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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoev while on an official visit to Uzbekistan earlier this week.

As if Turkmenistan didn't already have an image problem, it must now contend with neighboring Uzbekistan changing its policies and earning cautious but consistent praise from the global community and renewed interest from international companies and investors.

More concerning for Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is how Uzbekistan is achieving such a turnaround.

Berdymukhammedov visited Tashkent on April 23-24, the first time he had visited Uzbekistan's capital since March 2008.

That time, he was going to meet with then-Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. The late President Karimov and Turkmenistan's first president, the late Saparmurat Niyazov, really have helped define the image of a Central Asian dictator in the post-Soviet period.

This time, Berdymukhammedov went to meet with Uzbekistan's relatively new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Mirziyoev is not the internationally criticized, iron-fisted ruler Karimov was. Mirziyoev is implementing administrative, economic, and foreign policy reforms that have attracted the attention of countries in the region, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and in East Asia, Europe, and the United States.

It's a really awkward example for Berdymukhammedov's Turkmenistan.

Different Paths

When Karimov was publicly declared dead on September 2, 2016, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were very similar in their styles of rule.

Uzbekistan was increasingly isolationist; Turkmenistan had been an isolationist country for decades.

In both countries, there was a heavy internal security-force presence; the slightest hint of opposition was quickly eliminated. Thousands languished in prisons, with international rights organizations claiming that many were tortured into making confessions and condemned at unfair trials without access to proper legal representation.

Uzbekistan's economy was in bad shape, but so was Turkmenistan's at the time of Karimov's death.

Soon after Mirziyoev came to power in September 2016, the changes started in Uzbekistan. Some long-imprisoned political and rights activists and independent journalists were released.

Turkmenistan has not released any of its imprisoned activists or political opponents in that time, though information surfaced in August 2017 suggesting that Niyazov's security chief, Akmurad Rejepov, had died in prison after being confined there 10 years earlier.

Mirziyoev's government is also experimenting with loosening controls over Uzbek media. Some abusive and/or corrupt local officials have been exposed due to greater latitude for outlets and journalists, though top officials and current government policies still seem to be a step too far.

Turkmen media looks much as it has for nearly all its more than 26 years of independence. The president is everywhere and everything is great, according to state media.

Mirziyoev has purged and reorganized the Prosecutor-General's Office, Interior Ministry, and, most of all, the feared National Security Committee. In all three cases, Mirziyoev has promised that abuses of the past will no longer be tolerated and officials will be held accountable for misdeeds toward citizens.

Turkmenistan has continued its long-standing policy of regularly shuffling officials without any meaningful results coming from these personnel changes.

Uzbek authorities are talking about scrapping the odious exit visa for citizens, possibly by 2019.

In Turkmenistan, citizens with tickets to international flights are being turned away at Turkmen airports.*

Uzbekistan implemented a badly needed currency devaluation in September 2017, dropping the national currency's exchange rate dramatically to bring it into line with the black-market rate, seen as the more genuine exchange rate.

Turkmenistan has stubbornly resisted currency devaluation since it implemented two devaluations at the start of 2015, dropping the value of the manat by some 23 percent. The manat’s official rate is 3.5 to $1 while the black market rate is currently more than 16 manats.

Improving Ties

Mirziyoev's greatest success to date has been improving Uzbekistan's foreign ties generally; but in Central Asia in particular. Uzbekistan's relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have improved dramatically since Mirziyoev took power.

Uzbek ties with Turkmenistan are better, too, but they were already good when Mirziyoev became leader -- and Mirziyoev's first official visit as Uzbekistan's elected president was to Turkmenistan in March 2017.

Mirziyoev was also instrumental in helping to convene the first Central Asian summit in nearly 20 years in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 15, 2018.

Berdymukhammedov did not attend. He went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates instead.

Uzbekistan has opened its doors to foreign investors, urging them to come and set up shop in Uzbekistan. It appears to be showing signs of working, as Uzbek authorities have been in talks with ExxonMobil, for example, and there is seemingly increased interest from Russian companies.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) opened an office in Tashkent on November 8, the same day that Uzbekistan's State Investment Committee said foreign investment since the start of 2017 amounted to more than $4 billion.

Vanity Projects

Turkmenistan has been hunting for foreign investment but has not offered any of the greatly coveted onshore contracts for hydrocarbon fields that so far only the China National Petroleum Corp can claim to have.

Turkmenistan's fondness for the construction of white marble buildings, and other vanity projects, is enough to give would-be foreign investors pause; but Turkish company Polimeks and Belarusian company Belgorkhimprom claim Turkmen authorities owe them hundreds of millions of dollars for work done in Turkmenistan and other companies have smaller financial claims.

Turkmenistan is in a dire economic crisis at the moment. The government had to scrap subsidies for water, gas, and electricity that the public had been receiving since the early 1990s; there are reported shortages of basic foods; unemployment could be as high as 60 percent; banks are barely functioning; and hard currency is almost impossible to get.

Berdymukhammedov does not appear to have any easy path to getting out of this financial mess anytime soon without drastically changing policies he has pursued since becoming Turkmenistan's leader at the end of 2006.

