Keeping Up with the Karimovs

Why is Uzbekistan's pop star princess suddenly airing the dictatorship’s dirty laundry?

After 25 years under one notoriously brutal ruler, Uzbekistan is experiencing politics.

To be sure, this isn't politics as one might usually think of it: There are still no opposition parties allowed in the country, the media are still not free to report independently, and anyone who steps out of line is still likely to end up imprisoned, in exile, or dead.

The general thuggery of the regime isn't changing, but a certain kind of politics has nevertheless emerged in the form of an open competition for power between two leading regime figures: Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the dreaded secret police, the National Security Service of Uzbekistan (SNB), and Gulnara Karimova, international jet-setter, aspiring fashion designer and pop star, business magnate, and eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov. Two others -- Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- are also in the mix of possible contenders.

Karimova has recently been the center of the show, with numerous allegations thrown at her. Abroad, she had already lost her ambassadorial role in Geneva a few months ago, and she's been the subject of fraud and corruption allegations in France, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Back home, however, her world is now imploding. Prosecutors have arrested one of her close associates. The authorities have opened an investigation into the disappearance and alleged abuse of another former staff member who Karimova apparently believed had cheated her. She claims someone has beaten up some of her bodyguards. The government has seemingly frozen some of her bank accounts, and she is now reportedly forbidden to leave the country. And there are at least three separate official inquiries into her charitable foundations -- groups she often used to try to mask her reputation as what a U.S. diplomatic cable termed "the single most hated person in the country."

The force believed to be behind this unprecedented wave of attacks on Karimova is someone who could presumably challenge her for that ignominious title: Inoyatov, possibly in combination with her other rivals. As the president's chief enforcer -- the one who oversees Uzbekistan's vast system of political oppression -- Inoyatov might seem the least likely to turn on his boss's own flesh and blood. But this is precisely what's drawing attention.

There are three prevailing theories about what's going on. First, that the 75-year-old Karimov's health is failing -- which means that he may no longer be able to control competing elites like he used to. Rumors of his fading health have circulated many times before, though.

The second possibility is that Karimov finally learned what his daughter, "Googoosha" (his pet name for her and her stage name when she's singing), was getting up to abroad, prompting him to rein her in. Maybe he finally learned about the financial scandals in Europe. Or perhaps he found out she was chatting with human rights activists and journalists on Twitter -- a definite no-no in a country that doesn't allow foreigners to pry. Foreign correspondents can rarely get visas and have been deported when attempting to visit Uzbekistan. International human rights organizations are kept out; the country has repeatedly refused to allow visits from U.N. rapporteurs, and Tashkent won't even allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to operate normally. There's also speculation that Karimov was angered by his daughter's insatiable appetite for publicity. The president may have felt that her penchant for tweeting photos of herself in yoga poses and revealing clothing was unbecoming of an ambassador and first daughter.

The third theory is that it's all some elaborate ruse by father and daughter to test everyone's loyalty. Usman Haqnazarov, the pen name of an anonymous writer known for exclusive scoops on the ruling family, has asserted that the whole story is a stratagem to provide cover for "repatriating" Gulnara's ill-gotten gains directly back into state coffers. It sounds overly complicated, but some find it impossible to believe that Karimov is not ultimately behind every twist and turn in the country. He's been in absolute charge for the past two and half decades, after all.

But the ultimate reason behind the new split is less important than its visibility. Such an open rift among A-list elites has never happened before in independent Uzbekistan's leadership, which, like any authoritarian regime, abhors dissent of any kind (and especially so close to the top). This is new. And if you're an Uzbekistan-watcher starved for events and information, it's clearly a big deal.

Of course, this doesn't change the day-to-day reality for most people in the country. Dozens of peaceful opposition figures, human rights activists, and journalists are languishing in prison for no other reason than their peaceful civic activism. Several thousand more Muslims, but also many Christians, have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges for exercising their religious beliefs outside strict state controls. Nor is there any freedom of assembly. In 2005, government forces shot dead hundreds of mainly peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijan.

Torture in police custody and in the prisons is systematic. The story of a prisoner being boiled alive a few years ago is now legendary, but it's hardly unique. Just two months ago, for example, police in the city of Parkent continuously beat 24-year-old Zahid Umataliev on the legs, head, face, and body with rubber truncheons after charging him with stealing a cell phone. After he was sentenced to 15 days detention on fabricated charges of "resisting arrest," Umataliev was savagely beaten over the next six days to force confessions from him.

