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More Than Nepotism? New Position For Uzbek Leader's Daughter In The Spotlight


Saida Mirziyoyeva, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, proved that she "wasn't afraid to take responsibility and speak out for the media," according to one blogger.
Saida Mirziyoyeva, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, proved that she "wasn't afraid to take responsibility and speak out for the media," according to one blogger.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Saida Mirziyoeva, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, has a habit of riding in and saving the day.

Now she is charged with preserving the image of her father's government at a particularly sticky time.

The appointment earlier this month of Mirziyoeva as head of communications and information policy in the presidential administration is part of a broader shakeup of Mirziyoev's administration in the aftermath of explosive anti-government sentiment that left at least 18 people dead in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region this summer.

But what do these latest comings and goings mean for a country that seems to be permanently caught between loosening the screws and tightening them after reforms earlier in Mirziyoev's six-year reign?

In addition to the 38-year-old Mirziyoeva's return to the top level, pro-reform Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov was switched to the newly created position of adviser to the president on social and political developments, while Komiljon Allamjonov -- a noted ally of Mirziyoeva -- has become deputy chief of staff.

Protests in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region left 18 people dead this summer.
Protests in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region left 18 people dead this summer.

Sardor Umurzakov, a 44-year-old former trade minister, took the chief of staff role in July after predecessor Zainilobiddin Nizomiddinov became the first head to roll in the wake of the bloody Karakalpakstan crackdown.

According to Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the British-based Central Asia Due Diligence (CADD), the changes have defied speculation that Mirziyoev might install hard-line officials from the era of his former master, authoritarian first President Islam Karimov.

"After the events of Karakalpakstan there was talk about a return to the old men and the old style. In this sense those rumors benefited the government because it was able to show the opposite by appointing younger officials," Ilkhamov said.

Officials including Mirziyoev have to some extent acknowledged that July's events in Karakalpakstan were caused by a crisis in communication, even if Tashkent continues to blame unspecified "foreign forces" for the protests that erupted over proposed changes to the autonomous territory's constitutional status.

Elsewhere, Tashkent has been criticized for backsliding on freedom of speech after opening the door a crack in the first years after Karimov's death in 2016.

Such developments have raised questions over Uzbekistan's direction as self-styled reformer Mirziyoev mulls extending his presidency beyond the two consecutive terms enshrined in the current constitution.

A Political Tandem?

In a November 14 statement on Mirziyoeva's appointment, her father's spokesman said the new structure she is overseeing will be responsible "for the study of public opinion and information policy."

Her first state position came in April 2019, when she was appointed deputy head of the Information and Mass Communications Agency, a position that automatically made her a deputy presidential adviser and gave her broad purview over the media.

Komiljon Allamjonov receives US Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Trudeau on October 6.
Komiljon Allamjonov receives US Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Trudeau on October 6.

In late January 2020, she was appointed deputy head of the Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media, a state-run profit that wields great influence, albeit without executive authority.

In these positions she was No. 2 to Allamjonov, contributing to perceptions that Mirziyoeva was in a tandem with an outspoken politician at the forefront of what some called a "thaw" in post-Karimov Uzbekistan.

"If Allamjonov relies on Mirziyoeva to show the elite that he is acting with the support of Mirziyoev's family, then Mirziyoeva looks to Allamjonov for the professional experience required to deliver certain goals," Ilkhamov said.

The duo's time at the agency coincided with the unblocking of some websites and the accreditation of a correspondent for the BBC, which had been banned from the country since security forces killed hundreds of protesters in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijon in 2005.

But it was only a partial opening. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service remains blocked inside the country, even if its contributors have recently been permitted some short-term accreditation opportunities.

In one event highlighting the limits of the Uzbek opening, Allamjonov in 2021 threw his weight behind conservatives opposed to LGBT rights, just days after a blogger who had raised LGBT rights was hospitalized with injuries following an attack in Tashkent.

"Before making demands of Uzbekistan or any other foreign country, foreign organizations must take into account the mentality, religion, culture and traditions of the nation," Allamjonov railed.

These events symbolize a "partial approach to freedom of speech," curated by the new deputy chief of staff, who has also had to deflect accusations of inappropriate business dealings spotlighted by a media investigation, Ilkhamov told RFE/RL.

'Her Voice Would Prove Decisive'

Mirziyoeva has one of the bigger public presences among the ruling family, with unconfirmed reports that her husband -- the businessman Oybek Tursunov -- holds his own seat in the administration.

Her younger sister, Shahnoza, has a top position in the Preschool Education Ministry.

