanging over Uzbekistan bring into sharper relief the futures of other countries across the ex-Soviet region next door to conflict-wracked Afghanistan, where rule by strongman autocrats is the norm.
Over in energy-rich Kazakhstan, 76-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only man still standing among those who have ruled without a break since the Communist era, and seems to have no heir apparent.
In Turkmenistan, the death in 2006 of long-time ruler Saparmurat Niyazov saw a smooth handover to another tough guy, his one-time dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 59. In Tajikistan , President Emomali Rahmon, 63, is pushing to become leader for life.
"The stability of (Uzbekistan's) neighbours also pretty much fluctuates relative to the blood pressure of their presidents," wrote Mr Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "Change is coming for sure to Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. The only thing that is unclear is what kind of change and what kind of succession await these countries."