There's no freedom of speech. Independent journalists regularly end up in prison. In September, for example, authorities arrested Sergei Naumov, a journalist known for his independent reporting, under circumstances that appeared orchestrated to keep him from carrying out his work.

And then there's Uzbekistan's tradition of deadly forced labor -- including child labor -- in the cotton industry. Every year, the state forces millions of its own citizens -- students, doctors, nurses, and teachers -- to leave their families and spend several weeks living and harvesting cotton in the fields, where they're exposed to pesticides and extreme weather. They receive little to no pay for their work, while the elite gets rich from it.

The dispute we're now seeing between Inoyatov and Karimova is ultimately about control of this empire of oppression and spoils. In the absence of democratic institutions to resolve conflicts, the logic of authoritarianism allows little chance of compromise. It's strictly winner-take-all. Whoever wins, though, the sad reality is that Uzbekistan's people will continue to lose unless the new leader commits to making meaningful human rights improvements, including allowing meaningful political participation for the country's citizens.

It's extremely hard to imagine that secret police chief Inoyatov, or anyone he might back for the leadership, will ever make significant positive changes. Karimova also offers little hope. She may have tried to "talk torture" on Twitter last week in relation to her beaten bodyguards, but her complaints are hardly credible, particularly since she failed to speak about endemic torture in the country in several Twitter exchanges with us (here and here) when she was Uzbekistan's representative to the United Nations in Geneva, where the U.N. Human Rights Council is located. But she never answered the detailed letter we wrote to her, as she'd promised to do on Twitter, and never gave any indication that she was serious about improving the country's abysmal human rights record.

In short, in this battle for power, neither side's past record suggests that anything's going to get better in Uzbekistan any time soon. In fact, things could actually get worse.

Uzbekistan is a country locked down so tightly, where authoritarian unity under Karimov has been so unquestioned, that no one can say for sure what will happen now that these small cracks are appearing. Such division at the top is unprecedented, and it could give others ideas: People may see Karimov as on the way out, and power as up for grabs. If the Karimov family's rule is open to question, Inoyatov's may be as well. Radical ideas and armed insurgent groups are active in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Such a doomsday scenario may seem far-fetched at the moment. But when an authoritarian state starts unravelling -- particularly when its list of abuses is long and horrific -- it unleashes pent-up forces no one can predict. Who saw Syria coming?

It's another good reason the United States, the European Union, and other key states should publicly hold the Uzbek government accountable for its severe human rights abuses. For years, Washington and Brussels have mostly given Uzbekistan a pass, raising human rights concerns behind closed doors and lifting the limited sanctions they had placed on Tashkent in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, even as Karimov failed to make any meaningful improvements. He was seen as too useful to condemn too much, especially after 9/11 and the Afghan intervention made geography Karimov's best ally. He was seen as a "guarantor of stability" in the region. And that was certainly true -- insofar as stability meant one ruler keeping a lid on things no matter the method.

The problem is that the lid now seems to be coming off. While Washington and Brussels cannot predict or control the outcome of Uzbekistan's current experiment with "politics," they should do more to demonstrate publicly to the millions of ordinary Uzbeks watching this drama unfold, that human rights, not the name of the new ruler, will determine their relations with Tashkent.

Yves Forestier/Getty Images for Style.Uz Art Week


Large and In Charge

Why Xi Jinping's pooh-poohed third plenum reforms are actually a pretty big deal.

The Third Plenum ended in Beijing on Nov. 12, and observers in China and abroad are still scratching their heads over what, if anything, it achieved. Instead of the sweeping reform package many analysts expected from the crucial four-day Communist Party meeting, Beijing released a brief communiqué filled with gristly socialist rhetoric and lacking specific responses to China's many urgent economic and social problems.

On the surface, the plenum failed to answer the three key questions analysts have been asking since the leadership transition a year ago: Are President Xi Jinping and his six colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body, accurately diagnosing China's structural economic and social ailments? Do they have sensible plans for addressing these problems? And do they have the political muscle to push reforms past the state owned enterprises (SOEs), tycoons, local government officials, and other interest groups whose comfortable positions would be threatened by change? So far, the consensus answers to the first two questions are "we're not really sure," and to the third, "quite possibly not." Xi, the reasoning goes, either has a timid vision or is so hemmed in by special interests that he is unlikely to achieve much.

But this view is too pessimistic. The evidence from his first year suggests that Xi is far more powerful than his predecessor Hu Jintao, and is swiftly building the centralized bureaucratic machinery needed to overcome institutional resistance and achieve his aims, which include an ambitious revamp of China's governing structures. 