Sardor Umurzakov, a 44-year-old former trade minister, took the chief of staff role in July.
Sardor Umurzakov, a 44-year-old former trade minister, took the chief of staff role in July.

Unlike her relatives, Mirziyoeva regularly takes positions on current events.

When a video of an Uzbek groom slapping his bride on their wedding day went viral earlier this year, she joined the chorus of condemnation.

"We shouldn't remain silent about such cases [or] pretend that they are one-offs," Mirziyoeva wrote on her social-media pages. "This is why we need education that opens horizons and makes women independent and strong." The groom was charged with hooliganism.

Two years before that, Mirziyoeva was seen making a timely intervention as a famous liberal theater in Tashkent, Ilkhom, was threatened with closure in a standoff with the owner of the building where it is located.

But she is also careful to cultivate an image as a mother and preserver of cultural tradition.

One video posted in summer shows her older and younger sons kneeling on an Islamic prayer mat.

"My soul is glad when my older son guides his younger brother, since for the heart of a mother there is nothing more pleasant than to observe the strong friendship growing in the brotherhood of her children," she wrote under the post.

Nikita Makarenko, a popular blogger who has written for several Uzbek media outlets, told RFE/RL that he thinks Mirziyoeva's avowed commitment to press freedom is genuine, even if the state of freedom of expression in Uzbekistan remains very grim.

"When Saida Mirziyoeva worked [at the state agency] she proved that she wasn't afraid to take responsibility and speak out for the media. Often in critical cases her voice would prove decisive," Makarenko said.

"Of course in a perfect world it is the strong system of laws and their enforcement that should defend journalists and bloggers. For the moment, we need any allies that we can find."

But red lines for expression remain everywhere in Uzbekistan, a point underscored by the recent jailing of an Instagram user over lighthearted but allegedly improper posts.

Sevinch Sadullaeva was released a day early from a five-day sentence after issuing apologies for videos that showed her bare legs and a man briefly putting his head up her sweater.

Neither Allamjonov nor Mirziyoeva commented publicly on the case.

'Keeping His Family Close'

In Central Asia there are plenty of precedents for presidential children gaining prestigious state posts.

In Kazakhstan, first president Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, was handed a number of powerful roles, including that of Senate speaker, a position that put her second in line to the presidency.

Like many members of the former Kazakh leader's family, she relinquished her political roles after bloody unrest in January.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon's children are particularly empowered.

Rahmon's daughter, Ozoda Rahmon, is his chief of staff, and his son, Rustam Emomali, is widely tipped to succeed the 70-year-old strongman after swiftly rising to the chairmanship of the upper house, a position he combines with the mayorship of the capital, Dushanbe.

In Uzbekistan, Mirziyoeva's prominence brought rapid comparisons with Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Mirziyoev's predecessor, Karimov, who died in 2016.

Mirziyoeva and Gulnara Karimova in 2019
Mirziyoeva and Gulnara Karimova in 2019

But diplomat, businesswoman, and fashionista Karimova, who is currently serving jail time for a range of corruption-related crimes, was never known to have held a formal position as powerful as the one now held by Mirziyoeva, preferring to hold sway via proxies in government.

In the end, Karimova's fall came during her own father's lifetime, when she was arrested amid her social-media posts exposing a feud inside the ruling family.

Rashid Gabdulhakov, assistant professor at the Research Center for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands argues that the Miriziyoev family has "learned lessons, to a certain extent," from this era.

"If Gulnara was allowed to go rogue for a time, what we see in this case is that the president is keeping his daughter close," said Gabdulhakov, who is pessimistic that Mirziyoeva's new role in charge of "a strategic sector" will allow for any fresh openings.

Of the crop of officials now surrounding the president, Mirziyoeva may not be alone in benefiting from family connections.

The British-educated Sador Umurzakov, who cut his teeth working with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, is the son of the late Uktam Umurzakov, who was a lecturer and rector at the Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers -- the institution from which Mirziyoev graduated.

Both families hail from the Jizzakh region and Umurzakov senior is believed to have influenced Mirziyoev's early professional life.

His son's elevated status in the regime was spotlighted last month when Umurzakov was shown paying a mysterious solo visit to Ankara to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan's presidential press office was the only source for news for the meeting and a ceremonial groundbreaking that Umurzakov attended.

These kinds of appearances have fueled some speculation that the younger politician is possibly being groomed as Mirziyoev's successor.

But Ilkhamov told RFE/RL that putting his young team in the spotlight is a logical step for Mirziyoev, "who is trying to improve how he is seen abroad as well as at home, after [the Karakalpakstan] events and as he tries to extend his presidency."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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