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Uzbekistan: The Men Who Buried Karimov

It was Tajikistan’s presidential press service, of all people, that provided some of the most interesting glimpses into the funeral of Uzbekistan late President Islam Karimov.

Predictably, most photos featured the Tajik leader front and center. Quite literally. In one of the many photos published on the presidential press Facebook account, Emomali Rahmon is seen striding purposefully in between Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is touted as the likely future president, and deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, another potential contender to the throne.

Azimov’s presence at the funeral, as confirmed in the photos, would appear to put paid to rumors that emerged shortly after initial reports of Karimov’s death that he has been placed under house arrest. Far from being arrested, Azimov was one of the pall-bearers leading from the front of Karimov’s coffin, along with a weeping Mirziyoyev.

This is where it is necessary to indulge in some old-fashioned Kremlinology.

The presence of the entire current Karimov elite at the funeral would suggest that a zero-sum bout of infighting, as some have expected, is not in the offing for the immediate future.

Perhaps that much should have been clear from the list of the names underneath an early post mortem encomium.

Mirziyoyev and Azimov both get a billing. And there is also, of course, Rustam Inoyatov, chief of the much-feared SNB, or National Security Service. Incidentally, the deeply camera-shy Inoyatov is one of the several senior Uzbek government figures snapped by Rahmon’s photographers. 

Other signatories were Senate chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who will keep the president’s seat warm while a full-time replacement is decided upon, and the speaker of the lower house, Nurdinjon Ismailov.

The most curious biographies on the list belong to two senior advisers to Karimov — Davron Nazarmuhamedov and Hairiddin Sultanov.

Nazarmuhamedov’s stint as deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation and anti-terrorism department in 2011 earned him a second class Shon-Sharaf award, bestowed on service officers deemed to have contributed to national security. From there Nazarmuhamedov appears to have transitioned into a position in the presidential apparatus and in September 2014 was named deputy Interior Minister.  And then the following April, he was again folded back into the presidential administration in his new capacity as adviser to Karimov on personnel issues — the important man running the index cards.

Sultanov is a curious foil. A man of letters with several published books under his belt, he served in Karimov’s administration in the very early years of post-independence as press secretary. At one stage he was as adviser to Karimov on matters of culture, while also continuing to work on his literary output and documentary films. One Sultanov-scripted documentary of note, “They Studied in Germany” (1998), tells the story of events in the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic of the 1920s, when a group of 70 talented youngsters were sent by their government to study abroad. Even after the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic disappeared, the group continued their studies, amazing their German instructors, as the documentary has it, with their diligence and intelligence. Upon their return home, however, the students fell victim to political repression — an explicit tribute to the sense of Uzbek potential crushed by Soviet rulers.

For any misgivings about the legacy of Soviet rule, however, Sultanov was not shy of adopting the earlier regime’s practice of having the state direct the output of mass media. In an address to journalists in 2009, for example, Sultanov warned against external ideological influences and urged media to focus comprehensively on the country’s social, economic and political transformations, such as they were. With some remarkable chutzpah, he also urged reporters to write fearlessly about “bureaucracy, careerism, bribery, nepotism, cronyism and indifference.”

Sultanov’s crabby conservatism must have been a neat fit with Karimov’s own worldview.

In 2013, he complained publicly about how Uzbek cinema was depicting rural life. “Why is the countryside in movies always presented in such an impoverished state? What, is there nothing better in the villages than mud huts and barns? Or can directors not see the changes and modern developments taking place in the villages?” he fumed.

This kinds of outbursts have rarely been a laughing matter in Uzbekistan. Accomplished photographer Umida Akmedova had felt the sharp end of such obscurantism in 2010, when a court found her guilty of slandering the Uzbek picture by merely documenting the lives of simple rural folk.

Such has been the complement of officials ushering Karimov to the next world. Hardly a recipe for imminent change and reform.

Uzbekistan: The Men Who Buried Karimov

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