Uzbekistan's Internal Power Struggle Intensifies

7 MINS READJul 17, 2014 | 09:29 GMT
Uzbekistan's Power Struggle Intensifies
Uzbek President Islam Karimov addresses a press briefing in Riga, Latvia, on Oct. 17, 2013.

Uzbekistan has experienced a monthlong series of political and security purges as Uzbek President Islam Karimov struggles to control the country and its competing clans. The purges are Karimov's response to the growing power of Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the country's security services. Inoyatov has systematically weakened Karimov's authority and threatened the positions of other influential clans. The ongoing power struggle between the president and the security services chief could prevent Tashkent from managing potential instability as the country confronts a variety of internal and external challenges.

Like most Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is inherently fractured along geographic, ethnic and intra-ethnic lines. Uzbeks commonly refer to these divisions as clans, and most identify as part of a clan rather than part of a single nation. Defining clans is complicated by class considerations, but the divisions highlight geographic and cultural differences that affect regional trade, business networks and particularly political affiliations.

Uzbekistan's population is broken down into seven clans, the most powerful of which are the Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana. The four other clans, whose influence is mostly limited to the regional and local level, often align with the larger three. During the Soviet period, Moscow manipulated the competition among the big three clans for its own gain. However, without Soviet management to limit clan power, the competition has grown more dangerous, posing a threat to the stability of the country.

Current Clan Competition

Karimov, a member of the Samarkand clan, has struggled with clan divisions during his entire 25-year tenure as Uzbekistan's ruler. Early in his presidency, he became closely affiliated with the Tashkent as he attempted to create a balance among the clans to consolidate his power. This alignment divided his own Samarkand clan; many clan leaders condemned the move and considered Karimov a traitor for making it.

In his most important decision to empower the Tashkent clan, Karimov appointed Inoyatov as the head of Uzbek National Security Services in 1995, affording him nearly limitless power to rebuild the weak institution. As in most former Soviet states, in Uzbekistan the security services has the potential to be one of the most powerful institutions in the country. Between 1995 and 2005, Inoyatov vastly expanded his agency, building up its forces to approximately 10,000 — as large as the security arm of the Samarkand-led Interior Ministry. The security services also formed elite special operations forces such as the Cobra Force that were funded and trained by the United States. Furthermore, the National Security Services took control of the Samarkand-led National Border Guards, another powerful entity in Central Asian states, where borders are often haphazardly drawn.

The rise of Inoyatov and the Tashkent sparked a decadelong struggle among the three primary clans that included alleged coup attempts, car bombings and mass arrests and counter-arrests. The clan rivalry cooled somewhat in 2005 following the Andijan massacre, which killed between 187 (according to the government) and 1,500 (according to independent counts) and caused many Western nations to impose sanctions on Uzbekistan. At the time, Karimov blamed leaders of the Fergana clan for allowing the protests and subsequent crackdowns to occur and the Samarkand clan for the botched crackdown that led to so many deaths.

The Primary Clans

The Primary Clans

Tashkent Ascending

Since Inoyatov's appointment, the Tashkent clan has been the most powerful clan in the country; the security services chief has weakened the Fergana and Samarkand clans by targeting their assets. The Tashkent's actions accelerated after March 2013, when rumors surfaced on opposition websites outside Uzbekistan in March 2013 that Karimov was having heart problems. The aging Uzbek leader has no clear succession directives in place.

Recently, the National Security Services has targeted dozens of businessmen, and one of the last remaining leaders of the Fergana clan, Salim Abduvaliyev, fled the country. Also, the man linking the Samarkand and Fergana clans, Babur Usmanov (the nephew of oligarch Alisher Usmanov), was killed in a mysterious car crash. Inoyatov has purged Samarkand heavyweights from office, including Interior Minister Bahodir Matlyubov. He has also targeted Gulnara Karimova, the president's daughter, who has many ties with the Fergana clan. Karimova's assets were seized, and she has been under house arrest since February. Her shuttered media holding company is currently being investigated by the security services.

Karimov Pushes Back

Until now, it appeared that nothing would stop Inoyatov. In a May speech given at a conference on international cooperation, Karimov diverged from his speech and said that he had no intention of relinquishing power anytime soon. The statement was a clear response to the rise of Tashkent clan power.

On June 16, media outlet UzMetronom reported that State Customs Committee Director for Anti-Contraband Aziz Abdurakhmonov and his deputy Aziz Khasanov had been arrested. On June 27, UzMetronom reported that 100 employees of the State Customs Committee had been arrested on corruption charges. On July 3, 40 officers in the National Security Services were dismissed or arrested, including the powerful Col. Javdat Sharifhojaev, who was one of Inoyatov's top loyalists and the younger brother of Hayot Sharifhojaev, one of the security services' department heads. (Karimov's daughter had named the Sharifhojaev brothers among Inoyatov's co-conspirators against her.)

According to Stratfor sources in the region, Karimov is also purging regional offices of their Inoyatov loyalists. Several city and regional heads, prosecutors and police across Uzbekistan have been arrested, including the Andijan prosecutor and the security services chief of Surkhandarya province.

The moves are the first serious, public efforts Karimov has taken to weaken Uzbek security services, and although the push is coming from the president and not from the other large clans, those clans will undoubtedly benefit from the president's decision to limit Tashkent power. The question remains whether Inoyatov will heed warning from the recent crackdowns and temper his aggression or whether Karimov has waited too long to avoid a feud with his security services.

Struggles Ahead

The struggle between the president and the security services comes at a tense time in Uzbekistan and the region. Uzbekistan is gearing up for the December parliamentary and regional elections that will be held under a new system, which will make parliament more influential. This constitutional change will theoretically balance the prime minister's and the president's powers — something the Tashkent clan wants to avoid because the Samarkand currently hold the premiership. There are also concerns that enhanced parliamentary power would lead to a more powerful Fergana clan (as the largest clan in the country it would likely hold the most seats). Currently, the power of the Uzbek parliament is negligible, but this will begin to change after the December elections and will become an important factor once Karimov leaves power.

Economic concerns will also play a role in shaping the future of the country. Remittances sent from Russia and Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan constitute up to 10 percent of the Uzbek gross domestic product but declined by nearly 12 percent in the first half of 2014 because of stagnation in the Russian and Kazakh economies. At the same time, inflation in Uzbekistan has more than doubled to 6.8 percent. These economic realities could lead to social instability, as has happened in the past.



Uzbekistan's neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are facing similar economic issues, which will translate into even greater instability and domestic unrest. Border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan erupted again in early July over the right to lay pipes in contested territory. There have also been upticks in violence near Afghanistan's borders that have involved all the southern Central Asian states, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to have border disputes with Uzbekistan.

Traditionally, Karimov has relied on his strong security services to control unrest inside the country and along its borders. However, the struggle between the presidency and the security services could make it difficult for Uzbekistan to respond to these problems effectively. Of course, Karimov could always bolster the Interior Ministry forces once again, but that would tip the scales of power in Uzbekistan back toward the Samarkand clan. Yet it is a choice that may be unavoidable as the region faces more pressing issues. 

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