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Nonstop Nepotism: Uzbek President's Son-In-Law Named MMA Chief In Latest Sign Of Creeping Family Control

Otabek Umarov is married to Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoev's younger daughter. (file photo)
Otabek Umarov is married to Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoev's younger daughter. (file photo)

President Shavkat Mirziyoev's son-in-law has been named head of Uzbekistan's fledgling Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Association, adding to the list of influential roles for family members within Mirziyoev's three-year-old administration.

Otabek Umarov, who is married to the president's younger daughter, Shahnoza, is already the deputy head of Mirziyoev's personal security and serves as an informal ambassador at events with foreign dignitaries.

Umarov welcomed his latest appointment in a November 10 Instagram post showing him meeting MMA athletes recently at a nicely outfitted gym and fight venue in the capital, Tashkent.

President Mirziyoev "has set concrete tasks for improving the quality of competition in all areas, especially sports," he told the group, which included a number of local kettlebell luminaries.

Former Hollywood action-film star and current Russian citizen Steven Seagal offered up his congratulations to "my friend" Umarov in a tweet, saying, "Congrats brother!"

A brutal combat sport that continues to attract growing ranks of fighters from Uzbekistan, MMA has catapulted many fighters from the former Soviet Union to international notoriety.

MMA -- which is most popularly contested professionally within the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) -- is extremely popular in Russia's North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Daghestan's Khabib Nurmagomedov is an undefeated UFC world champion and has made a fortune as one of the sport's biggest stars.

But it doesn't always turn out so well for the fighters.

Twenty-seven-year-old Uzbek MMA fighter Bekzod Nurmatov died in October after he fell into a coma following a bout in Russia's southern republic of Chechnya.

Ties between the commercial, recreational, and state sectors are opaque in Uzbekistan, and critics accuse senior officials of ensuring that their own families are the most frequent beneficiaries of graft and other forms of corruption or influence.

Wealth And Influence

But in addition to government and diplomatic posts, dating back to independence in 1991, Uzbekistan's presidents have maintained a tight hold on wealth and influence through formal and informal appointments to bodies that oversee activities from media and the arts to social programs for kids.

A 2011 study by the London-based real-estate company Knight Frank hinted at the scale of Uzbekistan's problem under the country's first president, Islam Karimov, suggesting that Uzbeks were the second-fastest growing nationality in terms of purchasing luxury residential properties in London.

Many observers expressed hope that Mirziyoev would break with decades of rights abuses and kleptocracy after Karimov died in 2016.

But there are signs that the old patterns have continued.

Uzbekistan ranked 158th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, a measure of perceived public-sector corruption.

Mirziyoev's younger daughter and Umarov's wife, Shahnoza, is a high-level official at the Preschool Education Ministry and is reputed to essentially control funding and other aspects of social programs for children.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (third left) with members of his family in 2016.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (third left) with members of his family in 2016.

Mirziyoev's older daughter, Saida, is a deputy director of Uzbekistan's Agency for Information and Mass Communications, although observers say that title sells short her influence in an organization that effectively controls the country's media, press services, and public relations.

Her husband, Oybek Tursunov, works within the presidential administration.

Tursunov's father, Batyr, is a former KGB officer and deputy head of the powerful National Guard that is rapidly gobbling up security duties for the president and the state.

The tall, muscly Umarov frequently shares Instagram posts of himself in his official duties -- closely trailing the president or enjoying a sumptuous meal to fete Dubai's crown prince -- alongside images with his family or promoting fitness and sports, including MMA events.

He was unanimously chosen to preside over the Triathlon Federation of Uzbekistan at an extraordinary meeting in March.

Discouraging Displays Of Wealth

At that meeting, Uzbek National Olympic Committee head Umid Akhmadjonov acknowledged "no worthy results recently" and hinted at increased funding to "create a modern material-technical base for athletes."

Meanwhile, since Mirziyoev became president, officials have sought to discourage conspicuous displays of wealth, including through a recent law limiting the size of wedding celebrations, whose costs can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Official Uzbek figures put average monthly salaries in 2018 at around 1.6 million soms, or $170.

Even beyond decades of nepotism and cronyism, Umarov can blame himself for part of the government's problem combating perceptions of wealth and privilege for the political elite.

In July, just months before the wedding clampdown, a video on his Instagram account appeared to show him speeding around the capital in a Tesla at upward of 200 kilometers an hour. He reportedly fessed up after online outrage and paid a fine of around 1.8 million soms (or a little over $200).

A more recent incident hinted at Umarov's continuing political clout.

In October, he was tagged in a video showing a farmer berating local women as they harvested cotton, one of Uzbekistan's most important crops. The next day, the man issued a humble video apology.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.