The modern Republic of Uzbekistan emerged from the chaos of the early 1990s, and its particular character was formed in that crucible of prolonged and concurrent crises. From when Islom Karimov was pushed to power to appease nationalist protesters in June 1989, to the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan teetered on the precipice of societal collapse. Strikes had immobilized the economy, looting and hoarding of basic goods were common, local bureaucrats and mobsters had created petty fiefdoms in Buxoro and elsewhere, and the country still seethed with resentment at the Soviet government. By 1992, Tajikistan had collapsed into a civil war featuring insurgents from Afghanistan, and it looked like the Islamist movement there might hop the unguarded border and transform the simmering insurgency in the Farg’ona Valley into outright war. It was in this environment that the priorities of Islom Karimov and his old guard were molded. This world, thankfully, is gone, and Uzbekistan is now one of the safest countries on Earth. The behaviors and habits of this founding generation no longer fit the conditions of Uzbekistan, and they — like President Karimov himself — are now replaced by new men befitting a new age.
This transition has now reached the National Security Service (abbreviated as its Uzbek acronym MXX), the Uzbekistani successor to the KGB. Rustam Inoyatov, who has run the agency since 1995 and turned it into one of the most powerful government bodies in Uzbekistan, retired on 31 January 2018 in favor of Ixtiyor Abdullayev, a man over 20 years his junior. Colonel General Inoyatov’s retirement from armed service is likely due to personal reasons: he is 74 years-old at this point and has had severe diabetes for at least a decade, requiring two separate hospitalizations in Germany. Stepping down from his chairmanship of the MXX does not, however, mean that Col. Gen. Inoyatov has faded quietly into retirement. Rather than formally retiring, Col. Gen. Inoyatov has been appointed State Advisor to the President on Political and Legal Issues, giving him oversight over both his successor in the MXX and a leading position in the drafting process for two new laws governing the MXX and the regular police. Contrary to rumors peddled by gossip rags like The Diplomat or Foreign Policy, Col. Gen. Inoyatov was almost certainly not forced out of power by President Mirziyoyev. Unlike the death-by-a thousand-demotions experienced by Rustam Azimov — a former Minister of Finance currently running a minor state-owned company — or Adxam Adxambayev — a former Minister of Internal Affairs now facing treason charges — Col. Gen. Inoyatov has not been shunted from his position as a State Advisor after a couple of months, but instead retained as a genuine political actor. Lt. Gen. Abdullayev, the head of the Chief Procuracy from 2015 until this January, has been working with Col. Gen. Inoyatov for years and is, by all accounts, a trusted colleague. Rather than being forced out, all signs point to Col. Gen. Inoyatov having planned his departure, choosing his successor and acquiring a position where he can still manage the transition. The new MXX — renamed the State Security Service (Davlat Xavfsizlik Xizmati, or DXX, in Uzbek) in April — was still shaped by Col. Gen. Inoyatov, whose role in selecting Lt. Gen. Abdullayev and crafting the April 2018 ‘Law on the National Security Service’ was pivotal.
Col. Gen. Inoyatov was a crafty and brutal member of the KGB elite; perfectly willing to serve the Republic of Uzbekistan as he had the USSR, but never fully internalizing the republican ideals of human rights, liberty, or rule of law. He had been born into the house of Rasul Inoyatov, himself a prominent KGB Colonel, in 1944. He followed his father’s footsteps, enlisting in the KGB in 1968 and becoming one of the few non-Russians to serve at the All-Soviet level by the 1970s. Around 1976 — dates are unclear due to the nature of his employment — Rustam Inoyatov began operating as an undercover agent in Afghanistan, making practical use of a degree in Iranian linguistics and philology he had earned in 1968. Given the time period, he was undoubtedly one of the Soviet agents behind the Saur Revolution that overthrew President Mohammed Daoud and installed an unpopular Communist government. His history from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until he resurfaced as Abdulaziz Kamilov’s replacement as Chief of the MXX in 1995 is hazy, befitting a world-class spook.
