Uzbekistan’s security services awoke Wednesday to news of a major shakeup in the powerful organisation’s hierarchy after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev dismissed its long-time security chief Rustam Inoyatov.
News of Inoyatov’s dismissal began circulating late Tuesday with Central Asia watchers speculating that the move was part of Mirziyoyev’s campaign to purge his government of rivals who oppose his attempts to break with certain policies of his dictatorial predecessor Islam Karimov.
Karimov headed the Uzbek SSR’s Communist Party apparatus during the twilight of the Soviet Union and later ruled the Central Asian country of 32 million people with an iron fist for over 25 years until his death in 2016.
Rumours of Inoyatov’s dismissal have circulated for months as government officials in the capital Tashkent have tried to reposition themselves within Mirziyoyev government.
According to human rights groups, the SNB – Uzbekistan’s powerful security services and successors to the Soviet KGB – helped build one of the world’s most repressive regimes during the Karimov era.
Led by Inoyatov, the leadership of the intel community lashed out at the presidency after Mirziyoyev announced in December that he planned to severely limit the SNB’s unchecked authority.
In an uncharacteristic move by a Central Asia leader Mirziyoyev publicly reprimanded his own intelligence community in front of foreign reporters for what he described as “a system of unchecked abuses”.
“The National Security Services (SNB) operates on the basis of a statute adopted by the government 26 years ago. We must reform this structure. The SNB should be a protector of our external and internal security,” Mirziyoyev told a gathering of lawmakers and foreign visitors in December.
Of the many changes, Mirziyoyev proposed at the December meeting was an immediate halt to the SNB’s ability to terrorise its own citizens through torture, wiretapping, executions, and forced disappearances.
“It is unacceptable to arrest people on the basis of false testimonies. Until investigators can prove a person’s guilt, they should not be placed in prison. We will investigative facilities with closed-circuit cameras,” said Mirziyoyev in December.
The SNB would also no longer have the authority to search or seize private property without a court order, a common practice under Inoyatov.
Witnesses who were present at the time of Mirziyoyev’s announcements claimed Inoyatov and his security service loyalists, who were present at the conference, were seen looking stunned by Mirziyoyev’s announcements, news out EurasiaNet reported at the time.
Inoyatov had served as the SNB’s security chief since 1995, after a career in the KGB where he spent a significant part of the 1980s as an intelligence officer during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The son of a KGB colonel, Inoyatov was a shadowy figure who was often described as a “hardline Stalinist”, he was blacklisted by the European Union in 2005 for his role in the violent crackdown of anti-Karimov protestors in Andijan.
The massacre saw up to 1,500 secular and religious protestors gunned down after Inoyatov and his equally ruthless counterpart and rival in the interior ministry, Zokir Almatov, sent troops into country’s Fergana Valley to break up the protests.
Uzbekistan, which had cultivated warmer ties with the West in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York, became a pariah-state after Andijan. The European Union and the US slapped most of the political, security, and security service leadership with crippling sanctions, including travel limitations.
Karimov and the SNB quickly flipped their allegiances from co-operating with the West in Afghanistan to taking a decidedly pro-Moscow stance and re-establishing close ties to Russia’s feared intelligence services – the FSB.
Despite being officially blacklisted by the EU, both Inoyatov and Almatov were allowed into Germany, when the former met with his German counterparts in the security services in 2008, and the latter was given a humanitarian visa for cancer treatment only eight months after the Andijan massacres.
The incidents were considered major embarrassments at the time for both Germany and the EU, with dozens of human rights groups and European lawmakers lodging formal complaints against the decisions to let Inoyatov and Almatov into the Schengen Zone.
Prior to Inoyatov’s ouster, Mirziyoyev did not appear to have the sort of political capital needed to remove such a powerful member of Karimov’s former inner circle. While Inoyatov’s departure has been officially listed as a resignation, his exit is a major shift in the balance of power in Tashkent.
Mirziyoyev will now be able to move forward with his plan to recall all SNB personnel from Uzbekistan’s overseas diplomatic missions and pursue his policy aimed at liberalising the government’s monetary policy and the eventual abolition of currency exchange restrictions – which had, until November 2017, been under the jurisdiction of Inoyatov and the SNB.
Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, Uzbekistan’s 51-year-old Prosecutor General, has been named as the new SNB chair. A veteran political insider, he has served in his current position since April 2015 and previously acted as a policy adviser and deputy justice minister for Karimov.