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Rustam & Rustam’s Fish And Chicken Emporium

Former Uzbek Finance Minister and poultry tsar Rustam Azimov
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.

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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