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Qishloq Ovozi

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.”

Uzbekistan is on edge after learning that Uzbek President Islam Karimov, 78, has been hospitalized after suffering what an August 29 post on his younger daughter’s Instagram account said was a cerebral hemorrhage -- bleeding in the brain.

In Uzbekistan, and in the rest of Central Asia and beyond, many now wonder what happens if Karimov dies or is no longer able to perform the functions of president. Who would, or could, replace the only leader the country has had since it became independent in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament -- now the little-known Nigmatulla Yuldashev -- assumes the president's authority for a period of three months.

For the longer term, the list of favorites is short: It includes three people.

Many believe the heir apparent is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, 58, who has headed the government since 2003. He hails from Jizzakh Province, which is adjacent to Karimov’s native Samarkand Province, and has the backing of the Jizzakh and presumably the Samarkand clans. It could be significant that the only official statement on Karimov’s hospitalization came from the Cabinet of Ministers, which Mirziyaev heads.

Clans will play an important role in the succession process. Karimov, who has ruled with an iron hand and tolerated little dissent, has been a master at maneuvering among the various clans in Uzbekistan and playing them off one another.

Some critics have characterized Mirziyaev in no uncertain terms, describing him as a thug who is short on reason and quick to aggression. During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh Province (1996-2001), he was reported to have physically assaulted at least one farmer who dared complain about conditions in the province. His successor, Ubaidulla Yamankulov, was eventually taken away in handcuffs, by helicopter, after numerous reports of him beating constituents and allegations that he headed a local hit squad. Mirziyaev surely knew Yamankulov well.

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.” That might not stop him from becoming president, but some observers say that if he does, his government could be more repressive than that of the widely criticized Karimov.

It is worth noting that Uzbekistan has been tinkering with its constitution during the last five years. On paper, at least, some amendments have increased the powers of the prime minister. That could be a good sign for Mirziyaev, or even an endorsement.

But the Samarkand clan fell slightly out of favor in the late 1990s due the actions of the clan boss, Ismail Jurabekov. Jurabekov was instrumental in Karimov’s rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in the 1980s and was rewarded with government posts and prized business ownerships during the 1990s. But Jurabekov was far too powerful and was rumored to have been behind bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, not long after he had been sacked from his post as agriculture minister and ordered to go on pension.

Jurabekov was back in the government shortly after the bombings and remained until 2004, but Karimov’s ties to his native Samarkand clan were shaken. It is unclear how much those ties have been repaired, despite Jurabekov leaving politics and the public eye long ago.

Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.
Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.

Another favorite to take Karimov’s place is Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56. Azimov is from the Tashkent area and the Tashkent clan. He has been in the national government since 1998, always in a post connected to finance.

Azimov is seen as more sophisticated than Mirziyaev, and he has more experience dealing with the outside world. In the first years after independence, Azimov, as head of Uzbekistan’s National Bank for Foreign Activities, was the country’s point man dealing with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

A third, less likely potential candidate to take the reins is the chief of the National Security Committee (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, 72. Inoyatov is one of the most powerful people in Uzbekistan, having served as SNB chief since 1995. He is from the Tashkent clan.

Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.
Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.

Many suspect he has played the role of grey cardinal in recent years as Karimov’s health has deteriorated. Many also suspect it was Inoyatov who was behind the campaign to bring down Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara, who was once a globetrotting businesswoman but has not appeared in public since 2014, when she was reportedly placed under house arrest after her name was connected to a corruption scandal involving international telecommunications companies.

Inoyatov’s age is likely to head off any serious consideration that he would become president, though it does not rule out a transitional role.

Inoyatov is seen as a kingmaker, not a king. There is only one known photograph of him from the last 10 years -- a picture taken when he was in China to meet with security officials. He clearly does not want to be seen in public.

But without his support it would be nearly impossible for anyone to become the next president of Uzbekistan or be able to rule the country without hindrances.

Some reports suggest Inoyatov is on good terms with Mirziyaev and might support the latter as Uzbekistan’s next president. It should be noted that Inoyatov really solidified his power after Jurabekov was finally removed from politics, so the SNB chief must know something about the Samarkand clan’s weaknesses.

It would be logical to believe Inoyatov would throw his support behind Azimov. They are both from the Tashkent clan. But balancing clans is a tricky business and so far the system has been kept in check with a president from Samarkand and influential officials from Tashkent. Azimov might be passed over to keep the peace.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report
Wrestler Ikhtiyor Navruzov of Uzbekistan celebrates with his coach after winning a bronze medal.

Sport -- it's good for your health. It also has the power to, however briefly, bind a nation together during those times when the national team is competing internationally. No matter where people are on the political spectrum, or if they are entirely apolitical, when their country’s athletes are competing at an event such as the Olympic Games, the eyes of the nation truly are upon these athletes and the hopes of the country are focused for a few minutes on “their” men or women.

