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How Shavkat Mirziyoev Became Uzbekistan's Supreme Leader

It looks like Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is now alone at the pinnacle of power in Uzbekistan, but it took nearly 18 months and a lot of work.

The dismissal of the head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, on January 31 was the latest and arguably most important step so far in President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s consolidation of power.

It was clear when Mirziyoev came to power in September 2016 after the death of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, that Mirziyoev would have to fend off some challenges before he could cement his claim to leadership.

Mirziyoev now appears firmly entrenched in power and it is possible to trace how he accomplished this.

Like so many Uzbek officials, Mirziyoev worked in Karimov’s shadow. For many citizens, for 25 years, “Uzbekistan” and “President Karimov” were synonymous, and while people might have known the names of a few government officials, they did not know much else about them.

When Karimov died, there were three people who seemingly emerged with a chance to succeed the longtime leader: Mirziyoev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, and Inoyatov, though the SNB chief was seen more as a kingmaker than a king.

Mirziyoev got the nod and was -- unconstitutionally, by some accounts -- named acting president. Then, on December 4, 2016, he won a snap presidential election. But he was in the unenviable position of having powerful rivals next to him. This precarious situation was underscored by the fact that the shadowy spy master Inoyatov, who had rarely even been photographed, started appearing more often in public.

Mirziyoev moved quickly, first bringing back Abdulla Aripov and appointing him deputy prime minister. Aripov was ousted from his post as deputy prime minister in charge of telecommunications and information systems in August 2012 as a scandal unfolded around Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, and her illegal business activities with foreign telecommunications companies.

Mirziyoev was prime minister at that time, so there is widespread speculation that he might have had knowledge of some of those illegal activities. But Aripov, who was sent to teach at a college in Tashkent, did not implicate Mirziyoev.

Parliament confirmed Mirziyoev as acting president on September 8, 2016. By September 14, Mirziyoyev appointed Aripov to be deputy prime minister in charge of, among other matters, telecommunications and information systems -- Aripov’s old job. Aripov was subsequently confirmed as prime minister on December 14, 2016.

Rustam Inoyatov (left), the former head of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, during a visit to China in October 2014
Rustam Inoyatov (left), the former head of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, during a visit to China in October 2014

The nominations of Mirziyoev for president and Aripov for prime minister came from the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU), one of four pro-presidential parties (the only parties officially registered) but, crucially, the party that traditionally nominated Karimov for president. The LDPU had seemingly transferred its loyalty to Mirziyoev.

Mirziyoev began changing personnel during the three months he was acting president, mostly district heads and district police chiefs in Uzbekistan’s big cities; but, for example, during his trip to his native Jizzakh Province in mid-September 2016, he sacked the provincial head and the mayor of Jizzakh city. After he was elected, changes started coming more frequently and at more senior levels.

In the first two months of 2017, Mirziyoev replaced provincial police chiefs in Navoi, Jizzakh, Andijon, and Tashkent provinces, chief prosecutors in several provinces, and the mayors of Bukhara and Samarkand. Then Mirziyoev started changing provincial governors, sometimes twice.

In January 2017, he appointed Abdusalom Azizov, the head of the Interior Ministry branch in Jizzakh Province, to be Uzbekistan’s interior minister, then made him defense minister in September. The governor of Khorezm Province, Pulat Bobojonov, took over as interior minister. (Bobojonov had worked as a prosecutor in Jizzakh Province.)

Mirziyoev also might have had the support of another influential group in Uzbekistan.

In September 2016, shortly after Mirziyoev became acting president, Interpol removed reputed drug kingpin Gafur Rahimov, an Uzbek national, from its wanted list. Rahimov and his alleged business dealings recently resurfaced when he was appointed president of the International Boxing Association.

Uzbek businessman Salimjon Abduvaliyev, who has long been the object of speculation concerning possible ties to organized crime in Uzbekistan, appeared in a photograph before the December 2016 presidential election wearing a T-shirt with Mirziyoev’s picture on it and the words (in Russian) “My President.”

Other officials who had been detained or jailed on corruption charges under Karimov were released. Tohir Jalilov, the former head of GM Uzbekistan who was blamed for thousands of vehicles bound for sale in Russia being sold instead in Uzbekistan, was freed from detention. Kahramon Aripov (no relation to the prime minister), who was head of the Asaka Bank and connected to the GM Uzbekistan scandal, was released from prison.

Former Finance Minister Rustam Azimov now heads Uzbekinvest. Some believe Azimov’s real job, and possibly last job for the Uzbek government, is to bring back money the Karimov family moved outside Uzbekistan.
Former Finance Minister Rustam Azimov now heads Uzbekinvest. Some believe Azimov’s real job, and possibly last job for the Uzbek government, is to bring back money the Karimov family moved outside Uzbekistan.

Former Tashkent Mayor Kozim Tulaganov, convicted of economic crimes in 2006 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, suddenly appeared and was made head of the state construction and architecture committee by Mirziyoev two days after the latter became president.

