Uzbekistan’s Spymaster Falls: What It Means For The Future
5 February, 2018

There were few photos of Rustam Inoyatov, the long-serving head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB). He seldom appeared in public. In many ways, he more resembled a historical figure than a modern politician. And yet his name was associated with some of the most severe human rights violations in the 21st century.

During his tenure, Uzbekistan imprisoned political dissidents, journalists, rights activists and Islamists. Torture was was widespread and routine. In 2005, Interior Ministry and SNB troops fired on protesters in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people (according to the Uzbek government’s official figure) or allegedly even 1,500.  

Now, however, Inoyatov has been sidelined. On January 31, he was removed from his post after 23-years in power. His ouster was a clear victory for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who assumed office in December 2016 and set about consolidating his power.

Inoyatov took control of the Uzbek security service in 1995, during the early years of Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet transition, when Mirziyoyev’s predecessor — President Islam Karimov — was consolidating his power. The Uzbek leader was seeking a strong figure with extensive political and social power to head the service, which he planned to make a powerful force in the country.

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Inoyatov served Karimov well — perhaps too well. The SNB “became so powerful that, at the end, it was actually capable of swallowing the presidency itself up,” says Navbahor Imamova, the editor of Voice of America’s Uzbek Service and an export on Uzbekistan’s politics.

But then, in September 2016, President Karimov died. Inoyatov — long considered a kingmaker and a “gray cardinal” in Uzbekistan’s politics — was viewed by many observers as one of the potential successors.

However, ultimately Mirziyoyev, then the prime-minister, was chosen to succeed Karimov. He began to institute reforms aimed at opening up Uzbekistan’s economy. He also began to criticize state officials — first local and then national ones — on state television. He sidelined several key officials and political rivals.

Then, in November 2017, Mirziyoyev began openly criticizing the SNB. He called for legislation outlining the SNB’s exact responsibilities and powers. Last month, he even announced that he would recall all SNB agents stationed at Uzbekistan’s embassies abroad. “The ambassador is the representative of the president,” he told an audience of Uzbek diplomats. “Nobody should be keeping tabs on him.”

Finally, in the crescendo of the transition from Karimov to Mirziyoyev, the Uzbek president removed Inoyatov from office. The old spymaster will now serve as an advisor to the president, essentially a retirement office for powerful officials.

But the news isn’t exactly what many Uzbeks wanted, Imamova believes.

“This is a painful compromise,” she says. “Not just for President Mirziyoyev, but for the people of the country because they know that under Inoyatov the National Security Service committed a lot of crimes, committed a lot of evil acts.”

“Just by letting him go, in the eyes of many Uzbeks, this is such injustice.”

/By Matthew Kupfer