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Position of Shavkat Mirziyoyev precarious after strikes against political opponents

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After only two weeks in office as the acting President, a temporary position held alongside his Prime Ministership, Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev has begun the difficult task of removing rival statesmen from power while still preserving his aura of stability. At this point, Mr. Mirziyoyev’s appeal among both the public and elites rests almost entirely on his ability to ensure the continuity of the Karimov administration’s policies, and he has received this support largely because so far he has only used the expansive powers of the Uzbekistani Presidency to pass legislation already approved by the Oliy Majlis and popular with President Karimov. This leaves Mr. Mirziyoyev in a difficult position, since political ambitions for the Presidency would demand that he remove his political rivals from their positions, yet doing so risks tarnishing his appeal to scores of status quo politicians and conservative voters. Mr. Mirziyoyev’s solution shows that he is much more intelligent and infinitely bolder than his record as Prime Minister would suggest.

To the casual observer, and therefore likely to most Uzbekistanis, the expected purge of the old guard that always accompanies transitions of power in ‘authoritarian states’ has been extremely limited. Only one Minister has been removed from his position, Mr. Alisher Vahabov, the Minister of Higher and Specialized Education. Like an unfortunately large number of Uzbekistani officials, Dr. Vahabov was widely considered to be corrupt; rumors circulate about his role in orchestrating and profiting off of the use of bribes to achieve entry into elite universities and technical schools. Replacement of postSoviet officials, however, is never just about corruption, and his removal likely identifies Dr. Vahabov ‐ and the rest of the Ministry of Higher and Specialized Education ‐ as opponents of Mr. Mirziyoyev. Why Mr. Mirziyoyev chose to target Dr. Vahabov and not other political opponents is not clear, perhaps it is the general weakness of his ministry compared to other positions, perhaps a particular personal dislike for the man, but the fact that only one minister has been removed demonstrates the importance of continuity and stability ‐ or least their appearance ‐ to the political aspirations of Mr. Mirziyoyev.

Appearances are deceiving, however, as Mr.Mirziyoyev has managed to find a balanced solution which allows him to sideline his political rivals while still maintaining the semblance of normalcy in government. Rather than directly replacing other ministers, Mr. Mirziyoyev issued a decree on 15 September which substantially increased the remit of a number of national complexes. He reorganized what had previously been the Complex on issues of healthcare, ecology, environment, physical culture and sport into a Complex on the issues of Macroeconomic development, structural transformations, attraction of foreign investments, integrated development of regions, education, and science, and added information technology and communications to the duties of the Complex on issues of youth policy, education, culture and sport. These complexes are run by Adxam Ikramov and Abdulla Aripov respectively, both Deputy Prime Ministers with years of experience serving underneath Mr. Mirziyoyev. Both complexes are, in turn, subordinated under Rustam Azimov, the Minister of Finance and First Deputy Prime Minister. While complexes are usually limited to advisory and analytical roles within the Uzbekistani administrative system, there mandates do often overlap with the functions of ministries, and by greatly expanding the remit of these complexes, Mr. Mirziyoyev has given himself the ability to effectively sideline certain ministries in favour of his own men staffing the complexes. Best of all, this shift against certain ministries will only be clearly apparent within the executive apparat, allowing Mr. Mirziyoyev to maintain a cover of political continuity from the Karimov government.

Crucially, the specific functions given to the reorganized complexes identifies certain ministries are being sidelined, leading us to a short list of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s enemies in the Cabinet of Ministers. The expansion of Mr. Ikramov’s remit has hurt the Ministry of Higher and Specialized Education, the Ministry of Foreign Investment, Trade, and Commerce, and to a lesser extent the Ministry of the EconomyThe expansion of Mr. Aripov’s responsibilities clearly erodes the power of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. From this information, then, the main opponents of Mr. Mirziyoyev are Dr. Vahabov ‐ with distrust remaining for his staff after his dismissal ‐ Mr. G’aniyev, and Mr. Mirzaxidov, with some combination and fear and distrust for Dr. Saidova, the Minister of the Economy. These people, especially Mr. G’aniyev and Dr. Saidova, are very powerful political and it is unlikely that Mr. Mirziyoyev will be able to make any moves directly against them for some time, but if Mr. Mirziyoyev’s inerim presidency does become permanent, these are the officials that can be expected as targets when the President cleans house.

In already, after less than a month in power, trying to undermine such powerful figures, however, Mr. Mirziyoyev has placed himself in a precarious position. His own power base does not totally dominate, and his actions clearly demonstrate that he understands how tenuous his hold on power remains. For the first time in its 25 year history, a head of state did not attend the Commonwealth of Independent States summit, with Mr. Mirziyoyev sending the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kalimov, to Bishkek to rub shoulders with Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev on his behalf. In a formal letter to the President of the Kyrgyz Republic apologizing for his absence, Mr. Mirziyoyev said he had pressing matters to attend to at home, “including preparations for the presidential elections”, and there is no reason to doubt the truth of this statement. Passing up on such an important meeting, during which the status of post‐Karimov Uzbekistan in the post‐Soviet world might have been partially determined, means that the stakes are even higher at home. Given the circumstances, it is likely that Mr. Mirziyoyev believes that if he attended a conference out of the country for a day and a half, his political opponents are powerful enough that they could use to the opportunity to seriously undermine his position, perhaps by making sure that he did not receive the nomination for O’zLiDeP — a setback which would have almost certainly denied him the Presidency.

The situation has calmed after the initial nominations of presidential candidates on Saturday the 17th of September, but the candidacies will still not be officially confirmed until party‐wide conferences in October; a lot could change in that time.What is certain is that Uzbekistani politics is not as set and settled as often portrayed, and that Mr. Mirziyoyev’s position is far from secure. Although Mr. Mirziyoyev is very actively trying to promote a sense of stability, the political changes in the past week have demonstrate that Uzbekistani politics have and will continue to change fundamentally in the post‐Karimov era.

 

Sources:

Kudryavtseva, Tatyana. “Sapar Isakov: The fact that at CIS summit Uzbekistan will be presented by Foreign Minister doesn’t mean that our relations deteriorated”. 24 News Agency, 14 Sep. 2016.

UzDaily. “Shavkat Mirziyayev introduces changes to Government”. UzDaily.com, 14 Sep. 2016.

UzDaily. “Changes introduced to structure of Cabinet of Ministers”. UzDaily.com, 15 Sep. 2016.

Lymar, Anton. “Acting President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev nominated for presidency”. 24 News Agency, 16 Sep. 2016.

If you would like personal information on political figures or dossiers on politicians mention in this article, please contact me directly.

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Author: Sam

I study international relations and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. My research is focused on political systems and economic development in Post-Soviet states.

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