Central Asia, overall, did surprisingly well in these recent summer games in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympic Games are a big deal in Central Asia. It’s partly due to their Soviet past and the emphasis the U.S.S.R. placed on its athletes competing internationally. But the five Central Asian countries really view the Olympic Games as the pinnacle, the world’s greatest sports competition. Many will remember Kazakhstan was bidding to host the 2022 Olympics, but few would remember in Tashkent, in 1992, before Uzbekistan marked one whole year of independence, a common plastic shopping bag one was likely to receive in stores and bazaars advertised “Tashkent Summer Olympic Games 2000.”

I wish I had kept one of those.

To look at how the teams from Central Asia did in these recent Olympic Games in Rio, the unexpected victories, the disappointments, the different approaches the countries take toward grooming athletes, and get an idea of why an Olympic medal means so much to a country, RFE/RL gathered a Majlis, a panel, to discuss Rio 2016.

Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, Ruslan Medelbek participated. Medelbek covered the Olympic Games in Rio for Azattyq. Another member of Azattyq, Galym Bokash, participated from Prague where he was coordinating Azattyq’s Olympic coverage. And from Bishkek, political analyst, Kyrgyz sports fan, and one of the organizers of Kyrgyzstan’s Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996, Edil Baisalov, joined in the discussion. And me, I was away this time.

Medelbek summed up the results for Central Asian states in Rio. “Four golds for Uzbekistan, three golds for Kazakhstan, and one gold for Tajikistan. It’s the first-ever gold for Tajikistan.”

According to a point tally, Uzbekistan placed 21st overall in the Rio Olympics taking, besides the four gold medals, two silver, and seven bronze medals. Kazakhstan came right behind in 22nd, taking, besides the three gold medals, five silver, and nine bronze medals.

Tajikistan’s lone gold medal, won by Dilshod Nazarov in the men’s hammer throw, put the country in 54th place in the Rio games. More importantly, it was a welcome distraction for the people in Central Asia’s poorest country.

Kyrgyzstan’s Izzat Artykov won the bronze medal in the 69-kilogram men’s weightlifting competition but later was disqualified for doping.

“Of course it was a huge, huge disappointment,” Baisalov said, “You know, first of course it was great pride in winning a bronze medal, we all felt good.” But Baisalov said some good came out of it. “Actually I think it [led to] an important discussion about ethics in sports.”

And Baisalov said, in the end, “We felt bad for the individual athlete but I think a lot of us felt angry at his trainers, at his coaches, at the team.”

Kyrgyzstan did lose its only medal but the Central Asian state not yet mentioned did not even get close.

Turkmenistan, once again, performed poorly, despite a government-driven public campaign of many years urging the country’s people to exercise and be fit. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is the poster boy for this campaign. He is regularly shown in photographs and brief (very brief) videos riding a bicycle, jogging, playing ice hockey, basketball, lifting weights, and on and on.

Berdymukhammedov had some harsh words for the Turkmen team and its trainers when they returned and ordered a reorganization of the country’s sports system.

Bokash pointed out that a big part of the growing successes of Kazakhstan’s athletes is “the huge budget allocation, state spending on sports overall. It’s increasing and it’s around $100 million per year.”

Turkmenistan is also investing large amounts of money on its sports programs and has been devoting billions of dollars towards construction of sports facilities, so far, to no effect.

The Majlis devoted attention to the role the state should play in promoting sports. Bokash mentioned a tendency on the part of some Central Asian governments to “Sovietize” their sports programs, “celebrating the Olympic success not as personal achievements, but at the collective [level].”

Baisalov noted a country like Kyrgyzstan cannot hope to allocate much money from the state budget for sports programs. Baisalov said in any case, Kyrgyzstan is better served by devoting money towards promoting sport among the public, not selecting individual athletes and funding their training and expenses.

The subject of “poaching” athletes from other countries also came up. Bokash pointed out four of Kazakhstan’s 17 medals at Rio were won by people who are naturalized citizens of Kazakhstan. Again, a country such as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan has little in the way of incentives they can offer to athletes from other countries to entice them to change citizenship and compete for their national teams.

One of the most important themes that emerged from the discussion was the regional support many Central Asians still seem to feel for athletes from neighboring countries.

“I would like to join in congratulating our brotherly nations of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with their achievement on an unprecedented scale and I think their victories were celebrated by all of us here in Central Asia,” Baisalov said.

Medelbek explained there was similar sentiment from the Central Asian athletes and journalists sent to Rio. A victory for Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, was cause for celebration among many of those from Central Asia.

The Majlis looked closer at these topics and also discussed other issues, such as the importance of events like the Olympics in reinforcing a sense of nation and why Central Asian athletes are good in some events and not so good in others.

Listen here:

Majlis Podcast: Talking About The Olympics
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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

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

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