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Who Could Replace Uzbekistan’s Ailing President?

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.”
Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.”

Uzbekistan is on edge after learning that Uzbek President Islam Karimov, 78, has been hospitalized after suffering what an August 29 post on his younger daughter’s Instagram account said was a cerebral hemorrhage -- bleeding in the brain.

In Uzbekistan, and in the rest of Central Asia and beyond, many now wonder what happens if Karimov dies or is no longer able to perform the functions of president. Who would, or could, replace the only leader the country has had since it became independent in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament -- now the little-known Nigmatulla Yuldashev -- assumes the president's authority for a period of three months.

For the longer term, the list of favorites is short: It includes three people.

Many believe the heir apparent is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, 58, who has headed the government since 2003. He hails from Jizzakh Province, which is adjacent to Karimov’s native Samarkand Province, and has the backing of the Jizzakh and presumably the Samarkand clans. It could be significant that the only official statement on Karimov’s hospitalization came from the Cabinet of Ministers, which Mirziyaev heads.

Clans will play an important role in the succession process. Karimov, who has ruled with an iron hand and tolerated little dissent, has been a master at maneuvering among the various clans in Uzbekistan and playing them off one another.

Some critics have characterized Mirziyaev in no uncertain terms, describing him as a thug who is short on reason and quick to aggression. During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh Province (1996-2001), he was reported to have physically assaulted at least one farmer who dared complain about conditions in the province. His successor, Ubaidulla Yamankulov, was eventually taken away in handcuffs, by helicopter, after numerous reports of him beating constituents and allegations that he headed a local hit squad. Mirziyaev surely knew Yamankulov well.

Among Uzbekistan’s top officials, Mirziyaev is seen as a “fist” not a “brain.” That might not stop him from becoming president, but some observers say that if he does, his government could be more repressive than that of the widely criticized Karimov.

It is worth noting that Uzbekistan has been tinkering with its constitution during the last five years. On paper, at least, some amendments have increased the powers of the prime minister. That could be a good sign for Mirziyaev, or even an endorsement.

But the Samarkand clan fell slightly out of favor in the late 1990s due the actions of the clan boss, Ismail Jurabekov. Jurabekov was instrumental in Karimov’s rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in the 1980s and was rewarded with government posts and prized business ownerships during the 1990s. But Jurabekov was far too powerful and was rumored to have been behind bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, not long after he had been sacked from his post as agriculture minister and ordered to go on pension.

Jurabekov was back in the government shortly after the bombings and remained until 2004, but Karimov’s ties to his native Samarkand clan were shaken. It is unclear how much those ties have been repaired, despite Jurabekov leaving politics and the public eye long ago.

Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.
Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov has more experience dealing with the outside world.

Another favorite to take Karimov’s place is Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56. Azimov is from the Tashkent area and the Tashkent clan. He has been in the national government since 1998, always in a post connected to finance.

Azimov is seen as more sophisticated than Mirziyaev, and he has more experience dealing with the outside world. In the first years after independence, Azimov, as head of Uzbekistan’s National Bank for Foreign Activities, was the country’s point man dealing with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

A third, less likely potential candidate to take the reins is the chief of the National Security Committee (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov, 72. Inoyatov is one of the most powerful people in Uzbekistan, having served as SNB chief since 1995. He is from the Tashkent clan.

Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.
Publicity-shy Rustam Inoyatov (left), the chief of the National Security Committee, is seen during a trip to China in 2014.

Many suspect he has played the role of grey cardinal in recent years as Karimov’s health has deteriorated. Many also suspect it was Inoyatov who was behind the campaign to bring down Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara, who was once a globetrotting businesswoman but has not appeared in public since 2014, when she was reportedly placed under house arrest after her name was connected to a corruption scandal involving international telecommunications companies.

Inoyatov’s age is likely to head off any serious consideration that he would become president, though it does not rule out a transitional role.

Inoyatov is seen as a kingmaker, not a king. There is only one known photograph of him from the last 10 years -- a picture taken when he was in China to meet with security officials. He clearly does not want to be seen in public.

But without his support it would be nearly impossible for anyone to become the next president of Uzbekistan or be able to rule the country without hindrances.

Some reports suggest Inoyatov is on good terms with Mirziyaev and might support the latter as Uzbekistan’s next president. It should be noted that Inoyatov really solidified his power after Jurabekov was finally removed from politics, so the SNB chief must know something about the Samarkand clan’s weaknesses.

It would be logical to believe Inoyatov would throw his support behind Azimov. They are both from the Tashkent clan. But balancing clans is a tricky business and so far the system has been kept in check with a president from Samarkand and influential officials from Tashkent. Azimov might be passed over to keep the peace.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.