ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov is critically ill, his government said on Friday, paving the way for the first transfer of power in Central Asia's most populous nation since 1989.
Reinforcing the impression that a change of leadership is imminent, the president of the country's neighbor Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, planned to travel to Uzbekistan on Saturday, a Kazakh government source told Reuters.
The two countries have long vied for regional leadership of the former Soviet states in Central Asia, and both men have held power since independence.
The Uzbek government - which has denied widespread speculation that Karimov, 78, may already have died - said in a statement on Friday that his health had sharply worsened.
The veteran leader has been in hospital since suffering a stroke last Saturday.
Nazarbayev's office could not be reached for comment on Friday and a government spokesman declined to comment on his travel plans.
Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan, a major cotton exporter also rich in gold and natural gas, in an authoritarian style since 1989, first as a Communist leader, and then as president from 1991.
He has no obvious successor and analysts say the transition of power is likely to be decided by a small group of senior officials and family members.
If, however, they fail to reach compromise, open confrontation could destabilize the nation of 32 million that has become a target for Islamist militants.
A hint at who is going to succeed Karimov may come with the government's announcement of his death and whoever it names to head of the commission in charge of organizing the funeral.
(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Aditional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; editing by John Stonestreet)