A power struggle is brewing in Uzbekistan, pitting the country's secret police chief against the head of the Interior Ministry. The political maneuvering comes at a time when rumors are circulating in Tashkent that Uzbek President Islam Karimov is ill.
Both Rustam Inoyatov, chairman of Uzbekistan's National Security Service (NSS), and Zakir Almatov, the interior minister who controls Uzbekistan's vast police force, are believed to harbor ambitions to succeed Karimov, or at least dictate who becomes the president's successor. The two are perhaps the most powerful political figures in the country after Karimov, as they head the two key components of Uzbekistan's pervasive state security apparatus.
Inoyatov and Almatov each control what are, in effect, private armies, as both the NSS and Interior Ministry possess independent and heavily-armed military units. In addition, the NSS and Interior Ministry operate their own investigation and surveillance departments, as well as rely on independent communication facilities, transportation and other infrastructure. The rivals also wield considerable influence in Uzbekistan's business sector. Retired officers are often placed in top positions at enterprises and banks controlled by the two agencies. All of this allows Inoyatov and Almatov to operate their respective government agencies as personal fiefdoms within the state.
The multiple sources of influence give Inoyatov and Almatov a considerable advantage over purely political rivals, such as Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev and Economy Minister Rustam Azimov, as the presidential succession issue gains attention, fueled mainly by the widely circulating rumors in Tashkent that Karimov is suffering from a serious, possibly terminal illness. Administration officials indicate that Karimov is healthy. Given the government's secretive nature, there is no way to independently verify or debunk the rumors about the presidential illness.
In recent months, Inoyatov and Almatov have taken steps to strengthen their respective government agencies and enhance their personal authority. Almatov, for example, conducted a sweeping personnel change at the Interior Ministry, installing reliable allies in key positions. Inoyatov is reportedly backed by a Tashkent-based political clan, while Almatov enjoys the support of a Samarkand clan.
Both Inoyatov and Almatov are staunch upholders of Uzbekistan's authoritarian system and both have lengthy and successful track records in the state security sphere. Inoyatov, who has headed the NSS since 1995, is widely admired in security circles throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States for preserving many of the vestiges of former Soviet KGB as he reoriented the Uzbek service to combat domestic security threats, in particular Islamic radicalism and political dissent. He also managed to stop an agency "brain-drain" during the mid 1990s that was curtailing the capabilities of the NSS.
Almatov, who has held the Interior Ministry portfolio since 1991, built his reputation in the early 1990s, using "iron-fisted" methods to achieve a dramatic reduction in crime in Uzbekistan's major cities. In addition, Almatov was an instrumental figure in Karimov's successful effort in the early 1990s to eliminate potential political rivals, either arresting opposition leaders or driving them into exile. The Interior Minister also played a key role in the ongoing campaign to stifle freedom of religious expression. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Almatov's desire to succeed Karimov appears to be long-standing. In the mid-1990s, in the immediate aftermath of his successful anti-crime campaign, Almatov sent out signals concerning his political aspirations. The signs were sufficiently worrisome to Karimov that the incumbent appointed Inoyatov, and enhanced the NSS's powers in order to serve as a counterweight to Almatov's increasing influence.
Since then, Karimov has skillfully played Inoyatov against Almatov. According to Uzbek political observers, Inoyatov enjoys the particular trust of Karimov, and the president has consistently enhanced the NSS's powers over the last decade. Most recently, the NSS's authority was extended to managing Uzbekistan's borders, including border guard and customs units.
The ability of either Inoyatov or Almatov (or their proxies) to succeed Karimov is far from assured, given the build-up of popular discontent inside Uzbekistan. International political analysts believe the Uzbek government's capacity to keep the lid on dissatisfaction is being stretched to its limits. The government's reluctance to address glaring economic deficiencies is heightening the chances that Karimov's authoritarian system could crumble in the coming years.
In a December speech, Karimov announced that Uzbekistan had achieved "macro-economic stability" and claimed that the population's average income had risen 210 percent over the past five years. Such statements create the impression that Karimov is out of touch, as they do not correspond to Uzbekistan's economic reality, observers say. Entrepreneurial activity in Uzbekistan has experienced a dramatic drop-off in recent years, as businesses struggle to bear an onerous taxation burden while confronting rampant corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A report prepared by the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's arm for private-sector lending, estimated that domestic investment in businesses has declined roughly 50 percent over the last three years.
As one economic observer told EurasiaNet; "It seems like he [President Karimov] lives in a different world. Either some information is concealed from him, or he is extremely hypocritical. Anyway, we [ordinary people] are sick and tired of the situation. Something has to be done or else