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Shavkat Mirziyoyev: Uzbekistan's chosen one?

By AFP
media Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev attending a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Samarkand on September 3, 2016 SPUTNIK/AFP/File

As ex-Soviet Uzbekistan waits anxiously for a presidential vote following the death of Islam Karimov, one man has a clear lead in the race to succeed the long-reigning autocrat.

On Thursday, parliament appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 58, interim president, a move that appeared to violate the constitution.

Mirziyoyev led the committee that organised Karimov's September 3 funeral and has since held one-on-one meetings with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Uzbekistan, which has not held a free and fair election since independence in 1991 according to international vote monitors, has yet to set a date for the presidential vote, which parliament says has to be held within the next three months.

- Yes man -

In his post as premier since 2003, Mirziyoyev is depicted as having close ties to the Karimov's family and to key security bosses.

According to rights activists, the former governor of Karimov's home region of Samarkand has been in charge of making sure the country fulfils its annual cotton quotas.

That places him at the heart of an industry crucial to the national economy. Uzbekistan is one of the world's leading cotton producers and is accused of forcing over a million citizens, including children, to pick the cash crop each year.

Mirziyoyev therefore represents a "continuity candidate" unlikely to pursue systemic reform, according to analyst Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director of Eurasia for the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based pro-democracy non-profit.

"It may be precisely because he did what he was expected to do and always delivered that he has been groomed as Karimov's successor," Nishanov told AFP by telephone.

Mirziyoyev "was known as a guy who would not ask questions but just get things done."

- Russia's favourite? -

Mirziyoyev is also seen as a pro-Russian figure. He is related by marriage to the family of Uzbek-descended Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who is an ally of Putin.

Meetings broadcast on state television between Mirziyoyev and Medvedev on the day of Karimov's funeral and on Tuesday with Putin highlighted Moscow's keen interest in Central Asia's most populous country.

Karimov's Uzbekistan kept the Kremlin at arm's length, flirting with the West while walking out of a Russia-led security bloc and snubbing a Moscow-driven economic union.

Under Mirziyoyev, "it is likely that Russian influence in Uzbekistan will increase," Alex Melikishvili of the Washington-based research corporation IHS Markit told AFP, speculating Uzbekistan may seek more protection for almost two million Uzbek migrant labourers in Russia.

- A host of problems -

Whoever becomes Uzbekistan's next ruler faces the unenviable task of bringing the country's diverse political clans to heel while reinvigorating a state-driven economy that seems to be running out of steam.

If Mirziyoyev is elected, he must work out what to do with highly-regarded deputy prime minister and finance czar Rustam Azimov, who, like Mirziyoyev, was one of Karimov's pall-bearers.

Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political scientist based in France, believes there is a "natural rivalry" between the pair, who were often mentioned together as potential successors to Karimov while he was still alive.

Sorting out Karimov's divided family will be another concern after daughter Gulnara -- rumoured to be under house arrest -- failed to appear alongside mother Tatiana and sister Lola in state media broadcasts of Karimov's funeral.

"The honour of the Karimov family will most likely be upheld by whoever comes next, for the sake of the regime," said Rabbimov.

"Gulnara is another story. There is a consensus across the elite -- foremost among her mother and sister -- of the need to isolate her," Rabbimov said of the 44-year-old former pop star and parfumier once believed to harbour presidential ambitions.

There will be no quick fix for the economy however, which, despite rosy official statistics, has been badly dented by Russia's recession and a commodities slump, Rabbimov argues.

"The coffers are empty, migrant remittances from Russia have fallen massively, real unemployment is very high. The socioeconomic situation is dire, to say the least," he told AFP by telephone.

 
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