As noted earlier, Mirziyoev was no heir apparent. Either Azimov or Inoyatov could have assumed power, and it might have made little immediate difference to the people of Uzbekistan. All three were officials in Karimov’s government.

Mirziyoev has worked to create an image as a “people’s” president.

He has made well-publicized visits to places that had significance for the people of Uzbekistan: the grave of Bahauddin Naqshband, the 14th-century founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, in Bukhara; the grave of 20th-century Uzbek poet Erkin Vohidov in Margilan; and other famous figures from the region’s history.

He personally appeared on television to give the New Year Address on December 31, 2016, a departure from Karimov’s practice of having his messages read out by newscasters. He spoke about creating new programs for low-income families, the handicapped, orphans. Mirziyoev openly mentioned the forced conscription of citizens into the cotton fields at harvest time and vowed to rid the country of the practice. He launched a website -- a virtual reception area -- where citizens were encouraged to inform the president about problems they faced or about local officials who were seen to be taking advantage of citizens.

He reached out to “people who have gone astray who want to return to normal life,” presumably those convicted of involvement with banned Islamic groups, and said, “We should make those people our friends and beckon them to spirituality." In June, he ordered a review of Muslims placed on a secretive black list, and by the start of September one report claimed 16,000 out of 17,000 names had been removed.

But most of all, Mirziyoev criticized officials of the system he inherited from Karimov. And he did so in front of state TV cameras.

Mirziyoev met with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) outside Moscow on December 26.
Mirziyoev met with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) outside Moscow on December 26.

He criticized the police, the tax agency, the health-care system, and other state bodies and entities.

In August, he called employees of the prosecutor-general’s office the “biggest thieves” in the country. “ not like prosecutors,” he said. “I know how these people with no conscience behave themselves."

For the people of Uzbekistan, who had endured 25 years of predations under the Karimov regime in silence, it almost certainly was amazing -- and pleasing -- to hear the new president saying out loud what many of them had felt all those years.

Mirziyoev used this pent-up frustration to his advantage. At a cabinet session on January 14, 2017, Mirziyoev lashed out at the Finance Ministry, saying it had not fulfilled it most important tasks and had wasted money and time. Rustam Azimov was no longer finance minister by that time -- he had been removed from that position right after Mirziyoev was elected president -- but the failures of which Mirziyoev spoke virtually all occurred on Azimov’s watch.

Mirziyoev specifically mentioned problems that people had using bank cards to access money at bank machines. A few days later, a video was posted of pensioners in the southeastern city of Denau protesting their inability to withdraw their pension money from bank machines.

It is difficult to hold a public protest in Uzbekistan, and there don't appear to have been any subsequent reports that anyone involved in this unsanctioned demonstration was detained or punished, which could suggest that someone in the government was behind the Denau incident.

It coincided with the start of Azimov’s apparent fall from power. Azimov was blamed for failings several more times before he finally resigned from his post as deputy prime minister in June 2017.

Azimov was made general-director of Uzbekinvest, the state insurance company for imports and exports. But some believe Azimov’s real job, and possibly last job for the Uzbek government, is to bring back money the Karimov family moved outside Uzbekistan.

But Azimov had been eliminated as a rival.

In January 2017, Mirziyoev made an important change to the National Security Service: He demoted deputy chief Shukhrat Gulyamov and sent him to head the National Security Service branch in Syrdarya Province. Gulyamov had been Inoyatov’s right-hand man. Gulyamov refused to leave his position in Tashkent and in February he was stripped of his general’s rank and detained. In August 2017, a military court found him guilty of illegally selling weapons, money-laundering, and connections to organized crime. Gulyamov was sentenced to life imprisonment (and ordered to pay $1.5 billion for damages he caused).

There were other changes in National Security Service personnel as Mirziyoev seemingly moved Inoyatov’s people out and his own people in.

In late November, Mirziyoev started criticizing the National Security Service's work.

On November 30, he said it was inadmissible to use evidence obtained through illegal means -- torture, for instance. In December, Mirziyoev spoke of the need for new rules and regulations for the activities of the National Security Service, saying for 26 years it had not changed and was able to declare “any problem [it wished] to be a threat to national security.

Also in December, an organization called Open Source Investigations released a report detailing property allegedly owned by Inoyatov’s family in Austria.

Uzbekistan’s spymaster had gone more than two decades without such reports, so the timing of this revelation was curious.

The announcement of Inoyatov’s departure as National Security Service chief can feasibly be regarded as a key stage of Mirziyoev’s consolidation of power.

Mirziyoev appears to have neutralized potential rivals, filled top state posts with friends and loyalists, reached some sort of arrangement with powerful “business” figures in Uzbekistan, built up a support base among the population, and, importantly, met with top world leaders who have heartily and publicly endorsed him as Uzbekistan’s new president.

In less than 18 months, he appears to have become the undisputed and seemingly unchallenged leader of Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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