The main intrigue in Uzbekistan now the presidential election is over concerns the identity of the next prime minister.
As was expected, Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the December 4 election handily by securing more than 88 percent of the vote. He will now be coronated president, but will yield the office of prime minister, which he never abandoned following the death of President Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoyev has been prime minister for 13 years and the identity of his replacement will fuel speculation about how the incoming leadership is going to run affairs and whether some elite infighting lies ahead.
Under the accepted procedure, the prime minister should be nominated by the party in the lower house of parliament with most seats or a coalition of parties able to muster a majority. Uzbekistan’s legislature is a dummy institution and such distinctions are fundamentally meaningless, but for the sake of outlining the facts, the largest party in the Oliy Majlis, with 52 out of 150 available seats, is the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP, which supported Mirziyoyev’s bid for the presidency.
While the president wields the most authority, some observers argue that it does not follow that this person is the most decisive for the country’s fate.
“Shavkat Mirziyoyev was primarily associated with perpetuation of the status quo inside the country and as the person that would continue the path of Islam Karimov. But it is the person that takes the job of prime minister on whom the economic future of the country depends,” political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
The most likely candidate to take over as prime minister is considered to be Rustam Azimov, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, but also, more importantly, a man once considered a contender as heir to Karimov. His current purview includes charting the country’s economic development, pushing the reform agenda and attracting foreign investment.
Sattarov said Azimov’s chances are aided by the perception that he could represent, for the elite in Tashkent, an alternative personality type to Mirziyoyev. But nothing is certain in the court intrigues of Uzbekistan.
“We don’t know how much consensus there is among the elite about Azimov. Mirziyoyev may appoint his own loyalists, and that could in my view be somebody like Ulugbek Rozukulov. In that case, the economic agenda would even more closed than under Rustam Azimov,” Sattarov said.
Tellingly, Rozukulov led the Uzbek delegation at a heads of government summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Belarus in late October.
Rozukulov, also a Deputy Prime Minister, oversees the development of the country’s machinery, automotive and electronics sector. He is the chairman of the board at auto manufacturer UzAvtosanoat. It was under his watch that a scandal broke earlier this year out at GM Uzbekistan — in which UzAvtosanoat holds a 75 percent stake — that culminated in the arrest of company director Tohirjon Jalilov.
Exiled Uzbek politician Pulat Akhunov told EuriasaNet.org that he believes that Mirziyoyev is pursuing a strategy of elite appeasement and will for now settle with Azimov. But Azimov will be neutralized and removed from the scene at a later date in favor of an anonymous substitute, Akhunov said.
“Azimov will be considered a rival — and not just him but all those that are unhappy and that think of backing Azimov in the next elections. This is the same situation as you had with Islam Karimov and former prime minister Shukrullo Mirsaidov at the start of Karimov’s rule,” Akhunov said.
The story with Mirsaidov is instructive.
At the start of the 1990s, Mirsaidov was head of the Cabinet — even, at one stage, vice president, a now-inexistent post. In early 1992, in violation of emerging norms, he openly defied Karimov and attempted to rally his supporters in Tashkent, where he wielded most support, in opposing an increasingly powerful leader. Karimov was ruthless in sidelining Mirsaidov, first removing him from government and then having him arrested on corruption charges, which culminated in a jail sentence that disqualified from ever standing for president.
And yet according to one version of history, Mirsaidov was at one time Karimov’s superior in raw power terms. Karimov was a marginal provincial figure in 1989 when, by some accounts, Mirsaidov, then viewed as informal head of the powerful Tashkent clan, lobbied for him to be put forward as first secretary of the Communist Party in the Uzbek SSR. The puppet-master later fell victim to his own puppet, if this account is to be believed.
There is no obvious direct analogy here, but such precedents — real or perceived — are remembered well by those figures who lived through that era. The lesson is that allies and associates should be viewed with even more suspicion than foes.
But Azimov does a couple important aces in the hole. As a long-term economic liberal and the governor for Uzbekistan in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Azimov enjoys an unrivaled international profile among the Uzbek political elite. And even more significantly, he has been said in the past to enjoy some level of support from the National Security Committee, or SNB, the successor agency to the KGB.
Then again, as the Mirsaidov experience shows, loyalty is fleeting. Unless Azimov can make himself indispensable and achieve credible breakthroughs in the agenda to boost foreign investment, his political career may be a bleak one.