Despite all the hoopla, the plenum communiqué is just one of many bits of evidence indicating the leadership's intentions. Crucially, it is not even the most important document of this Party meeting. Far more illumination will come from the Central Committee's Decision on Reform, a detailed policy document approved at the plenum, which will probably be made public within a week or two.

While the contents of this year's Decision are still unknown, there is an instructive precedent: 1993's third plenum, overseen by reformer Deng Xiaoping, first released a bland communiqué. But soon after, Beijing issued a dramatic Decision, which set the stage for sweeping market reforms.

The plenum communiqué itself, despite its vagueness, gives hope that reform is forthcoming.

Most economic commentators agree China's principal problems -- declining productivity growth and exploding debt -- are both due in large part to the bloated SOEs, which gobble up a disproportionate share of bank credit and other resources but deliver low returns on investment.  

While the SOE problem is real, it is a symptom of a deeper issue: China's economic and social ills stem mainly from problems in governance. Beijing interferes too much in resource allocation; excessive regulation and local protectionism make markets inefficient; and a fouled-up fiscal system encourages local governments to indulge in land-grabs, promote speculative property development, and build excessive infrastructure. 

The communiqué identifies all these governance issues as reform priorities, calling for assigning the market a "decisive role in resource allocation" and improving the government regulatory system. These aims build on repeated statements over the past several months by top leaders that the functions of market and government should be more clearly delineated, and that market forces be given a freer hand. And one of the government's main policy initiatives has been to sweep away a host of regulations -- such as licensing and registered-capital requirements -- that impeded the formation of new private businesses.

Entrenched interests needn't worry. As has been the case since China embarked on market reforms in the late 1970s, the agenda of economic reformers is to boost competition, not sell off state enterprises. The logic is straightforward: in an increasingly competitive environment, poorly performing SOEs must either improve their efficiency or disappear (often by absorption into a larger, more profitable SOE rather than through bankruptcy). This erodes the economic role of SOEs while avoiding epic and costly political battles over privatization. The key insight -- validated by 30 years of dynamic economic growth -- is that effective competition, not private ownership, is the bedrock of a successful modern economy.

The communiqué also indicates that the leadership has more on its mind than mere economic efficiency, important as that may be. It points to the government reorienting away from building infrastructure and towards service provision, and promises reforms of the urban residence permit (hukou) and rural land tenure systems, which in their present form contribute to a chaotic and wasteful pattern of urbanization.

Xi appears to have a cogent diagnosis of China's governance problems, and a reasonably well developed strategy for addressing them. And there is good reason to believe he is building the infrastructure to deliver on his promises. The communiqué also announced the formation of two high-level bodies: a "leading small group" to coordinate reform, and a State Security Commission to oversee the nation's pervasive security apparatus.

At first glance, this seems a classic bureaucratic shuffle -- appoint new committees, instead of actually doing something. But in the Chinese context, it is potentially quite significant. In the last years of the Hu era, two entrenched problems stymied reforms: turf battles between different ministries and interference by security forces under their powerful and conservative boss, Zhou Yongkang. Neither Hu nor his premier, Wen Jiabao, was strong enough to supervise the squabbling ministers or quash the suffocating might of the security faction. By establishing these two high-level groups (and presumably leading them), Xi is making clear that he will be the arbiter of all disputes, and that security issues will be taken seriously but not allowed to obstruct crucial economic or governance reforms.

And by conducting a determined anti-corruption campaign, Xi has shown the costs of crossing him. The campaign has netted dozens of important officials, many of whom were closely aligned with Zhou, including a bevy of senior executives at China National Petroleum Corporation, one of the biggest SOEs, and the head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the agency which oversees SOEs. The message is obvious: Xi is large and in charge. Get on the wrong side of him or his policies and even the patronage of another senior leader or a big state company won't save you. Xi's promptness in dispatching his foes is impressive: both of his predecessors waited until their third full year in office to take out crucial enemies on corruption charges.

There is plenty of evidence Xi has an ambitious agenda for reforming China's economic and governance structures, and the will and political craft to achieve many of his aims. His program may not satisfy market fundamentalists, and he certainly offers no hope for those who would like to see China become more democratic. But it is likely to be effective in sustaining the nation's economic growth, and enabling the Communist Party to keep a comfortable grip on power.

Arthur Kroeber is the Beijing-based managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, a global macroeconomic research firm, and a non-resident fellow of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center.

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