Reforms Reach Uzbekistan’s Most Formidable Bastion of Power

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 20

Former head of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov (Source: Sputnik News)

Rustam Inoyatov, until recently the head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (NSS), the local successor of the Soviet KGB, is possibly the second most durable senior official in Tashkent, giving way only to the late president Islam Karimov himself. Many other senior officials were promoted and eventually shown the exit over the past quarter century of Uzbekistan’s independence; but Inoyatov held on strongly to his position, avoiding a fall from grace in Karimov’s eyes.

Inoyatov came to head the NSS in the summer of 1995. The 14 years of his career before 1995 is unknown. During 1976–1981, he served at the Soviet embassy in Afghanistan, where his background as a Farsi linguist came in handy since the Soviet Union was in the midst of the protracted war (Kun.uz, January 31). Inoyatov’s time at the NSS is described by some local commentators as a period in which he singlehandedly ruled Uzbekistan as his own plaything; supposedly, even Karimov was powerless to confront him, while the rest of the government apparatus cowered around him. Whether or not that is actually the case, Inoyatov was undoubtedly the most powerful security official in the country until the end of January 2018.

Inoyatov’s NSS was tasked with a broad set of responsibilities: countering the intelligence activities of foreign states and organizations targeting Uzbekistan, protecting the country’s independence and constitutional order, ensuring its territorial integrity, as well as protecting Uzbekistani economic, scientific, technical and defense capabilities from illegal encroachments (Kun.uz, January 31). Because no clear limitations were established for the NSS’s jurisdiction to perform those tasks, the security service grew into a disproportionately powerful body. It regularly took on cases representing no direct threat to national security, such as hunting unorganized individuals trading foreign currency in Uzbekistan’s bazaars. Though, at the same time, it also pursued religious extremism, illegal drugs and human trafficking, border security, and international terrorism (cases for 2010–2017, as reported in Gazeta.uz, accessed February 7, 2018).

The 23-year-old decree that regulates the NSS and the service’s limitless power grew out of the arbitrary expansion of the definition of “national security” by the previous regime. President Shavkat Mirziyaev for the first time signaled his discontent with the security service during his state-of-the-nation address, on December 22, 2017 (Mediabay.tv, Uza.uz, December 22, 2017). A little more than five weeks after this speech, on January 31, 2018, Mirziyaev made a trip to the NSS headquarters, to address its employees (Gazeta.uz, January 31). In his remarks, Mirziyaev criticized the service’s subdivisions and territorial bodies as well as the lack of cooperation with other government agencies, hinting that the NSS may have encroached on the functions of other state bodies. However, the real purpose of the meeting became clear when the speech culminated with an unexpected announcement of Inoyatov’s departure.

With Inoyatov stepping down, the campaign of sweeping the carry-overs from the Karimov era might finally be concluding. The NSS was the last agency to hop on the reforms bandwagon. Changes being introduced by President Mirziaev will turn the NSS into a smaller body with less power, but more clearly defined responsibilities that will not overlap with the functions of other agencies (Gazeta.uz, December 31). Moreover, the service will now be accountable to the Senate, the upper house of the parliament, which grew by one additional member after Inoyatov was appointed a senator one day after his departure from the NSS (Kun.uz, January 23).

Ikhtiyor Abdullaev, who had served as Uzbekistan’s prosecutor general since April 2015, replaced Inoyatov as the new head of the NSS (Kun.uz, January 31). Background information about him is scarce. But what is known is that Mirziyaev is content with Abdullaev’s service and, as recently as two months ago, he praised him as “a good man doing good deeds” (Kun.uz, November 27, 2017). Mirziyaev’s intention to appoint Abdullaev to head the NSS stems from the president’s intention to transfer his management skills as prosecutor general to the NSS and bring the operations of the service back inside clear boundaries established by law. Abdullaev will clearly be busy with these tasks along with developing a new National Security Service Law, planned to be released by October 10, 2018 (Kun.uz, January 10).

The departure of Inoyatov was likely a relief to not only the population and rights activists in Uzbekistan, but other domestic government agencies because of the NSS’s de facto limitless abstract power. In retrospect, the departure of Inoyatov was inevitable given the sweeping reforms currently taking place in Uzbekistan (see EDM, January 19, 2017; September 12, 2017; January 11, 2018; January 17, 2018). But it was hard to imagine that the longest serving senior official of the most powerful security agency would easily step away from his job. Inoyatov’s departure occurred only five weeks after Mirziyaev delivered the first signals of his desire to reform the NSS. This quick turnaround likely also means that Inoyatov’s departure was consensual, as the country’s heretofore strongest security official apparently mounted no struggle or opposition campaign to his removal. Inoyatov, for his part, likely found it easier to leave with dignity rather than be forced to personally dismantle the machine he had built up for the past 23 years.