The recent turnover at the top of the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs is still generating talk inside Uzbekistan. On January 5, the National Information Agency of Uzbekistan (UzA) announced a presidential decree naming Bahodyr Matlyubov as the new Minister of Internal Affairs, replacing the long-serving Zakir Almatov (UzA January 5). Matlyubov previously had been chairman of the State Customs Committee. The personnel change is a major shakeup in one of the most powerful posts in Uzbekistan and may be indirectly related to Altamov’s handling of the Andijan massacre last May.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov frequently rotates government ministers and provincial governors as part of his efforts to prevent regional clans from solidifying their power base. However, the Matlyubov appointment is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, Internal Affairs is a particularly significant post. Second, the outgoing minister, Almatov, is an enigmatic figure whose sudden resignation last December surprised many observers (Uzbek Television Channel One, December 23, 2005).
Almatov had been a mainstay of the Uzbek hierarchy of power for over a decade. His record of 14 years as head of internal affairs is second only to President Karimov’s, who has run the country for 16 years (CentrAsia.org, January 16).
There are several possible explanations for Almatov’s remarkable longevity. First, the cadre rosters at the two key law-enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the National Security Service (SNB) have been unusually stable. Personnel rotations at other government ministries are much more frequent than changes in these two ministries. Moreover, the stability of these two positions is a peculiarity of the governance system nurtured by President Karimov. In Karimov’s mindset, changing the power structures would lead to instability in his government and could loosen Karimov’s own grasp on power.
Second, the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs has played a unique role in Uzbekistan’s history. Beginning in the late Soviet years, the police proved to be the only law-enforcement agency loyal to the republican leadership, while the KGB and Prosecutor’s Office were under the direct control of Moscow, as were the military divisions deployed on Uzbek territory. The MVD provided a key lever that helped Karimov smooth the transition from the Communist Party regime to a newly formed ruling regime. For example, the police played a key role in the crackdown on student protests in Uzbekistan at the beginning of 1992; their actions were specifically detailed in a report by Bahodir Faizi on an Uzbek opposition website in 2003 (UzbekistanErk.org).
The MVD also has been a leading force in maintaining political stability in Uzbekistan, based upon a specific interpretation of its mission. Karimov considers crime to not only be a major challenge to social tranquility, but also a form of civil dissent.
Third, Almatov expanded his influence beyond the MVD, taking control over Uzbek business structures and large-scale fund-raising activities, including bribery at all levels of the ministry’s hierarchy. He reportedly was also involved in drug trafficking.
The SNB was simultaneously moving in a similar direction. As a result, these two power-wielding institutions became the most powerful clans in Uzbekistan, commanding not only tools of coercion but also huge economic resources. They subsequently gained control over significant parts of economy and even several other powerful and lucrative governmental structures. The MVD traditionally controlled the Customs Committee and some local governments, while SNB ruled over the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, the Border Guard, and, to a certain extent, the Uzbek Army.
Why would President Karimov dismiss such a well-established and loyal minister? Much can be explained by the intense rivalry between the MVD and SNB that has been growing in recent years as both groups position themselves for power in post-Karimov Uzbekistan. The sway and influence of these two agencies are comparable. Both agencies purse two contradictory aims: one is to court Karimov by struggling for better records in fighting the regime’s enemies, and the other is to create a guarantee of survival in the post-Karimov era. In order to provide the latter, the agencies sought their own constituencies within the country’s political opposition.
This rivalry has spilled into cyberspace, with compromising materials posted on the Internet. One anonymous report, signed by the pseudonym Artur Kasymhodjayev, (posted at ErkinYurt.org and CentralAsia.org) elaborated on the mafia-like deals of SNB, while another series of anonymous reports, (posted at CentralAsia.org) by the fictitious Safar Abdullayev, claimed to disclose MVD plans for a coup against the state. The details presented in both reports suggested that the “authors” were acting on behalf of well-informed agencies within Uzbekistan, probably the MVD and SNB.
Karimov has directly encouraged this competition, at times deliberately stoking the hostility between these two clans, a strategy that helped create an internal system of checks and balances. But recently, Karimov began to see these two groups as threats to his own power, as he saw political ambitions emerging among his country’s top two power agencies.
Rumors of the imminent resignation of the MVD and SNB chiefs started circulating in early 2005 and it appears increasingly plausible that the upheaval in Andijan in May 2005 might be related to the complex political games played by the two rival ministries. Moreover, the events in Andijan may have simply sped up cadre changes already being planned by Karimov and that Almatov was simply the first to fall. The resignation of another long-standing Cabinet member, Rustam Inoyatov, SNB chief for the past 11 years, appears to be only a matter of time.