The growing isolation of President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova increases the influence of security chief Rustam Inoyatov, who is emerging as the likely kingmaker in Uzbekistan.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Businesses affiliated with Gulnara Karimova have begun to close as a result of inspections and investigations launched against them by Uzbek law enforcement and other authorities.
Gulnara's possible exit from the pool of candidates to replace Karimov increases the stability of the presidential succession process by reducing its unpredictability.
Uzbek security chief Rustam Inoyatov is likely to benefit the most from Gulnara's declining influence, as it removes an important impediment to his consolidation of power in possible preparation for a takeover by him. Due to his age, Inoyatov is unlikely to vie for the presidency himself, but his handpicked candidate is likely to continue Karimov's policies.
Family feud or staged show?
Starting from 14 November, boutique stores in central Tashkent allegedly controlled by President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara began to close as Uzbek law enforcement authorities launched investigations into alleged "violations of tax and custom legislation" in their operations. This is the latest in a series of recent steps taken by the Uzbek government that appear designed to marginalise Karimova on the domestic political scene. On 21 October, four TV channels (TV-Markaz, NTT, Forum TV and SOFTS) and three radio stations (Zamin FM, A'lo FM, and Terra FM) – all parts of the media holding Terra Group, which is associated with Gulnara – were closed down by the Uzbek Agency on Press and Information due to 12 different, mostly technical violations. Although media reports of Gulnara maintaining a controlling interest in Terra Group have never been proven, the media outlets it runs regularly promote her business interests. On 1 November, Terra Group's bank accounts were frozen. Before that, on 9 July, the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified its Swiss counterparts that Gulnara was no longer Uzbekistan's ambassador at the UN in Geneva, although no official reason was given. In turn, using her Twitter account, Gulnara presented herself as a victim of a smear campaign engineered by the Uzbek security service, stating in response to the media station's closure that National Security Service (NSS) head Rustam Inoyatov "has started his struggle to become Uzbekistan's next president". Gulnara's Twitter feed was subsequently suspended on 22 November.
Periodic commentary on developments in this apparent anti-Gulnara campaign has been appearing on the website of the exiled opposition group Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (Özbekistan Halq Hareketi: OHH). Particularly noteworthy are the detailed accounts produced by OHH's regular contributor from Uzbekistan, Usman Haqnazarov. This name is probably a pseudonym used by a group of opposition activists with close ties to sources within the NSS. Haqnazarov's report from 26 October, for instance, explains Karimov's feud with his daughter in terms of her ambitions to become the next kingmaker in Uzbekistan. Expressing sympathy towards her ambitions was most likely the chief reason for the arrest of Gulnara's cousin and prominent businessman Akbarali Abdullayev in Tashkent on 10 October. No official reason for his arrest has been given by the Uzbek authorities. Arrests also extended to more Gulnara loyalists, including her personal press secretary and Uzbek media mogul Firdavs Abdukhalikov, who was at one point announced as missing by his family and friends. Again, the Uzbek authorities have not released any official details of the arrests. A parallel investigation that focused on Gulnara's real estate acquisition had already resulted in a police raid of her properties in France during June. She has consistently rejected all allegations.
OHH leader Mohammed Solih offers an explanation for Gulnara's demise. Solih claims that Karimov staged this confrontation with Gulnara to launch comprehensive purges across the upper echelons of the government and smooth the path towards a transition of power. However, Solih's credibility is in doubt, as he was the one who actively circulated news about Karimov's alleged debilitating heart attack in March, which was subsequently disproved by the Uzbek president's visit to Moscow in April (see Uzbekistan: 17 April 2013: Uzbek president's Moscow visit disproves opposition claims of his ill health). Solih's scenario also does not merit much credence because it implies that Karimov maintains absolute control over Uzbekistan's government, whereas in reality power is diffused among key figures, including Inoyatov, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov.
Azimov came under Gulnara's criticism in late March, and Inoyatov has been regularly mentioned negatively in her Twitter postings. Gulnara's Twitter campaign has vilified Inoyatov and accused him of harbouring plans to seize power in Uzbekistan, although she has not presented any evidence to support such claims.
Outlook and implications
Gulnara's marginalisation is a risk-positive factor for the transition of power in Uzbekistan due to her unpredictability and possible presidential ambitions. As Karimov's chief intelligence provider, Inoyatov already enjoys unfettered access to the president, which is only likely to increase now that one of his rivals has been marginalised. Under one potential scenario, Inoyatov will gradually assume a more central role and engineer a political transition to his handpicked candidate once Karimov either steps down or is incapacitated through ill health. Given that the NSS has long eclipsed the Ministry of Internal Affairs in terms of influence and currently represents Uzbekistan's most powerful state institution, Inoyatov's ambitions appear feasible. The next presidential election in Uzbekistan is tentatively scheduled for 2015, but the consensus emerging in a growing number of Uzbek open sources indicates that Karimov, who turned 75 this year, is unlikely to participate.
Of the three frontrunners for Karimov's position, Inoyatov is probably the one who would be more likely to maintain the status quo by continuing the policies of his predecessor. Inoyatov is unlikely to assume the presidency due to his age (69), but he will probably exercise control through an installed ally. As the prominent representative of the ruling Jizzakh-Samarqand clan, Prime Minister Mirziyoyev is known for his brusque management style and nationalist views, which increases the likelihood of contract revision in extractive and other key sectors, including cotton and gas production. Azimov would be a preferred candidate within business circles because of his reformist credentials, which make it more likely that he will be willing to accelerate some of the much-delayed systemic reforms needed for transitioning the current command-style economy to one based on the free market. In this context, Gulnara's isolation reduces the levels of uncertainty in each of the three succession candidate scenarios described above.