His past as a siloviki and the tremendous power his agency exerts in Uzbekistan have made Col. Gen. Inoyatov the center of a number of conspiracies — many woven by opposition leaders he helped force into exile in the 1990s. The most extreme of these theories postulate that, since 1995, he has used the MXX to gather compromising information on officials in every ministry and at every level of administration. This web of kompromat has enabled him to become the shadow master behind Uzbekistani politics, pulling the strings of all major corporations and government officials, even including President Karimov, and imprisoning or assassinating all who oppose him, all while funneling billions of so’m into Swiss accounts. Like the lizard-monarchy of the UK or a ‘Zionist Occupied Government’ in the United States, this view is fantasy. Nonetheless, Rustam Inoyatov has been tainted by corruption. While far less grand in scale than imagined by jaded expatriates and gullible Western journalists, Col. Gen. Inoyatov has used his privileged position to build an illicit fortune for his family. Like many other senior Uzbekistani politicians, Col. Gen. Inoyatov likely engaged in all manner of corrupt activities: extortion of major corporations, direct embezzlement, sale of valuable offices, racketeering, taking cuts of his own officers’ bribes. Together these illicit, but unfortunately commonplace, practices have ballooned the fortunes of the Inoyatovs. Together, Rustam Inoyatov’s son, Sharif, and his younger sister’s husband, Baxtiyor Irgashev, run one of Uzbekistan’s largest construction companies — one that just so happened to secure the majority of supply contracts for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan — and invest heavily in the poorly-regulated European property market. Sharif Inoyatov has turned whatever illicit wealth his father procured into a thriving business empire, including the largest dried fruit export company in Uzbekistan, a real estate development firm in St. Petersburg, and a number of industrial complexes in Tula, Russia. While there is no evidence to support the extraordinary conspiracies theories bandied around about Rustam Inoyatov, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that he has engaged in the standard forms of public corruption that plague Uzbekistan.
Under Rustam Inoyatov’s guidance, the MXX was transformed into a nearly unparalleled security force, and he became one of the security-conscious President Karimov’s most trusted advisors. His competence and professional rigor earned him a position by the side of the Republic’s founder, but he never truly absorbed the ideals and values upon which President Karimov built that Republic. Personal interviews with him indicate a fierce loyalty to the government, but not a respect for the democracy or freedom it represented. His position in the Karimov and Miziyoyev administration represents a strange carry-over from the Soviet Union — a willingness to crush all those who oppose the government, but a deep ambivalence about the actual substance of that government. That Presidents Karimov and Mirziyoyev used force to secure liberty and peace is tremendous, but one gets the sense that Col. Gen. Inoyatov would have just as gladly used the security apparatus to trample democracy had Uzbekistan been blessed with less benevolent leaders.
The MXX run by Rustam Inoyatov was brutal in its repression of public enemies, deeply corrupt, often uncooperative with other security forces, and largely unaccountable to any authority save the President himself. It kept the Republic safe and was invaluable to President Karimov’s victory over despotic regional cliques, but its methods were harsh and frequently caught — and crushed — innocents unfortunately enough to be caught up in the wrong crowd. Although free from the imminent danger of the early 1990s, the Uzbekistan of 1995 was still beset by foes, within and without. Criminality had eaten away at many regional governments, simultaneously undermining centralized rule and empowering radical Islamists seeping in from Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. The MXX was one of President Karimov’s chief weapons in his battle against regional cliques, but it was a blunt instrument. Seeing the extrication of Islamists, mobsters, and businessmen who blurred the boundary between the groups as more important than the means by which it was accomplished, Islom Karimov unleashed the MXX upon the lot. Col. Gen. Inoyatov received a wide mandate that placed any and all threats to national security under the jurisdiction of the MXX. Col. Gen Inoyatov used this vague wording to extend the MXX’s reach into all facets of Uzbekistani law enforcement and endow it with tremendous power. Over the course of a decade, President Karimov did break the regional cliques — and his nation thanks him for the gift of national unity and the universal rule of law — but through crude and anachronistic methods wholely drawn from the Soviet lexicon. The MXX, and police forces in general, continued the KGB practice of arresting citizens that they were ‘pretty sure’ were guilty and beating them until they confessed. As in previous decades, confessions under duress were passed to compliant judges who gave swift approval for summary justice: from arrest to imprisonment in weeks, no questions asked. Although the stability of the past decade is a testimony to the success of these tactics, undoubtedly thousands of innocents were caught in the repression and suffered unjustly at the hands of the MXX. The conduct of the MXX — corruption, forced confessions, paranoid secrecy, effective impunity — perfectly mirrors the long decades of Soviet oppression. It openly and contemptuously defies the rule of law, the guiding principle that underpins the Republic of Uzbekistan. That the American CIA and the security forces of other established democracies commit similar excesses does not exonerate Col. Gen. Inoyatov and the MXX, but shames and lowers those countries as well. This behavior has no place in a modern democratic state: President Mirziyoyev said as much in his speech on 31 January.
