The name Zoyir Mirzaev probably means little or nothing to most people. But the newly appointed governor of Uzbekistan's southern Kashkadarya Province is clearly someone President Shavkat Mirziyoev wants in his government.
The 51-year-old Mirzaev has experience: He was governor of Samarkand Province from 2010 to 2016.
But just a year ago, he was being called a major embarrassment to the Uzbek government. Images had been posted on social networks of six dejected-looking men standing knee-deep in an irrigation ditch. Their tormentor was none other than Mirzaev, a former minister of agriculture and water management who at that time was a deputy prime minister.
In Mirzaev’s view, the six men were responsible for a poor harvest. “If you cannot water the wheat, then I’ll water you,” he reportedly told them.
The six were said to have stood in the muddy water for half an hour.
Mirziyoev has spoken out repeatedly against the labor practices of the past, when Uzbekistan’s late first president, Islam Karimov, was still in power. Under Karimov, forced labor was used to harvest cotton, and it was often women and children who were sent into the fields. Farmers who failed to meet their targets could expect to be punished, and this sometimes meant being beaten by local officials.
Although as prime minister from 2003 to 2016 he played a key role in that system, Mirziyoev has been vowing to stop such abuse since taking over the presidency in late 2016.
The incident made a splash in international media, including RFE/RL and BBC reports.
Mirziyoev sacked Mirzaev on October 29, 2018, for "serious shortcomings" and said the government would not tolerate “forced labor” or any “violations of the law on agricultural work.”
It was a blow to the Mirziyoev government's work toward portraying Uzbekistan as a country changing for the better, and one might have thought it would be the end of Mirzaev’s career.
As it turned out, Mirzaev was out of work for barely a week. On November 7, 2018, he was named head of the Sharaf Rashidov district in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Province. It was a demotion, to be sure, but arguably a soft landing in light of the bad publicity.
Jizzakh Province is Mirziyoev's birthplace (specifically the Zaamin district) and also where the future Uzbek president served as provincial chief from 1996 to 2001.
Mirziyoev had sent Mirzaev somewhere safe while the controversy died down.
The two surely knew each other for two decades at least, since Mirzaev headed the financial department for Samarkand Province from 2001 to 2003, which is approximately the same time Mirziyoev was Samarkand's governor.
It is unclear what connects Mirziyoev and Mirzaev. But it seems a fair bet that Mirzaev's name will continue to crop up in Uzbekistan so long as Mirziyoev is leader.