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Salimbay Abdullaev, the new deputy chief of Uzbekistan's National Olympic Committee, wears a T-shirt bearing the face of Shavkat Mirziyaev that says "My President."

Uzbekistan unveiled new measures to combat corruption on January 4, seemingly a good sign for the new government of President Shavkat Mirziyaev. But then, on January 6, Salimbay Abdullaev, reputedly one of the leading figures in Uzbekistan’s organized crime world, was appointed deputy chief of the country’s National Olympic Committee.

Mirziyaev has made other controversial appointments and some other notable figures who had fallen from grace under former President Islam Karimov have also seen their fortunes rise since the new leader took over.

For those hoping Uzbekistan’s government would embark on a path of reform that would finally enable the country to start realizing its potential, these are discouraging signals.

So let’s look at who’s in and who got out.

Abdullaev is known through Uzbekistan as a powerful figure.
Abdullaev is known through Uzbekistan as a powerful figure.

Salimbay Abdullaev

Abdullaev, 62, says he is just a businessman, a successful businessman. He was a top wrestler and has always remained connected to the sports world, which makes him a suitable candidate for Uzbekistan’s Olympic Committee.

But when Abdullaev is mentioned in articles (outside of Uzbekistan, that is), there is invariably a reference to his alleged role as an underworld boss, a charge Abdullaev denies.

Whatever his business, he is known in Uzbekistan as a powerful figure, someone you don’t mess with. Prior to Mirziyaev’s election as president on December 4, 2016, a photograph circulated widely of Abdullaev wearing a T-shirt bearing Mirziyaev’s photograph with the words "My President" written on it.

Aripov is Uzbekistan's new prime minister.
Aripov is Uzbekistan's new prime minister.

Abdulla Aripov

Uzbekistan’s new prime minister, as of December 14, 2016, is Abdulla Aripov. Very shortly after he became interim president in September 2016, Mirziyaev appointed Aripov to be deputy prime minister in charge of youth affairs, culture, and information systems and telecommunications.

That was essentially the same position Aripov had occupied before. Aripov was in charge of information systems and telecommunications from 2002 to 2012.

But in 2012, foreign telecommunications companies connected to former President Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, were under investigation over hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal financial actions. The companies had won contracts in Uzbekistan when Aripov was the head of telecommunications in Uzbekistan.

One of the companies was Sweden’s TeliaSonera, which would later admit to having paid bribes for contracts.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, interviewed Gunnar Stetler, the head of the department on battling corruption in the Swedish Prosecutor-General’s Office. He said Aripov’s signature was on many of the documents connected to the investigation of TeliaSonera.

Kazim Tulyaganov

Welcome back also to Kazim Tulyaganov.

Two days after the presidential election, Mirziyaev appointed Tulyaganov to be the head of the state committee for architecture and construction. That means he is in charge of anything that will be built in Uzbekistan.

Tulyaganov was the mayor of Tashkent from 1994 to 2001, then first deputy prime minister until January 2004, at which time he returned as Tashkent mayor. In 2006, he was charged with economic crimes and given a 20-year suspended sentence and the court ordered him to return $1.3 million to the government.

Presumably, Mirziyaev pardoned him for those crimes, though that is not clear.

Ulughbek Rozikulov

Ulughbek Rozikulov kept his position as deputy prime minister when Mirziyaev took over. Rozikulov’s role in the GM Uzbekistan scandal in 2016 has never been clarified, although it seems no one is really looking into that anymore.

Rozikulov, besides being deputy prime minister, is also the head of Uzavtosanoat, the automobile production industry.

When former President Karimov paid an official visit to Russia in late April 2016, he learned that vehicles intended for sale in Russia were not arriving at their destination. An investigation started as soon as Karimov returned and the head of GM Uzbekistan, Tohirjon Jalilov, was taken into custody. But there were never any reports that Rozikulov, despite his position overseeing Uzbekistan automotive production industry, had fallen under suspicion of any wrongdoing.

Jalilov was released from custody on September 20, 2016, less than two weeks after parliament named Mirziyaev interim president.​

Jalolov is the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax.
Jalolov is the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax.

Mirodil Jalolov

Also released from detention was Mirodil Jalolov, the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax. Zeromax was registered in Switzerland, where coincidentally Gulnara Karimova spent much of her time. Zeromax was notable for being the only Western company to receive service contracts in Uzbekistan’s oil and gas sector.

Zeromax was closed in May 2010 and that September Jalolov was arrested for economic crimes but never jailed. He remained at his home until Mirziyaev came to power, then Jalolov was taken into custody until January 4, when a court ordered him released.

Rahimov's current whereabouts are unknown.
Rahimov's current whereabouts are unknown.

Gafur Rahimov

Gafur Rahimov, an alleged drug kingpin who is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list, was reportedly taken off Interpol’s wanted list in mid-September.

It is unclear where Rahimov is at the moment, but he had been living outside of Uzbekistan for the better part of the last decade.

Other people with shadowy pasts have occupied positions at lower levels in the government: district chiefs, mayors, etc.