The new law delimiting the powers of the DXX, passed by the Oliy Majlis on 15 March and signed by President Mirziyoyev on 5 April, is a sound start to the transformation of the security organ. This law has corralled the DXX into a tighter jurisdiction, making sure that it remains a tool for law enforcement rather than a pervasive vehicle for societal control. The new law still gives the DXX tremendous operational independence, with only the Procuracy able to discipline the organization. Even with these changes, the DXX remains a very powerful actor in Uzbekistani politics and there are worryingly few restrictions on its ability to abuse, harass, and otherwise channel the KGB. The conduct of the DXX depends on the values of its leadership, since, outside of specific criminal investigations of the Procuracy or direct presidential intervention, there are few checks on the Service’s behavior. The juridical training and background of Lt. Col. Abdullayev suggest a bright future for the agency — one in line with the rule of law and republican values — but personality should not be the only factor checking such a powerful organ. Security agencies demand a difficult balance between competency and dependence. The DXX must have enough teeth to be effective in its duties, yet not so many that the government can longer control it. Although how to remove the venom but keep the teeth remains a conundrum for all countries, the subordination of the DXX and other security organs to parliamentary oversight seems like a step in the right direction. Being subject to the authority of the Presidency and the Oliy Majlis should better check the organization by demanding less attention from the overtaxed presidential apparat and requiring greater consensus for the use of DXX’s significant power.
The transfer of power from Rustam Inoyatov to Ixtiyor Abdullayev reflects the broader transformations of the newly reincarnated DXX. At 52, Lt. Col. Abdullayev is young (for an Uzbekistani politician) and has spent almost his entire career in the judiciary. Lt. Col. Abdullayev comes from a legal and juridical background, making his professional experienced centered around upholding the rule of law. During the 1990s, when terrorist infiltration from Tajikistan constituted a real threat and the Taliban advance north seemed uncontainable, it made sense for the head of the MXX to be an experienced spy with personal connections to Afghan warlords. In the heady environment of the day, sacrificing due process on the altar of national security was not only conceivable, but necessary. For the past decade, Uzbekistan has been tranquil and secure. No longer do civil wars rage on the borders nor terrorists walk the streets. President Mirziyoyev rules on the basis of democracy and the rule of law, unthreatened. It is good for the DXX to have a leader whose experience and priorities are in line with the present state of the nation. Rustam Inoyatov was a man of his time and for his place, but that time and that place are now passed and Uzbekistan has embraced a new age where peace, democracy, and prosperity can flourish unfettered by fear.
Critchlow, James. “Nationalism in Uzbekistan: A Soviet Republic’s Road to Sovereignty”. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991.
Lubin, Nancy, Sam Nunn & Barnett R. Rubin. “Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia”. Vol. 4 of Preventive Action Reports. New York: Center for Preventive Actions, 1999.