Some of the wealthiest people in Uzbekistan have reportedly been arrested or detained this week, or are being hunted down by Uzbek authorities.
They include the president of one of Tashkent's premier football clubs, the owner of the country's largest wholesale market, construction magnates, and bankers, according to media reports. Others with ties to big business have reportedly fled the country.
The crackdown appears to have its origins in a speech President Islam Karimov gave in December. According to the website UzMetronom
, the president said the authorities would not accept material inequality. "There will be no oligarchs in our country. If anyone has yet to understand this, they should bear it in mind," the website quotes Karimov as saying.
Uzbek officials are portraying this campaign as sort of an anticorruption drive in a country that rarely allows its "dirty laundry" to be aired in public, but some sources believe there is more going on than officials are saying.
The country's media isolation makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is happening. Reports refer to financial crimes having been committed but details are sketchy.
An official in the Uzbek government, however, speaking under condition of anonymity, confirmed reports that some of the country's leading business officials are being investigated and that some have been arrested. But the official denied business elites in general are being targeted, just criminals.'Events Are Alarming'
Galima Bukharbaeva is a journalist who has covered events in Uzbekistan for many years. She tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the reported arrests show that even those among the wealthy who thought they were immune to prosecution are fair game.
"The events are alarming and at the same time closed off [to publicity]," Bukharbaeva says. "Taken together, these rumors and unconfirmed information about a wave of arrests going on among the big businessmen of Uzbekistan shows that no one in Uzbekistan is 100 percent protected."
Independent websites that report about Uzbekistan, including uzmetronom.com, uznews.net, and ferghana.ru have named names. According to the reports, Dmitry Lim, owner of the Karavan Bazaar, Uzbekistan's largest wholesale market, was detained along with more than 50 high-ranking employees of the market. Alik Nurutdinov, who heads the Bekabad cement factory, has reportedly been detained. Also detained are Batyr Rakhimov, businessman and president of one of Tashkent's premier football clubs (Pakhtakor). His brother Bakhtiyor Rakhimov is also wanted but reportedly fled the country on learning about Batyr's arrest. Also reportedly on the run are Alp Jamol-Bank owner Mukhiddin Asomiddinov and Kyzylkumtsement Works director Rajabbai Jumanazarov. One of the two Uzbek owners of the Swiss-registered company Zeromax, which is involved in Uzbekistan's oil and gas industry, have reportedly also been brought in for questioning.
Media outlets that cover Uzbekistan abound with theories on the reasons behind the crackdown.
Aleskei Volosevich of ferghana.ru says it could simply be that the state needs money.
"Generally, the people talking about these [arrests] believe that the state coffers are empty and because the state coffers are empty the authorities are forced to find new means of generating revenue," Volosevich says. "And these means are well known -- take over an established and successful business or threaten legal action to get the rich to put huge amounts of money into state coffers."
Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of the Uzbek president
Sergei Ezhkov of uzmetronom.com says this wave of arrests and detentions could be the start of a deeper investigation targeting people much higher up.
"Those who are wanted for money laundering or avoiding paying taxes or having ties to corruption, they are needed as sources of information to get at those corrupt people at the top," he says.
Of possible significance is that some of the enterprises apparently being checked into belong to Zemlikhan Khaidarov, a shadowy figure who has been the head of Uzbekistan's presidential apparatus since 1993, a tenure practically unrivaled in Uzbek politics.
Under one line of thinking, the crackdown could be connected to the president's daughters. Such reports say Gulnara and Lola are furthering their business interests in Uzbekistan and possibly eliminating obstacles to any succession process that would follow when their father is no longer the country's leader.
Ezhkov suggests that Uzbek authorities could be clearing out the old guard to make way for a new generation that would remain loyal to the Karimov family.
"If you have noticed, lately the president is giving posts to the younger generation -- that is, to people who are younger than 40 or just a bit older than 40," Ezhkov says. "So there is a change in generation under way in the government. And because of this, those who have been sitting here and filling their pockets -- namely, those with ties to corruption -- cannot take out the young people. There's a purge going on and this purge is centered in the economic field. And the goal is not to wipe out business but to get rid of those with ties to corruption."Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report