After nearly 23 years at the head of Uzbekistan’s powerful National Security Service (SNB), 73-year-old Rustam Inoyatov has been dismissed.
A statement from Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s office to Reuters said Inoyatov was dismissed because he had been named an adviser to the president — often a token position for retired officials. The dismissal, however, fits into a pattern of administrative reshuffles that underscore, on the one hand, regime consolidation, and on the other, the steps necessary to act on Mirziyoyev’s stated reform agenda.
Once lofted as a potential successor to Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, Inoyatov has often been described as a “grey cardinal,” a powerful figure behind the throne. Rustam Azimov, finance minister and deputy prime minister under Karimov, was spoken of in the same language. Azimov was relieved of his finance post the day after Mirziyoyev was sworn into office in December 2016. and in June 2017 he was dismissed from government altogether after months of presidential criticism of the country’s banking system.
Inoyatov’s exit comes close on the heels of Mirziyoyev’s surprisingly harsh criticism of the state’s security services.
During his 4-hour end-of-year address in December, Mirziyoyev took special aim at the state’s powerful security bodies.
“[W]e should not allow a single body to collect all the powers and resources and prevent violation of the principle of checks and balances,” he said after lambasting the country’s law and order bodies for overreach and failing protect Uzbek citizens’ rights.
“In this regard,” he continued, “it should be noted that the bodies of the National Security Service have been acting till the present day on the basis of the Regulation approved by the government 26 years ago.”
Under those regulations, Mirziyoyev said, “every ordinary issue has been regarded as a threat to national security which led to the groundless expansion of the agency’s powers.”
Inoyatov, who took over the SNB in 1995, was a key node in Karimov’s securitized state.
“Rustam Inoyatov,” Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow told The Diplomat, “will go down in history as one of the most ruthless figures in all of the post-Soviet space, responsible for building up the most feared and notorious security services agencies in the whole former Soviet region.”
After the 1999 bombings, the SNB led the roundup of not only Islamists, but political dissidents of all stripes. The state’s blacklists — from which Mirziyoyev has had thousands removed since coming into office — were curated under Inoyatov’s tenure.
“Without any legislation governing it, Inoyatov’s SNB operated literally above the law in Uzbekistan, employing a sprawling apparatus of security agents who spied on the population and the government itself,” Swerdlow said.
After the 2005 Andijan massacre — in which Interior ministry and SNB troops opened fire on protesters, killing 187 (officially) or 1,500 (according to an SNB defector) — Inoyatov and a handful of other Uzbek officials were subject to a visa ban in Europe. The ban was lifted in 2008, and less than two week later, Inoyatov paid an official visit to Germany. Human Rights Watch criticized European officials for lifting the ban, which was supposed to be linked to improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights conditions.
Inoyatov’s 2008 Germany visit coincided with the sentencing of Akzam Turgunov, a prominent activist, to ten years in prison. Turgunov was released early on October 9, 2017, one of a handful of political prisoners who have been freed under Mirziyoyev. Human rights activists say hundreds more remain in prison.
Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute (IRI), told The Diplomat that Inoyatov’s dismissal “is, by far, the most consequential political development in Uzbekistan since Karimov’s passing.”
Nishanov said that most Central Asia analysts “were convinced Mirziyoyev’s ambitious reform agenda would not move forward with Inoyatov at the helm of SNB, as the reforms are a direct threat to the vast financial and political interests controlled by Inoyatov.”
As Eurasianet noted, in his more than two decades leading the SNC, Inoyatov accumulated substantial wealth, “likely by virtue of the stranglehold maintained by the successors of the KGB over the country’s economy.”
Mirziyoyev’s reforms have been centered on the Uzbek economy, namely digging it out of isolation, reconnecting the state to the region, and attracting international investment. An early step was the adoption of a decree mandating the liberalization of the state’s monetary policy. For years, Uzbekistan maintained currency exchange restrictions which resulted in at least two wildly different exchange rates, the official rate and the black market rate. The SNB was widely believed to have its hands deep in the black money market.
“With Inoyatov out of the way,” Nishanov said, “it is more likely the Mirziyoyev reforms will accelerate and truly open up the country for foreign investment and cooperation.”
Inoyatov, a longtime Karimov ally, has been viewed by some as an impediment to economic and political reforms. He was the last high level Karimov-era security official in office, following a change of guard (twice) at the Interior Ministry and also at the Ministry of Defense.
Regional watchers, familiar with the opaque nature of Central Asian politics, have rightful pointed out that in his year in office, Mirziyoyev has carefully shuffled his predecessor’s men around and then out of office, replacing them with his own loyalists.
“All in all,” Nishanov said, “this is something to be optimistic about.”
“I know consolidation of power is always fraught with potential downsides, but the removal of Inoyatov is a positive step any way you look.”
Inoyatov’s removal, Swerdlow said, is “extremely important, but comes far too late for the thousands of Uzbekistan’s torture victims over the past two decades,” not to mention the families of those killed in Andijan in 2005. “Still,” Swerdlow continued, “it is absolutely the right decision for him to be out of that job. The Mirziyoyev government should move toward meaningful reform of an institution which has operated outside the scope of the law for decades.”
The pace and depth of Mirziyoyev’s reforms will be the real benchmark. If Inoyatov was a boulder in the road, with him pushed aside, reforms should be able to progress.
“Genuine reform of the SNB would entail drawing up guidelines on the agency’s mandate, ensuring that human rights standards are implemented, and revisiting numerous politically-motivated cases,” Swerdlow said, mentioning Bobomurod Abdullaev, a journalist detained in September 2017; Hayot Nasreddinov, a blogger arrested in October 2017; and Nurullo Otahonov, a well-known Uzbek author who returned to the country from exile last year only to be detained upon landing — he was released but still faces extremism charges.
Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, 51, has been named as Inoyatov’s successor at the SNB. Abdullayev has been serving as prosecutor-general since April 2015. Reforming the SNB will not be an easy or simple task. The kinds of reforms Mirziyoyev has described — reigning in the SNB’s scope, ensuring citizens’ rights are respected, not viewing everything as a national security threat — are going to require much heavier lifting than firing a septuagenarian.
And what of Inoyatov? Swerdlow said Inoyatov ought to face justice. “Uzbekistan’s citizenry should be allowed to scrutinize and discuss in the open what Inoyatov’s SNB has been up to for the last two decades.”