Central Asia in Transition: Mirziyoyev’s Takeover

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard Analysis, Asia, Conflict & Security Leave a Comment

Central Asia is currently living a period of political transition. Leaders are changing while regimes are staying in place. While Tajikistan has been under the somewhat stable Emomalii Rahmon’s regime since the deadly Civil War at independence and Turkmenistan had its first transition in 2006 and shows no sign that it will face another one soon, the three other countries of the region have seen changes on the presidential chair or will see it in the near future. However, we can hardly argue that these presidential transitions led to regime changes. At the death of Uzbek President Islom Karimov in 2016, his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, took power seemingly without a serious challenge. Meanwhile, after his sole term as president of Kyrgyzstan, which is constitutionally limited to one term, Almazbek Atambayev also gave place to his Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov who won the most competitive presidential election in the region. Finally, when Karimov died, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan became the last remaining original president of a Central Asian country which only spotlighted his eventual death. This article will address the first of these cases, the rise and solidification of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s presidency and his takeover of the Uzbek Security apparatus.

Initial Takeover

Mirziyoyev took over the role of president following the death of his predecessor Islom Karimov. While the president of the Senate Nigʻmatilla Yoʻldoshev constitutionally should have taken over for three months until elections were to be held, Mirziyoyev secured enough support to take over only 6 days later. While he was, as Karimov’s prime minister, considered as the most probable candidate to take over, the smoothness of the transition came as a surprise since there were numerous candidates that were competing for the position. Both Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and the head of the Uzbek intelligence agency (Milliy Xavfsizlik Xizmati, MXX) Rustam Inoyatov being widely seen as the most obvious competition for Mirziyoyev. While the prime minister won his bid, Azimov and Inoyatov were still able to force him into a triumvirate meant to rule the country.

The creation of that triumvirate showed some fragility on Mirziyoyev’s grasp on power. Both Azimov and Inoyatov are from the rival Tashkent clan, like most of the Uzbek security elite. To secure his regime, Mirziyoyev had to get rid of both loyalists of fellow Samarkand Clan member Islom Karimov and of those who would support another triumvir.

Power Consolidation and Reform

The first triumvir to fall was Azimov; the newly promoted deputy prime minister was chased from power in April 2017, allowing Mirziyoyev to gain back control of the economic policies of the country and giving a leading role in that sector to Sodiq Safoyev, former Foreign Affairs minister, amplifying the outward-looking economic policies that Mirziyoyev showcased since taking office. However, Inoyatov was considered a more serious challenge for power. While not necessarily interested in taking power himself, he was a grey cardinal under Karimov and was still considered as a serious threat to Mirziyoyev as soon as November 2017. However, in March 2018, Mirziyoyev shocked analysts by making his “most ambitious reform move” and replacing Inoyatov at the head of the MXX with the prosecutor general Ixtiyor Abdullayev. Even more surprising was the lack of resistance to this move made by the Tashkent clan who then lost their most prominent member.

If those two replacements show that Shavkat Mirziyoyev strengthened his grasp on power and became sole ruler of the country, it is not surprising that he also made a move to replace the old elite promoted through Karimov by one more loyal that owes their place to him. In Uzbekistan, the security apparatus is led by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the MXX. Weaker but still relevant ministries linked to security are Defence and Emergency Situations. The case of the MXX has already been addressed with the firing of Inoyatov. At the Interior Ministry, Adham Ahmadboyev was sacked on January 4, 2017, and replaced by fellow Tashkent clan member Abdusalom Azizov. Ahmadboyev was later called a “traitor” by Mirziyoyev and arrested. Azizov did not stay long at that office since he was appointed Minister of Defence soon after to replace another powerful Tashkent-born minister, Qobul Berdiyev. Meanwhile, Poʻlat Bobojonov, governor from an isolated region, took over Interior. Only the situation at the Emergency Situations ministry is still uncertain since veteran minister Tursinxon Xudoyberganov was indeed replaced by Rustam Joʻrayev after the takeover. However, Xudoyberganov took back the ministry as interim leader this year and, according to the website of the ministry, the position is still vacant. However, this ministry is not powerful enough to bring a serious challenge to Mirziyoyev’s regime and there is no sign that Xudoyberganov might be disloyal to the president.

Mirziyoyev’s Rise to Power

How did Mirziyoyev succeed in establishing himself as the sole successor of Karimov so quickly and sideline his opponents without bloodshed? One of the main elements might be his ability to balance clan politics. Most of the replacements that have previously been brought up have been from one clan or another. As said before, most of the security apparatus was from Tashkent, and still are after the replacements. Only Bobojonov is an outsider – from the Khorezm province – but not from Samarkand, the other powerful clan of Uzbekistan which supported both Karimov and Mirziyoyev. A second important element is international support. Mirziyoyev has noticeably different foreign politics from his predecessor. His economy is less closed off and more diplomatically engaged with his neighbours, he has shown interest in regional integration and made several agreements with countries with which Uzbekistan had frictional relationships under Karimov. More significantly, Mirziyoyev has positioned himself as a stable leader that can prevent fundamentalism from spilling in from the neighbouring south-Asian country, Afghanistan. He has been doing so by hosting international events linked to that subject and promoting programs to fight Salafism within Uzbekistan, the efficiency of which is of secondary concern since their main goal is to push the international community to support Mirziyoyev as the leader of this buffer country. This international support probably reduced funding of opponents and gave him access to more resources to further stabilize his position.

About the Author

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard is a Political Analyst for Central Asia and Regime stability at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. He graduated from Concordia University in 2019 with a Bachelor in Arts, Honours in Political Sciences. He currently is doing his Master in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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