President Islam Karimov, a native of Samarkand and a little-known finance minister in the Uzbek Soviet republic, came to power in 1989. He had the support of Ismail Jurabekov, the head of the Samarkand clan.
Since the early days of independence, Karimov -- not wanting to damage his own position -- has attempted to achieve a balance of power among different political groups. That has fueled rivalries even more.
Ruslan Sharipov, an independent journalist from Tashkent currently living in the United States, told RFE/RL that President Karimov benefits from the rivalry most of all. “The ongoing rivalry that we are witnessing these days is to the president’s advantage," he said. "He can be calmly sitting in his office, watching, and feeling very safe. What happened recently to Jurabekov, Abdusamad Palvanzoda, and other officials, and what is likely to happen to many others is nothing but clan rivalry.”
Earlier this month, reports appeared on the Internet and rumors circulated in Uzbekistan that Jurabekov and Palvanzoda, a former justice minister, had fled the country.
Ismail Jurabekov has held senior positions in the Uzbek government for the last two decades. He is known as a leader of the powerful Samarkand clan and a power broker to the Karimov regime. In 2004, he appeared to lose Karimov’s favor when he was dismissed from the position of presidential adviser. The authorities also launched a criminal investigation against him.
It was Karimov’s second attempt to dismiss Jurabekov. In January 1999, Jurabekov, then deputy prime minister, was forced to resign.
But in February 1999, several explosions rocked the capital Tashkent, claiming a dozen lives. A month later, Jurabekov was reinstated and became a presidential adviser on water and agricultural issues. Some observers have suggested that Jurabekov and his clan organized the blasts, though there is no firm proof to support this theory.
Others have suggested that the explosions were organized by the National Security Council (SNB), led by Rustam Inoyatov, or the Interior Ministry (MVD), headed by Zakir Almatov. Clan politics are present here, too. Analysts say Inoyatov represents the Tashkent clan, while Almatov is backed by the Samarkand clan.
The two institutions and their heads are believed to be pillars of Karimov’s power.
The rivalry between the MVD and the SNB (former KGB) is typical in ex-Soviet countries. But in Uzbekistan this rivalry has deepened lately.
“I am inclined to think that all processes are driven by inter-clan relationships," Sharipov said. "The two strongest clans for the time being are the MVD and the SNB. They compete and fight with each other. I am absolutely sure that Zakir Almatov’s clan is much stronger, as many are saying on the Internet these days.”
Some observers have also suggested that the string of explosions in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in spring 2004 were organized by the SNB and targeted the MVD. Like the 1999 bombings, there is no firm proof to support this theory.
Several policemen were killed in those attacks. The Interior Ministry’s Almatov -- who was supposed to make statements and conduct an investigation into the bombings -- disappeared for several days after the attacks.
This month, reports surfaced on the Internet that Almatov had ordered the repression of dissidents. Many speculated that the SNB was behind the reports and aimed to compromise the MVD and Interior Minister Zakir Almatov.
Does President Karimov, who has skillfully maintained the balance of power among the clans for several years, have full control over the situation? Or has he been influenced by those clans?
Analysts say Karimov doesn’t have full control. “He [Karimov] benefits from the rivalry among the clans," Sharipov said. "However, he is playing a dangerous game, as one of these clans is likely to overthrow Karimov and put in power someone from their clan instead of him. Therefore, we can’t say [Karimov] fully controls the situation simply because Almatov has a huge [police] force behind him and, therefore, I believe, Zakir Almatov is the most dangerous figure for President Karimov.”
Analysts say Almatov, who has been interior minister since 1991, has turned the ministry into the country’s most powerful and numerous force. They say it leaves the security services and the army far behind.
As the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan showed, who controls the police could be crucial if Uzbekistan experiences its own uprising. To add to that, Bahodir Musaev, a Tashkent-based independent sociologist, says there are many policemen dissatisfied with their monthly salary of around $60.
Musaev says the current regime is on its last legs. “I believe [the Karimov] regime is at death’s door. I don’t know how long this agony will last," Musaev said. "But [society] could explode any moment -- triggered by some insignificant event that will then have a chain reaction. People are on the edge. The authorities haven’t grasped the situation. They don’t understand how strong people’s despair is and what the people are capable of doing at this moment.”
Musaev says President Karimov will be gone some day. But his political legacy is likely to be devastating. He says the conditions for a peaceful and democratic handover of power have not been created, statehood remains clannish, and no politicians with public personas have appeared in the last 15 years.