A man one time considered a possible successor to Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov has been squeezed out of his job as finance minister, signaling his waning influence under the new regime.
Rustam Azimov will retain his other title as deputy prime minister, but he is being replaced at the Finance Ministry by another veteran apparatchik, Batir Hodzhaev.
According to government sources, the presidential decree ordering the reshuffle was signed on December 15.
Hodzhaev previously served as deputy economy minister and chairman of privately run lender Ipoteka Bank. According to information available from online biographies, from 2000 to 2006, Hodzhaev was held of the state tax service and then served as economy minister from 2006 to 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, he was deputy prime minister with a portfolio for transportation, construction and municipal services. For the last five years he has been deputy economy minister in charge macro-economic projections, monetary policy and state investment programs.
Azimov has been at his job in the Finance Ministry since February 2005. He will still retain his post as deputy prime minister in charge of macro-economic development, structural reform, management of foreign investment, education and science.
When news of Karimov’s death began circulating in late August — before it was officially confirmed — Uzbekistan-watchers feverishly speculated about who was to succeed the long-time leader. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was officially inaugurated as president on December 14, a long-serving prime minister proved to have the edge over Azimov.
The Mirziyoyev-versus-Azimov scenario has routinely been cast as a choice between a Russophile hardliner and a reform-minded technocrat eager to build ties with a broader array of economic partners. If this broad description were correct, the post-Karimov elite settlement should be brutal and zero-sum in its logic, but the reality is likely far more complicated.
One piece of speculation doing the rounds among reporters in Uzbekistan is that Azimov is being lined up to take over as chairman of the Central Bank, squeezing out 66-year old Faizulla Mullojanov, who has had the job since 1993.
Mullojanov is a native of Samarkand and was one of Karimov’s oldest and most steadfast allies. His opponents have long accused him of being a major mover and shaker in the currency black market.
Mirziyoyev has made a radical reform of the currency market one of his main goals — a bold statement of intent that would, if genuine, make him some serious enemies from the outset. At the moment, the Uzbek sum is to all practical purposes an unconvertible currency, a fact that hands significant influence to the black marketeers on whom the business community relies.
Were Azimov to be tasked with performing the operation of tackling the black market, therefore, it might not necessarily signal that he is on his way out but rather that he is being given the job of neutralizing obstructionist Karimov old guards.
Would Azimov survive such a process intact however?
Karimov was always said to possess a mastery in pitting camps against one another and Mirziyoyev has likely learned the lesson that the best way to dispose of rivals is not always to ostracize them, but to set them against other potential rivals.
Transformations do indeed appear to be afoot, but most likely of the kind suggested by a character in Giovanni Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”