The founder of Uzbekistan’s first privately run bank has been released from jail after 19 years of a sentence that was, rights advocates say, arbitrarily extended.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, cited a relative of Rustam Usmanov as saying he was released on February 13.
“We met him at Zhaslyk prison and brought him to Tashkent. His state of health is poor and he is now receiving treatment. But he is in good spirit and he thanks [President Shavkat] Mirziyoyev,” the family member told Ozodlik.
Usmanov, 69, was convicted of fraud in 1998 and sentenced to 14 years in jail. His sentence was due to expire in 2012, but was extended by another five years.
He is best known for setting up Rustambank in the early 1990s, but earlier, in 1987, he set up a cooperative company producing honey. Usmanov then branched out into breeding and selling earthworms. Those enterprises turned him into a dollar millionaire and so, in 1992, he opened the country’s first private lender with a registered capital of $1.2 million.
The business success put him in close proximity with the country’s ruling elite, from President Islam Karimov himself to erstwhile Interior Minister Zokir Almatov.
But Usmanov distinguished himself for his lack of deference to authority, as he detailed in his 1995 book “Interrupted Flight.” Opposition news website eltuz.com published extracts from the book in December 2015 that outlined his philosophy.
“I have come to understand that in our time it counts for nothing to know how to work and make money. You also have to learn how to divide the spoils with officials. But I did not know how to and did not want to do this. I naively imagined that since I give up the lion’s share of what I earned to the government through taxes, it meant that the government should defend me from any other levies,” Usmanov wrote.
This attitude earned him only trouble. In February 1995, the authorities stripped Usmanov’s Rustambank of its banking license. Usmanov declared a hunger strike in protest at the decision, but was later arrested.
The businessman’s acquaintance with Karimov appears to have helped him this time around. Karimov was even quoted in the media as defending Usmanov, calling him “an honest businessman.”
“There is nothing wrong in him having a sharp tongue. He should be released immediately,” Karimov was quoted as saying.
The benefit of that patronage appears to have been exhausted by 1998, however, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Uzbek emigre political obsersver Pulat Ahunov, who knew Usmanov personally, recalls that at the time, the head of Central Bank and other major local financiers had grown concerned at the influence and size of Usmanov’s bank.
And Karimov, who had little time for political opponents, may well have been dissembling in his tolerance for a vocal critic.
“Rustam Usmanov had political ambitions and at the end of the 1980s he planned to create a political party. He had great potential as a politician and an organizer. If he had been given the chance, he would have achieved a great deal,” Ahunov told EurasiaNet.org.
There is some contemporary resonance to one aspect of Usmanov’s commercial activity that may have brought about his downfall. Media reports in the mid-1990s linked him to the currency exchange business — a sector of the economy that is widely known to be in the control of elite figures close to or in the security services. Most aggravating of all to his competitors, Usmanov was said to be selling dollars at the Alai bazaar in Tashkent — the center for illegal currency trading in the capital city — for a cut-price rate in comparison to the rest of the black market.
Of all the would-be hints of significant reforms proposed by Mirziyoyev, the liberalization of the currency market — and the implied abolition of the black market — may be the most ambitious and, politically speaking, the most fraught with danger.
Usmanov was due for release anyhow, but since Uzbek authorities always reserve the right to keep people in jail indefinitely, the timing seems strongly symbolic.
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