New Uzbek Premier May Signal Political Shift

President shows signs that he wants ministers around him who are tough managers as well as personally loyal.

New Uzbek Premier May Signal Political Shift

President shows signs that he wants ministers around him who are tough managers as well as personally loyal.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The appointment of a new prime minister in Uzbekistan shows that president Islam Karimov is building a strong team of ministers who would for the first time make political succession a realistic possibility, analysts say.

Shavkat Mirziyoev, 46, previously governor of the Samarkand region, was appointed head of government at a session of parliament session on December 11. He replaced Utkir Sultanov, who had occupied the post since 1995.

Recommending the changes to parliament – which duly approved them – Karimov said Mirziyoev’s was part of a broader attempt to change the way the cabinet worked, and promised to hand over some of his own presidential powers to the prime minister following next year’s general.

Karimov’s apparent decision to cede some of his considerable powers is a significant change – previously he has been firmly in the driving seat of government.

His appointment of Mirziyoev is the second time this year he has removed a long-serving minister in a high-profile position. In March, Sadyk Safaev, a former ambassador to the United States, was made foreign minister, replacing Abdulaziz Kamilov.

The inner politics of Uzbek government are always difficult to read, but both newcomers look like heavyweights in their different ways. The two men are – like the rest of the cabinet – Karimov loyalists. But in addition, Safaev comes with an extensive track-record as a diplomat, while Mirziyoev has gained substantial experience of running the Samarkand and Jizzakh regions. As well as being important cotton producers, the two provinces jointly form the original powerbase of Karimov and his closest political followers.

For some analysts, the inclusion of politicians of this stature in the cabinet is a first sign that President Karimov is beginning to anticipate a time when he will no longer be in charge of the country.

Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow News correspondent who covers Central Asia, told IWPR that Karimov previously acted as de facto head of the cabinet even though the country formally had a prime minister. “He kept everything under his control, including day-to-day running of the government,” she said.

According to Shermatova, Utkir Sultanov played a fairly nominal role, for example representing Uzbekistan at international gatherings.

“Now he [Karimov] needs a strong team that is able to act independently if he is no long able to carry on as before. He was really taking too much upon himself, ” she said.

A local analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went further than this, suggesting that following the example of Russia’s former president Boris Yeltsin, Karimov is building a strong and loyal circle who will ensure he enjoys immunity if and when he steps down. “The main thing now occupying him is to strengthen his team with people who will be able to guarantee protection for him and his family after he leaves office,” said the analyst.

President Karimov gave his new premier a ringing endorsement, telling parliamentary deputies that he possesses strong organisational skills and is familiar with the important agricultural sector.

He noted that Sultanov’s strengths lay in industrial policy, and demoted him to the post of deputy premier responsible for this area. He also complained of the cabinet’s inaction, “To date the government has not put forward any initiatives – they were asleep. Who worked out programmes for reforming education, health and the armed forces? I sat and wrote them myself.”

Mirziyoev’s record as governor of Samarkand and Jizzakh regions does suggest he is a tough manager.

Too tough in some cases, say his critics. The Samarkand Centre for Human Rights Initiatives is currently planning a court action against Mirziyoev for what they say was his accountability in presiding over the use of schoolchildren and students as free labour during the cotton harvest. Ten teenagers have died after participating in the annual “cotton campaign” during his tenure as Samarkand governor – and the human rights group say their deaths were the result of hard labour, poor conditions and lack of supervision.

Samarkand is not alone in using young people as a source of free labour – the practice is fairly universal in Uzbekistan. The government earns the bulk of its foreign-currency earnings from exporting the aptly named “white gold”.

“The only good that has come out of Mirzoyev’s governorship is that the streets of Samarkand city have become cleaner,” said Kamiljon Ashurov, who heads the human rights centre. “But to achieve this, all the schoolchildren were forced onto the streets to sweep them.”

Civil society activists in Jizzakh region, where Mirzoyev previously served as governor, question the administrative abilities that Karimov praised. In particular, they point out his backing for a white-elephant project which saw the construction of a market designed to serve as a hub for regional trade. The location of the Asia Bazaar miles from the nearest town of any size meant that neither traders nor buyers would go there, and it was closed shortly after it opened.

As well as political factors, Karimov may have economic considerations in mind in choosing to replace his long-serving prime minister. “Sultanov may have had a certain lack of experience for forecasting and resolving agricultural sector problems,” he said. By contrast, he praised Mirziyoev’s knowledge of Uzbekistan’s largely rural economy.

Uzbekistan has just recorded another poor cotton harvest, which according to one unofficial report has fallen below the three-million tonne mark for the first time. Two years of drought were followed this year by heavy rains which damaged the crop early on the growing season.

If Sultanov is being made to carry the can for this failure, Karimov made no mention of the role played by Mirzoyev, until recently the governor of one of the most important cotton regions. In the past the president has regularly sacked provincial governors for failing to deliver on economic targets.

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