Uzbekistan’s pivot?

President Putin will likely benefit in the short to medium term from a weaker Uzbek premier

Andrew J. Bowen
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At the end of August, President Islam Karimov, who through an iron fist ruled Uzbekistan for a quarter of century since its independence, suddenly passed away with no named heir. Almost half of the country’s population, the most populous nation in Central Asia, has known no other leader than Karimov. The late president leaves his former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, the de facto head of the Samarkand Clan, now as acting president with a relatively weak hand to manage this geopolitically pivotal state’s domestic politics and its relations with its two main suitors, Russia and China.

A competition for power

It’s unclear how much power Mirziyaev will exert when he’s officially elected president in December. In Uzbekistan, elections are simply a ceremonial exercise to give “democratic” legitimation not a real competition for power. This competition has and continues to play out behind the scenes.

The delay in officially announcing President Karimov’s death pointed to an end of August and beginning of September tug of war amongst Uzbekistan’s different powerbrokers. Nigmatilla Yuldashev, the chairman of the senate, was constitutionally designated to serve as acting president until elections, but he recused himself last week from such a role in favor of Mirziyaev.

Mirziyaev, who chaired the funeral arrangements for Karimov recent in Samarkand, appears to have gathered enough internal support to likely succeed Islam Karimov as president of Uzbekistan. He will however have to contend with Rustam Inoyatov, the ageing head of the state’s main intelligence and state security service. Inoyatov, who is also head’s Uzbekistan’s the Tashkent clan, was the second-most powerful man in the country under Karmiov and remains informally more powerful than Mirziyaev presently.

Will Uzbekistan pivot to Russia? While Moscow may be a less attractive economic partner than Beijing, the lower costs of a deeper economic relationship with Russia than with China may push Mirziyaev closer to Putin

Andrew J. Bowen

Inoyatov’s decision to not seek the presidency is open to speculation but points to a possible preference to remain in the shadows and an agreement brokered with Mirziyaev on Uzbekistan’s future governance. The former prime minister is both younger and a more palatable compromise successor amongst the country’s political and security factions of various degrees of influence.

If a likely political alliance was struck between the two men, the balance of power between the two could smoothly work but also could be beset to behind-the-scenes fighting.

Domestic continuity?

While many may have hoped that Karimov’s passing would mark a new era for the state’s stagnating economy, neither Mirziyaev nor Inoyatov are likely to embrace substantial economic or political reforms. Both men have benefited and thrived under Karimov’s patronage and his common autocratic diktat of stability over political and economic liberalization.

Mirziyaev may be forced to choose economic reform if he hopes to pull Uzbekistan out of its economic malaise and remain popular with the country’s large young population, but these changes could threaten his and Inoyatov’s grasp on power. On a score of economic freedom in 2015, the post-Soviet republic was ranked 47 out of 100 and occupies a special place on the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators as the most corrupt country on earth. Only 20 percent of the state’s economy is in private sector control. Economic remittances as high as $6 billion dollars in 2015 from Russia helped slightly offset Karimov’s failing self-reliant “Uzbek model” but they halved in 2015 due to Russia’s poor economic environment.

Pivot to Russia?

Beyond Uzbekistan’s borders, Mirziyaev has to weigh his relations with Russia and China. President Karimov adeptly balanced these relations in keeping the state independent from anyone suitors. With Karimov’s passing, Uzbekistan is now more in play.

President Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan on the September 5, including his very public meeting with then Prime Minister Mirziyaev, signals Russia’s intention to try to bring Uzbekistan closer into its informal sphere of influence: “Greater Eurasia.” Moscow also is concerned about any political instability creating a space for radical Islamists near its borders. Karimov struggled with an Islamist insurgency in its Fergana Valley region and across its borders in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

President Karimov, much to Putin’s annoyance, resisted Russia’s past engagement efforts. In 2012, he withdrew Uzbekistan from Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization and never joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a customs union including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Karimov reportedly worried such a fate could befall his state whose population is about 10 percent ethnically Russian.

Mirziyaev’s family connections to the Kremlin and his embrace by President Putin suggest that he’s warmer to Russia than his predecessor. However, this could purely be calculated pragmatism as Mirziyaev navigates post-Karimov politics. The former prime minister may purely use Putin’s warmth as a temporary protection from his opponents and his ally, Inoyatov before charting a similar independent course as Karimov did.

Russia’s main competitor, at least, economically for Uzbekistan’s favor is China. Unlike Moscow who is more constrained economically to help revive the country’s economy, Beijing is more attractive partner in terms of investment and economic development. For example, through its broader “One Belt, One Road” strategy, President Xi Jinping has pledged $40 billion dollars to develop its new “silk road” and Central Asia is a key component. Beijing is already Tashkent’s main trading partner and shows no qualms about Uzbekistan’s governance.

However, Tashkent’s recalcitrance to economic reform due to vested state economic interests and influential domestic constituencies will likely be roadblocks for further Chinese investment unless Mirziyaev and the political elite decide to economically liberalize and accept those risks and costs. Moscow, more so than Beijing, then is likely to try to bring Mirziyaev closer into its political space.

Will Uzbekistan pivot to Russia? While Moscow may be a less attractive economic partner than Beijing, the lower costs of a deeper economic relationship with Russia than with China may push Mirziyaev closer to Putin as he seeks to address Uzbekistan’s economic challenges and make his own mark on the country as he tries to consolidate power. The degree to whether the new President will seek deeper ties with Russia politically will depend on the strength of his political position at home.

As it stands, though, President Putin will likely benefit in the short to medium term from a weaker Uzbek premier.


Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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