Purge reportedly underway in Uzbekistan

By bne IntelliNews November 24, 2011

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In an apparent purge of senior government officials in Uzbekistan, local reports on November 22 claim that another Uzbek official - Ravshan Mukhiddinov - has been arrested, who as a former presidential aide would make him the highest-level casualty so far.

Uzbek media also reported that Uzbekistan's Deputy General Prosecutor Mukhiddin Kiyemov has resigned from his post, with Uzmetronom saying his current fate is unknown. A third high-profile potential victim is former emergency services minister Tursinkhon Khudaibergenov, who has been arrested and charged with abuse of his position and embezzling state funds.

The arrest of Mukhiddinov, reported by the unofficial Uzbek media on November 22, raised speculation that President Islam Karimov may be getting rid of potentially troublesome officials under the guise of fighting corruption. Mukhiddinov is known to be a protégé of Uzbekistan's powerful Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, who has installed his people into numerous government posts in recent years.

Until September, Mukhiddinov was an adviser to Karimov, with responsibility for overseeing the country's law enforcement agencies, having previously served as justice minister between January 2008 and June 2011. However, he lasted just three months in the position.

The beginning of this month saw two sackings. Fergana regional governor Hamid Nematov was removed from his position on November 5, whilst four days earlier Batyr Hodjaev lost his role as deputy PM and moved to a lower-level post within the Economy Ministry. Uzmetronom reported at the time that this unexpected demotion of a senior official indicated that the government was "in a serious fever".

The dismissals and arrests are trumpeted as a top level anti-corruption drive as part of a series of reforms launched in Tashkent this year. There is speculation that Karimov, no friend to democracy and transparency, has initiated the reforms to strengthen his personal position and provide a counterweight to Miriyazov.

Harsh and highly secretive, Miriyazov was appointed PM in December 2003, a position he has held ever since. As regional governor of first Jizzak then Samarkand, human rights activists say he was behind several deaths in both regions. Miriyazov is also said to be free with his fists; there are reports of him severely beating his subordinates on occasion.

In March this year, unofficial Uzbek media reported on a leaked letter puportedly sent to Karimov by security services chief Rustam Inoyatov warning him that steps needed to be taken to prevent an Arab Spring style rebellion in Uzbekistan. The letter apparently called for better treatment of farmers and the creation of a national food store to pre-empt expected food shortages that could spark popular revolt against the government. It was highly critical of Miriyazov, and warned that he might encourage rebellion against Karimov in order to stage a coup.

It is not entirely clear that the dismissals and arrests are connected. Khudaibergenov was arrested after drunkenly boasting to a colleague, but he was already known in Tashkent for being corrupt, and was said to charge $5,000 and $10,000 to appoint his contacts to jobs with financial responsibility. Under Mukhiddinov's term as justice minister, there was also a sharp increase in corruption.

However, the reforms made since Karimov's last annual address to the parliament in late 2010 are believed to be little more than an attempt to broaden the president's power base and stave off opposition.

Karimov told the parliament that Uzbekistan needed to introduce market reforms and liberalise the economy. The speech also set out the agenda for political changes, which have been put in motion. Amendments to the constitution, giving more power to the parliament, including the right to select and dismiss the prime minister, were adopted in March. Uzbekistan has also set up a commission to draw up legislation on information and freedom of speech.

Foreign investors and human rights activists, however, say it's business as usual in the country. The government shut down Human Rights Watch in March by canceling its office registration, forcing the NGO, which had been active in the country since 1996, to quit. Long-standing foreign investor Oxus Gold says it has effectively been forced out of the Amantayau Goldfields joint venture, while the company's former chief metallurgist, Said Ashurov, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on industrial espionage charges in August.

Nor do the economic reforms appear to have had much impact. The EBRD writes in its latest transition report that "concrete improvements in governance remain to be seen, particularly regarding the public accountability of state agents, the transparency and accessibility of public socio-economic data, and independent verification of information."

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