The few inside who will comment on these appointments -- under condition of anonymity, of course -- say these newly appointed officials proved their loyalty to Mirziyaev during the years that Karimov was in power.

While that may be true, the presence of such people in positions of authority in Uzbekistan will not help the country’s badly tarnished image. It won’t help Uzbekistan attract foreign investment either, something the new government has already signaled would be a priority to help Uzbekistan’s flagging economy. These appointments also dampen any hopes for positive change in Uzbekistan anytime soon since loyalty, not ability, is what Mirziyaev apparently values.

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.
Turkmenistan lost Russia as a customer for its natural gas at the start of 2016. Losing Iran would leave China as the only foreign country purchasing Turkmen gas.

It looks like Turkmenistan might be left with just one customer for its natural gas.

The National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) said in a statement on January 1 that Turkmen state company Turkmengaz "suddenly and...in an illogical manner, contrary to the agreement, halted gas deliveries to Iran this morning..."

The blunt NIGC statement came after 11th-hour negotiations between Iranian and Turkmen officials seemed to have at least temporarily settled differences between the two countries over Turkmen gas shipments to Iran.

Iranian representatives were in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on December 30 in an effort to reach an agreement that would prevent Turkmenistan from carrying out a threat to suspend supplies on December 31 unless Iran paid a reported $1.8 billion debt for Turkmen gas supplies in 2007-08.

The winter of 2007-08 was the last time Turkmenistan cut off gas supplies to Iran. Turkmen authorities at the time insisted the suspension was due to repair work, but the cutoff coincided with talks on the price of Turkmen gas. Iran had been paying about $75 per 1,000 cubic (Iran now says it was $40 per 1,000 cubic meters), but Iranian state-media website presstv.ir reported on December 30 that Turkmenistan demanded -- and got -- $360 per 1,000 cubic meters at that time.

"When freezing winters led to severe shortages across 20 Iranian provinces, forcing the country to raise gas imports from it northeastern neighbor...Turkmenistan pounced on the occasion to demand a...hike, which yanked the price up to $360..." presstv.ir reported.

An Iranian deputy oil minister, Amir Hossein Zamania, said on December 21, shortly after Turkmenistan demanded payment of the debt, that while Iran did owe Turkmenistan money, it was somewhere between $600 million to $1.5 billion.

"We will need to discuss the scope of gas supplies and its form with Turkmen officials," Zamania said before the latest round of negotiations started at the end of December.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh said on December 28 that if the Turkmen insisted on halting gas supplies, Iran would stop its energy dealings with Ashgabat. In the last few years, several Iranian officials have spoken against importing Turkmen gas.

Talks in Ashgabat on December 30 apparently reached an impasse, and the Iranian delegation left the bargaining table to return to Iran. According to a December 30 report from Iran's Mehr news agency, "At the airport, Turkmenistan's officials persuaded the Iranian delegation to come back to the negotiating table in hopes for reaching an agreement on gas delivery to Iran."

On December 31, NIGC Managing Director Hamid Reza Araqi said a five-year agreement for Turkmen gas had been worked out. Reports said the issue of the Iranian debt would be discussed over the coming months.

And as recently as early on January 1, Iran's Fars new agency was reporting a deal had been struck that would avoid any interruption in supplies.

Turkmengaz has not commented on the reason for the surprise halt.

Turkmenistan certainly needs the money. The country is in its worst economic crisis since it became independent in late 1991.

But shutting off supplies to Iran now might signal the end of Turkmen gas exports to Iran.

Tehran has needed Turkmen gas because Iran's internal gas-pipeline network has not sufficiently connected the gas-rich regions of southern Iran to the northern part of the country. In the late 1990s, Iran largely financed a project to build the gas pipeline that connects the two countries. But Tehran has been working for several years to resolve the problem of supplying domestic gas to its northern provinces and, while sanctions slowed the project, it has gone forward.

Sometime in the near future, Iran will no longer require Turkmen gas.

Turkmenistan, on the other hand, lost Russia as a customer at the start of 2016. Losing Iran would leave China as the only foreign country purchasing Turkmen gas.

When Turkmenistan shut off gas to Iran in 2007-08, Ashgabat's situation was very different. Turkmenistan was exporting more than 40 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia at that time and construction was well under way on pipelines to connect Turkmenistan to China. So Ashgabat could afford to press Iran on price back then.

When the talks in Ashgabat were foundering at the end of 2016, Iranian news agency IRNA wrote, "According to experts, Ashgabat would be the biggest loser of this dispute."

That is probably an accurate assessment.

Turkmenistan will inevitably lose Iran as a gas customer in the coming years, but if Ashgabat's financial desperation leads to irreparable damage in its ties with Tehran, Turkmenistan could also lose an export route through Iran to the Persian Gulf that is just now starting to open up.

Already on January 1, Ardeshir Nourian, a deputy in Iran's parliament, said, "The foreign minister should take immediate action against Turkmenistan."

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

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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. Content will draw 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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