Berdymukhammedov has shown no inclination to change his policies, so Turkmenistan is likely to continue to be run as it has been and the economic woes are likely to continue to multiply.

But Uzbekistan has started to turn itself around and is now creeping forward.

And all it took was a change in policies, and a change in leadership.

*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to remove mention of passengers being blocked from traveling abroad by train from Turkmenistan. There is no longer any international passenger rail service in the country.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Former Uzbek Finance Minister and poultry tsar Rustam Azimov

Mmmmm. Humiliation never tasted so good.

Those dining in restaurants in Uzbekistan should consider that their meal may have come courtesy of two men who just two years ago were among the most powerful people in the country.

I speak of Rustam Inoyatov, the former head of the National Security Service (SNB), and Rustam Azimov, the former finance minister. Inoyatov is now overseeing the fishing industry in Uzbekistan, and Azimov was, after being dismissed as finance minister, head of the poultry industry.

Their fall from power clearly is not a straight drop.

Inoyatov was the feared chief of the SNB from 1995 until January of this year. It is difficult to imagine the man who was responsible for imposing strict order over Uzbekistan for 22 years, and imprisoning thousands of people during that time, managing a fish farm, particularly since Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country.

It is a long way from catching enemies of the state to catching trout, but there is some consolation as Inoyatov’s fish farm co-managers will be Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and Prosecutor-General Otabek Murodov.

Rustam Azimov was finance minister, or in other top ministry positions involved with Uzbekistan’s finances, from 1999 to December 2016. In January 2017, one of the tasks given to Azimov was overseeing the poultry industry at about the same time that new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev got the idea that the solution to rural poverty was for the government to distribute chickens to families in remote areas.

In June 2017, Azimov lost his position as deputy prime minister along with his position as poultry tsar, and the chicken-in-every-yurt program was scrapped a couple of months after that.

Rustam Inoyatov
Rustam Inoyatov

And that means, if you order chicken and fish at a restaurant in Uzbekistan, you’re actually ordering the “Rustam and Rustam.” Who knows? It could one day be Uzbekistan’s answer to “surf and turf.”

OK, I'm having a little fun here. But there are some serious points to be made.

First, since Mirziyoev took power after the announcement of the death of longtime President Islam Karimov in September 2016, Mirziyoev has been trying to show the world that Uzbekistan is not the repressive state, bad neighbor, and fickle partner the country had been under Karimov.

Mirziyoev smiles and speaks of friendship, cooperation with other countries, and a new openness.

It is so encouraging that many want to believe these are truly new days and better policies for Uzbekistan.

Maybe so. I’m still waiting to see, but I’m hoping it turns out to be true.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev: Beware of that smile
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev: Beware of that smile

The two Rustams are not sympathetic figures, particularly former SNB chief Inoyatov. Bad things happened in Uzbekistan when they were in their high positions. Charges could be brought against them, and many would say they deserve to face justice.

But, of course, Mirziyoev was prime minister from 2003 until Karimov’s death. His past is interwoven with those of Inoyatov and Azimov.

So, instead of facing justice, the two men have been humiliated. It is true that Inoyatov is still officially an aide to the president, but that is unlikely to last much longer.

Secondly, beware of that smile Mirziyoev so often has on his face.

After Karimov died, Mirziyoev and the two Rustams were seen as the most likely successors. At the time, I described Mirziyoev as “more of a fist than a brain.” As prime minister he had been so, reportedly slapping and beating subordinates, ordering “every shingle” removed from homes as punishment for those who failed in some way to fulfill a government task, and generally acting as an enforcer. He was pitiless, remorseless, and always a creature loyal to President Karimov.

As president, Mirziyoev appears to be much shrewder than I, at least, expected.

I made the point in an earlier blog post that Mirziyoev inevitably would have to do something to eliminate potential challenges from Azimov or Inoyatov, both of whom were at least as powerful as Mirziyoev at the time of Karimov’s death.

Mirziyoev rid himself of both, and it’s possible he did so by playing them off against each other.

The day after his inauguration as president, Mirziyoev relieved Azimov of the finance minister’s post. Azimov left his post as finance minister and later as deputy prime minister without any objections or resistance. Something was almost surely hanging over his head for him to so meekly depart from the political scene.

SNB chief Inoyatov certainly would have known a thing or two about Azimov that could have persuaded the longtime finance official that a quiet exit from politics was in his best interest.

In December 2017, a group called Open Source Investigations released a report titled Following Inoyatov’s Money: The Multimillion Euro Mansion In Vienna.

It was strange that, until then, no word had ever gotten out about any of Inoyatov’s financial dealings.

Credit to Open Source Investigations for their work, but someone, somewhere probably leaked this information.

As finance minister, Azimov likely had at least some idea of various officials’ transactions inside and outside the country.

We’ll probably never know for sure how Mirziyoev so successfully removed his chief rivals for power, but it’s worth considering he might be much craftier than expected. It’s also worth considering he might not be the nice guy smiling in front of the cameras.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws 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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