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Uzbek president starts second term with controversial appointments

A flurry of appointments and reassignments have taken place in the last days in Uzbekistan following Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s victory in the presidential elections. Ministers, governors, and directors of public entities have changed jobs as the president starts his second term in office. But what does this mean for the future of the country?

On October 24, Shavkat Mirziyoyev won a second term as president of Uzbekistan. The result of the election was already known beforehand, with no genuine opposition being allowed to participate. One of president Mirziyoyev’s first relevant moves as he starts his second term has been to reshuffle the cabinet. While some of his moves reward loyalty of officials, others also raise questions, once again, about the reformist intentions of the government.

New appointments

There have been multiple reassignments. At the time of writing this article, three new ministers have been appointed in the last days. Behzod Musayev is now the Minister of Health having taken over from Abdukhakim Khadzhibayev, Sherzod Shermatov is now the Minister of Information Technologies and Communications having taken over from Shukhrat Sadykov, and Bakhtiyor Saidov is now the Minister of Public Education having taken over from Shermatov.

The appointments above were to a large extent to be expected. In these pandemic days, the post of Minister of Health is a hot seat not only in Uzbekistan, but everywhere in the world. Musayev’s predecessor, Khadzhibayev, had been serving as minister since November 2020, after three years as Deputy Minister of Health. In what is a clear demotion, Khadzhibayev will now be the deputy head of the Federation of Trade Unions.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications had been vacant since early November, when the minister was fired following the scandal on the blocking of popular social media. Shermatov is considered to be part of the “president’s team,” a group of young, foreign-educated officials loyal to Mirziyoyev that also includes the new Minister of Health. The substitution of Sadykov with Shermatov left the latter’s post open, which was filled by Uzbekistan’s ambassador to China, Bakhtiyor Saidov. But heads of ministries are not the only ones to have changed lately.

An important post in Uzbekistan is that of regional governor, or khokim. In this regard, Murod Azimov has become the new governor of the southern Kashkadarya region, taking over from Zoyir Mirzayev. Until now, Azimov had been the chairman of the Customs Committee. In the meantime, it looks like Mirzayev will be promoted by heading the Tashkent region. This follows the demotion of tthe current incumbent in Tashkent, Davron Hidoyatov, to governor of Chirchiq.

Undermining Uzbekistan’s reformist narrative

A couple of the appointments are a cause of concern, and those are Behzod Musayev (pictured above, left), new Minister of Health, and Zoyir Mirzayev (pictured above, right), new head of the Tashkent region.

Before becoming minister, Musayev was the chairman of the State Tax Committee, an organ of dubious reputation in a country with serious corruption issues (Uzbekistan ranks 146 out of 179 countries in the Corruption Perception Index). According to Ozodlik, while Musayev is well versed in financial matters and brings a significant degree of professionalism, he also plays an important role in the corruption schemes at the highest level of power. In addition, a decade ago Musayev fled to the United States, where he got political asylum, to avoid charges related to corruption.

Then we have the case of Mirzayev. Government officials in Uzbekistan, especially those hailing form the Islam Karimov era, can be notorious for their authoritarianism and bullying. This was the case with the former governor of Ferghana, Shuhrat Ganiyev, now Deputy Prime Minister, who despite his credentials was later praised by the president. Zoyir Mirzayev is no different.

Back in 2018, when Mirzayev was a Deputy Prime Minister responsible for agriculture, he went viral for the wrong reasons. An image appeared in the media of six men being punished by having to stand in an irrigation ditch with water up to their knees. Their fault? Poor harvests. The person responsible was Mirzayev, who shouted at them “if you can’t water the wheat, then I’ll water you!”, before they were ordered into the ditch. Later, another image appeared of men being forced to carry large rocks for the poor state of their fields. The media storm ended with his dismissal by president Mirziyoyev. But a year later he was named governor of Kashkadarya and now it would seem he is getting a promotion.

The appointments of Musayev and Mirzayev exemplify the main problems in the government that Mirziyoyev has not addressed fully since coming to power: corruption and authoritarianism. While Musayev may have good technical credentials, his main asset is his loyalty to the president, including his alleged role in corruption-related schemes. Mirzayev meanwhile is a classic example of what should not be permitted in this “New Uzbekistan”: a bully of a bygone era. But just as part of the reformist discourse is a façade, the same can be said of his dismissal, which resulted in his return to office when the media frenzy had died down.

Foreign non-expert audiences might be positively impressed by the country’s opening in the last years and its proactive role in international affairs, with the help of Uzbekistan’s PR. And rightly so. But it is in events like the new appointments to government posts, far away from the international headlines, where the narrative starts falling apart. Only once high profiled corrupt officials are side-lined and bullies are permanently dismissed, it will be possible to affirm with conviction that Uzbekistan is in a true path of reforms. But as time goes by, such a moment seems to be further and further away, like an elusive mirage disappearing in the sands of the Kyzylkum desert.

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