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Podcast: Mirziyaev Moves Fast To Consolidate Position As Uzbek Leader

  • Bruce Pannier

It may be the case that Shavkat Mirziyaev is not firmly entrenched as Uzbekistan's leader yet.

It may be the case that Shavkat Mirziyaev is not firmly entrenched as Uzbekistan's leader yet.

Events in Uzbekistan are moving more quickly than expected since former President Islam Karimov was officially declared dead on September 2. Since being declared "acting president" by parliament on September 8, Shavkat Mirziyaev has been very active, and in the process, provided some insight into his policies should he be elected president, as is widely expected, in the December 4 election.

To look at what we've seen and learned about Uzbekistan's acting leader in his first weeks in power, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel, to discuss Mirziyaev's actions since September 8.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Exeter University in Britain, senior lecturer David Lewis, formerly Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group, took part. From New York City, Sukhrab Ismoilov, a legal expert and head of Uzbekistan's independent Expert Working Group rights organization, joined. In Prague, the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, Alisher Sidik participated. I threw in a comment or two also.

Ismoilov noted, "He [Mirziyaev] is already feeling and acting like a president, even we still have three months until elections."

On September 13, Mirziyaev changed one of his deputy prime ministers and the education minister. He also expanded the powers of two other deputy prime ministers.

On September 16, Mirziyaev headed to his native Jizzakh Province. On the eve of his arrival, the provincial prosecutor-general was dismissed, as were some other officials after Mirziyaev showed up. Mirziyaev also reshuffled officials in Tashkent's Ulughbek district, the same district Mirziyaev was in charge of during most of the first five years of Uzbekistan's independence.

Friends And Enemies

The acting Uzbek president is also bringing some people back.

Abdullo Aripov is one of these people. Aripov was involved in the communications business since the early days of the country's independence, becoming deputy minister of communications in 2002. In 2012 he was removed amid a brewing scandal involving the Russian telecommunications company MTS and bribery that would eventually spread and include former President Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara.

In one of his first moves as acting president, Mirziyaev appointed Aripov deputy prime minister in charge of youth policies, culture, information systems, and communications.

Ismoilov explained, "Abdulla Aripov might have been one of the closest men to Mr. Mirziyaev."

And shortly after Mirziyaev became acting president, it was reported that Interpol had removed Gafur Rakhimov from its wanted list. Rakhimov is allegedly a powerful organized crime leader. The U.S. Department of the Treasury put financial sanctions on Rakhimov in 2012, saying in its statement, "Rakhimov is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia."

Rakhimov had already fled Uzbekistan in 2010 and is believed to have been living in Dubai. Sidik said now that the Interpol warrant has been withdrawn, Rakhimov, also apparently an acquaintance of Mirziyaev, is expected to return to Uzbekistan.

Sidik added, "Apparently they are either his friends or previous acquaintances, or previous foes, which, at this point, he's dealing with."

Mirziyaev also visited some of the regions adjacent to Tashkent Province. As mentioned, he was in Jizzakh but he also visited the Angren. Lewis explained, "He clearly now needs to consolidate his power base and that includes back in Tashkent, in his hometown in Jizzakh, and as much as possible in the regions."

But Sidik said, according to information Ozodlik is still working to confirm, during Mirziyaev's trips to the regions "he's not using the security of the previous president, the regular presidential security service, he's using private security, which allegedly was hired from Russia."

So it might be the case that Mirziyaev is not firmly entrenched as Uzbekistan's leader yet. Lewis suggested, "behind the scenes, not quite sure that this is completely resolved as we might expect, which would explain the speed really with which the acting president is moving forward."

While Some Things Change...

Some policies have certainly not changed. Local authorities mobilized students and others to clean up Jizzakh and Angren ahead of Mirziyaev's visits. Sidik said the cotton campaign was under way again, and while children were not reported to be forcibly sent into the fields, many adults still were, or were forced to pay local officials to avoid conscription into the annual cotton-harvesting campaign.

In terms of foreign policy, Lewis said that Mirziyaev had "already repeated the sort of mantra, there'll be no foreign bases on Uzbek soil and so forth" and also noted Mirziyaev did not attend the September 16 CIS summit in Bishkek.

But in a possibly hopeful sign, the panel took notice of some positive overtures Tashkent has made toward neighboring Kyrgyzstan since Mirziyaev took charge. On September 18, Uzbekistan removed its forces that occupied a mountain in Kyrgyzstan in late August and not long after an Uzbek-Kyrgyz team started reviewing their common border with an eye toward the long-standing problem of demarcation.

Sidik said Mirziyaev might seek better ties with eastern neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but he added, "What he needs from neighbors, from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan [is] water, because he is a cotton guy."

None of the panel members put much importance into the upcoming presidential election. Ismoilov said, "There is no difference from the previous election preparations under former President Karimov and we can already see the same faces nominated by the four political parties in Uzbekistan."

Once again, only the four registered political parties, all pro-presidential, are able to nominate candidates. The Adolat party is forwarding Nariman Umarov, and the People's Democratic Party selected Khotamjon Ketmonov, the same candidates the parties ran in the 2015 election against Karimov, who took, respectively 2.05 percent and 2.92 percent of the vote. The Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party nominated Sarvar Otamuradov, a first-time candidate. Karimov's favorite party, the Liberal Democratic Party, nominated Mirziyaev as their candidate.

Sidik described the upcoming December 4 president election as "just a formality," with Lewis commenting, "The election is nonsensical, it's a ritual as it was in Soviet time of public showing support."

The panel delved deeper into these topics and also discussed Mirziyaev's likely policy toward Russia and the inevitability that he will move against some of the top officials in the Uzbek government several months after being officially elected president.

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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