A set script for regime change in undemocratic countries — the dichotomy between free and unfree being set by the scrupulous standards of the advanced democracies of Western Europe, North America, and the Antipodes — is clear: a new strongman steps into the old strongman’s shoes, uses whatever means are available to punish those who argued against his ascendance, and gradually replaces disloyal cronies of the old guard with his personal cronies. As usual, this typified dictatorial picture utterly fails to predict or encompass the realities of government transition in Uzbekistan. The newest surprise on the predicted trajectory of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the interim President, is that the purges of the old guard appear to have stopped less than a week after starting. In the first two weeks following the death of Mr. Karimov, Mr. Mirziyoyev seemed surprising ambitious, making major plays against institutional rivals in the presidential apparat — especially Mr. G’aniev — and descending upon areas of industrial development like an angel of death come to reap the souls (and jobs) of incompetent or corrupt officials. On the 21 September 2016, however, this behavior suddenly changed; the purges abruptly ended. All other aspects of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s government remained intact, but the dismissal or punishment of corrupt officials neither characterized neither government in metropolitan Tashkent nor the tours of the provinces. Assuredly the officials overseeing a tire factory in Angren are not less corrupt than those responsible for cotton procurement in Jizzax, meaning that there is larger political reason that local officials were fired on 20 September and retained on 21 September.
By all accounts, Mr. Mirziyoyev consolidated his power base quite quickly after being elected interim president, removing the troublesome and corrupt Minister of Higher and Specialized Education, and sidelining a powerful array of ministers including Mr. G’aniev by transferring their advisory responsibilities to his loyal Deputy Prime Ministers. During this same period, the presidential tours of major projects — a staple of Uzbekistani political life until Mr. Karimov’s frailty prevented frequent trips in the 2010s — were accompanied by unceremonious dismissals and punishments of local and regional officials whose many faults had been ignored by an overburdened Karimov government. On his trip to Jizzax on 17 September, Mr. Mirziyoyev essentially fired or arrested the entire sub‐provincial leadership, including the mayor of Jizzax City, the provincial procurator, and many unnamed district governors. This purge was repeated in the Mirzo Ulug’bek district of Toshkent City, where a presidential inspection of urban development projects led to the dismissal of the district governor and the local head of police, and serious reprimanding of other district officials. These visits, which delivered swift punishment on corruption or incompetence in the districts, can be contrasted with the leniency and normalcy of the presidential tour of Angren only a day later, or Buxoro and Navoiy later that week. On neither of these trips, nor subsequent tours of Qaraqalpoqiston, Xorazm, Sirdaryo, or the Sergili district of Toshkent City, did Mr. Mirziyoyev dismiss or punish a single administration. Although it is conceivable that the press was ordered silent and purges continued behind closed doors, an examination of local news sources and personnel records from the regions confirms that there truly were no purges in Uzbekistan after 20 September.
Again this beggars the question, why? Some variance between official treatment of provinces is to be expected, but it defies belief that there is not corruption to be prosecuted in Qaraqalpoqiston, Xorazm, and Sirdaryo. The uneventful review of the Sergili district in particular raises red flags, as it cannot be that the infamously poor and underdeveloped Sergili district has fewer administrative issues than the relatively prosperous and developed Mirzo Ulug’bek district. Although it may be impossible to gauge the ultimate cause of the shift in presidential policy, Mr. Mirziyoyev likely cancelled his cleaning project in the face of a serious threat to his candidacy in the December elections. Mr. Mirziyoyev’s success in the upcoming presidential elections depends greatly on a perception of stability and continuity with the Karimov administration, and, although a harsher treatment of corruption is ultimately necessary for Uzbekistan to realize its future as a great country, the current array of officials are an important prop in maintaining that sense of continuity. The logic of keeping the, potentially corrupt and incompetent, old guard is that if a conservative voter continues seeing the same face in her interactions with officialdom, then she is more likely to believe that Mr. Mirziyoyev can maintain the current order and less likely to seek out alternative candidates. The logic is reversed for purges, as the replacement of a key administrator will change the vote of not only the immediate and extended family of that official, but all those in the ranks of the bureaucracy and relevant population centers whose faith in a simple and imperceptible Karimov‐Miziyoyev transition will be shaken.
The web of patronage systems that run within and between communities in Uzbekistan further complicate the electoral ramifications of purges, as firing even a handful of corrupt officials signals an attack on the patronage system within that region, district, or department as a whole. Accordingly, every dishonest or desperate individual who depends on that patronage network for employment, financial assistance, or a crutch to help with the onerous burdens imposed by Uzbekistani law and bureaucracy, will be mobilized against the candidacy of Mr. Mirziyoyev. By pruning the ringleaders of an quasi‐criminal operation in one department or district, Mr. Mirziyoyev will have turned that entire district against him. By undertaking anti‐corruption purges before his election, Mr. Mirziyoyev risked jeopardizing his electoral advantages by simultaneously undermining public faith in his ability to guarantee stability and order and aggravating powerful figures in local and regional government, both groups that otherwise would have almost certainly supported Mr. Mirziyoyev’s candidacy. The potential political backlash from purges was not just limited to those provinces where the dismissals and disciplines occurred either, as the disciplinary measures where reported in national and regional media — and would have spread by word of mouth regardless. Whereas news of an anti‐corruption campaign undertaken by a strong and secure president might have the intended effect of bring wayward officials into line, the ability of recalcitrant officials to protect themselves from further persecution by mobilizing voters means that news of purges in neighboring provinces only weakens Mr. Mirziyoyev’s position locally, turning the local administration against him out of fear and motivating them to mobilize local patronage networks to the advantage of his political opponents.
The purges have stopped for the time being, and in all likelihood the reasoning behind their termination means that they will not resume until at least 2017, but their conduct does provide an interesting window into the mind of the presidential candidate. Contrary to his general reputation as Prime Minister, Mr. Mirziyoyev seems to have a natural disgust for petty corruption and incompetence, suggesting that his ‘enforcer’ role throughout the Karimov administration may have come more from personal conviction than official proscription. This suggests that a Mirziyoyev government would actually be more liberal and reformist that predicted, assuming that Mr. Mirziyoyev’s strict adherence to law, order, and formal rules reflects a genuine respect for the values of the Uzbekistani Constitution and the welfare of the motherland. If these are indeed the reasons behind the abridged anti‐corruption campaign, then it can be expected to resume should Mr. Mirziyoyev be elected president. It will be the contents of these purges, should a O’zLiDeP victory take place, that will truly indicate whether Mr. Mirziyoyev will follow the stereotypical dictatorial script and purge only his enemies, or whether he will burn through the Uzbekistani apparatchik like a mighty inferno on judgement day; separating the chaff of corruption and leaving Uzbekistan with a bureaucracy purified and reborn.
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