Since the death of Islam Karimov and ascension of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, regional analysts have been scrying every move made by the new president and asking: is this reform or regime consolidation?
The news this week seems big: Rustam Azimov — who only months ago, as Karimov lay dying, was floated as a possible successor — looks to have been sidelined. Gazeta.uz, followed by RFE/RL and EurasiaNet have all reported that Azimov has been dismissed from his post as deputy prime minister and reassigned as the head of Uzbekinvest, a “national export-import insurance company.”
Azimov had been deputy prime minister since 2005 and until December 16 — two days after Mirziyoyev’s inauguration — he’d been finance minister (twice actually, 1998-2000 and 2005-2016). The writing was on the wall last week when Mirziyoyev laid into Azimov during a government meeting on May 30. Audio of the meeting was posted by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Bureau and EurasiaNet covered the screed Mirziyoyev had launched into, directed at Azimov:
…Mirziyoyev slammed Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov in a wider broadside against bankers, “do-nothing financiers” and bribe-takers. Azimov and his like, he said, were to blame for it all.
“The axman should be sharpening his tools for Azimov,” EurasiaNet quipped last week — a prediction that seems to have been spot-on.
Few could argue against the necessity of reforms in Uzbekistan’s finance sectors. Cash shortages and payment delays have been recurring problems in Uzbekistan (see reports from 2009 and 2016), and corruption rampant.
In 2013, a year before her own downfall began to pick up steam, Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, accused Azimov of corruption. At the time, both Karimova and Azimov were seen as possible successors to Karimov. As reported by RFE/RL, Karimov had tweeted allegations that Azimov was worth $4 billion, “suggesting the money was not earned legally.” Others at the time, retweeted by Karimova, said “that Azimov was ‘a crook,’ who created ‘clever schemes to embezzle money.’” While this may be a case of the kettle calling the pot black — the projection of one’s own sins onto another — it would not be surprising if Azimov used his long tenure and high position for personal benefit.
So should we look at Azimov’s dismissal as the politics of regime consolidation or reform? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; my money is on a bit of both. We won’t known for some time if the dismissal leads to actual reform or just shifts the perks of a powerful post to a more amenable Mirziyoyev ally.
As power transitions are rare in Central Asia and hardly ever “normal,” there are few places to look for precedent. As Karimov had been Uzbekistan’s only president in the era of independence, we have no idea what a “normal” transition looks like. Mirziyoyev’s rise to the top eschewed the country’s Constitutional procedures, so we can’t look there for solid rules of how administrations transfer power and positions.
The case of Turkmenistan is perhaps the closest thing we have in the region to the kind of politics currently flowing through Uzbekistan. In 2007, Turkmenistan’s Soviet-era leader, Saparmurat Niyazov died. In a similar manner to Mirizyoyev’s extraconstitutional rise, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov — who had been minister of health in the late 1990s and deputy prime minister since 2001 — became president. His ascension was matched with an outpouring of hope, bolstered by early moves to unravel the absurdist personality cult of his predecessor. He too sacked powerful figures from the previous regime.
But a decade later, few would say Turkmenistan has come very far. Berdimuhamedov dismantled much of Niyazov’s cults and build his own in its place.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are significantly different countries, especially with regard to their international interactions. Inasmuch as Mirizyoyev’s rise mirrors that of Berdimuhamedov, the Uzbek leader seems to have made serious efforts to reorient the country’s regional and global relations in a way the Turkmen, bound by “positive neutrality,” did not. Whether Mirziyoyev is cleaning house of corrupt remnants of Karimov’s rule, or merely deposing internal rivals (and again, it’s could be a bit of both), will take time to truly assess.