Uzbekistan unveiled new measures to combat corruption on January 4, seemingly a good sign for the new government of President Shavkat Mirziyaev. But then, on January 6, Salimbay Abdullaev, reputedly one of the leading figures in Uzbekistan’s organized crime world, was appointed deputy chief of the country’s National Olympic Committee.
Mirziyaev has made other controversial appointments and some other notable figures who had fallen from grace under former President Islam Karimov have also seen their fortunes rise since the new leader took over.
For those hoping Uzbekistan’s government would embark on a path of reform that would finally enable the country to start realizing its potential, these are discouraging signals.
So let’s look at who’s in and who got out.
Abdullaev, 62, says he is just a businessman, a successful businessman. He was a top wrestler and has always remained connected to the sports world, which makes him a suitable candidate for Uzbekistan’s Olympic Committee.
But when Abdullaev is mentioned in articles (outside of Uzbekistan, that is), there is invariably a reference to his alleged role as an underworld boss, a charge Abdullaev denies.
Whatever his business, he is known in Uzbekistan as a powerful figure, someone you don’t mess with. Prior to Mirziyaev’s election as president on December 4, 2016, a photograph circulated widely of Abdullaev wearing a T-shirt bearing Mirziyaev’s photograph with the words “My President” written on it.
Uzbekistan’s new prime minister, as of December 14, 2016, is Abdulla Aripov. Very shortly after he became interim president in September 2016, Mirziyaev appointed Aripov to be deputy prime minister in charge of youth affairs, culture, and information systems and telecommunications.
That was essentially the same position Aripov had occupied before. Aripov was in charge of information systems and telecommunications from 2002 to 2012.
But in 2012, foreign telecommunications companies connected to former President Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, were under investigation over hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal financial actions. The companies had won contracts in Uzbekistan when Aripov was the head of telecommunications in Uzbekistan.
One of the companies was Sweden’s TeliaSonera, which would later admit to having paid bribes for contracts.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, interviewed Gunnar Stetler, the head of the department on battling corruption in the Swedish Prosecutor-General’s Office. He said Aripov’s signature was on many of the documents connected to the investigation of TeliaSonera.
Welcome back also to Kazim Tulyaganov.
Two days after the presidential election, Mirziyaev appointed Tulyaganov to be the head of the state committee for architecture and construction. That means he is in charge of anything that will be built in Uzbekistan.
Tulyaganov was the mayor of Tashkent from 1994 to 2001, then first deputy prime minister until January 2004, at which time he returned as Tashkent mayor. In 2006, he was charged with economic crimes and given a 20-year suspended sentence and the court ordered him to return $1.3 million to the government.
Presumably, Mirziyaev pardoned him for those crimes, though that is not clear.
Ulughbek Rozikulov kept his position as deputy prime minister when Mirziyaev took over. Rozikulov’s role in the GM Uzbekistan scandal in 2016 has never been clarified, although it seems no one is really looking into that anymore.
Rozikulov, besides being deputy prime minister, is also the head of Uzavtosanoat, the automobile production industry.
When former President Karimov paid an official visit to Russia in late April 2016, he learned that vehicles intended for sale in Russia were not arriving at their destination. An investigation started as soon as Karimov returned and the head of GM Uzbekistan, Tohirjon Jalilov, was taken into custody. But there were never any reports that Rozikulov, despite his position overseeing Uzbekistan automotive production industry, had fallen under suspicion of any wrongdoing.
Jalilov was released from custody on September 20, 2016, less than two weeks after parliament named Mirziyaev interim president.
Also released from detention was Mirodil Jalolov, the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax. Zeromax was registered in Switzerland, where coincidentally Gulnara Karimova spent much of her time. Zeromax was notable for being the only Western company to receive service contracts in Uzbekistan’s oil and gas sector.
Zeromax was closed in May 2010 and that September Jalolov was arrested for economic crimes but never jailed. He remained at his home until Mirziyaev came to power, then Jalolov was taken into custody until January 4, when a court ordered him released.
Gafur Rahimov, an alleged drug kingpin who is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list, was reportedly taken off Interpol’s wanted list in mid-September.
It is unclear where Rahimov is at the moment, but he had been living outside of Uzbekistan for the better part of the last decade.
Other people with shadowy pasts have occupied positions at lower levels in the government: district chiefs, mayors, etc.
The few inside who will comment on these appointments — under condition of anonymity, of course — say these newly appointed officials proved their loyalty to Mirziyaev during the years that Karimov was in power.
While that may be true, the presence of such people in positions of authority in Uzbekistan will not help the country’s badly tarnished image. It won’t help Uzbekistan attract foreign investment either, something the new government has already signaled would be a priority to help Uzbekistan’s flagging economy. These appointments also dampen any hopes for positive change in Uzbekistan anytime soon since loyalty, not ability, is what Mirziyaev apparently values.