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Rustam Azimov: “I Break You.”

 It is all over bar the shouting in Uzbekistan, or so we are increasingly being led to believe.

Islam Karimov will be succeeded by his deputy prime minister, Rustam Azimov.

It is a dismal realization on a number of counts. For over two decades, Azimov, a largely Soviet-engineered bureaucrat born in 1958, has been a major decision-maker in Uzbekistan’s economic policy.

As the head of the National Bank of Foreign Economic Activity until 1998, he ensured the emphasis on securing international credit for the regeneration of the country’s industrial sector, eschewing credit for food and commodities. It was through him that hundreds of millions of loans from the EBRD and Asian Development Bank flowed into Uzbekistan.

In October 1998, he was appointed Finance Minister. Since that time, he has in some capacity or other been a leading figure in the nation’s economic policy decisions, much of them of his own device.

And as the ever dependably scurrilous U.S. diplomatic cables inform us, Azimov also made sure to benefit personally, along with presidential daughter and presumed political rival Gulnara Karimova. One cable from 2007 has Azimov leading the seizure of U.S.-based gold miner Newmont Mining Corp. and Israeli chemicals company Metal-Tech Limited.

Uzbekistan has been defying all expectations for years and posting robust economic growth figures, all while fuel and currency shortages abound and unemployment drives millions abroad. Azimov has consistently been the face of economic good news. If GDP growth is reported to be at typically high levels, it is Azimov that will likely be telling you about it.

In November 2002, it was Azimov that told Uzbekistan that on advice from the IMF, the government would be reducing import duties on cosmetics to 20 percent, from 30 percent. Going after the female vote perhaps?

Azimov has also been the Uzbek face that U.S. officials have come to know. A high-level delegation visiting Washington in November 2001, significantly only two months after 9/11, was headed by then (and now) deputy prime minister Azimov.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher spoke at the time of a “qualitatively new long-term relationship.” He also talked about how the United States and Uzbekistan agreed on the need to “combat terrorism, eradicate social, economic and financial sources of extremism, maintain peace and stability and strengthen security in Central Asia.”

The script has remained virtually unchanged, leaving U.S. diplomats to the important business of dancing, red-faced, at public events.

The range of meetings during that trip indicates the level of influence that Azimov wielded even then that he could be trusted with such a broad portfolio of responsibilities. Offices visited in DC included those of the National Security Council, the State Department, the Treasury, Defence, Commerce and Agriculture Departments, the Export-Import Bank, the Trade and Development Agency, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

(Azimov was accompanied on that trip by Defence Minster Kadyr Gulyamov, who would be fired from his job in late 2005, a few months after the bloody events in Andijan. Gulyamov was later sentenced to five years probation for disclosing state secrets to a foreign government).

Ever the master of securing foreign financing, Azimov came back with a pledge of $100 million from the U.S. government as “aid for ensuring security.”Ahead of Islam Karimov visiting Washington in March 2002, however, Azimov told The Washington Times in an interview that Uzbekistan would seek no compensation for its security assistance as “our understanding is that we are allies and we should go together in this war — this is not a business for us.”

He must still be laughing about that one to this day. About the only thing he laughs about, if his hatchet-faced demeanour is anything to go by.

Azimov is also talked about as a reformer, although there is relatively scant evidence of that in what remains perhaps the most state-dominated economy in the former Soviet Union with the exception of Turkmenistan.

Arguably, he was a driving force behind Uzbekistan’s eventual decision to follow IMF advice on making the currency convertible in 2003 in an effort at attracting foreign investment. But in truth, the situation with hard cash remains as erratic and inflexible as it was then and has been in permanent flux.

In the brief liberal spring between 9/11 and Andijan now mourned by Karimov cheer-leading U.S. academics like Frederick Starr, Uzbekistan even slashed the size of its civil service in a supposed effort to reduce the role of the state.

In a July 2005 television appearance, Azimov told viewers to disregard foreign media naysayers over the country’s economic policies, insisting that their criticism was designed (under orders from unspecified agents) to sow “disorder, instability, social conflict and confrontation in Uzbekistan.”

Indeed, the Uzbek growth puzzle has long been something of a confounding mystery to experts at the IMF, whose guidance many would now agree succeeded only in propelling Russia into default in 1998.

That, said Azimov, was not an experience that Uzbekistan wished to replicate. It is, of course, arguably easier to administer crises in a police state.

Following Karimov’s re-election to a third term in December 2007, Azimov was named first deputy prime minister in a Cabinet reshuffle and began being more widely spoken about in analyst circles as potential successor material.

Azimov has operated in a consistently dull fashion, without fanfare, which will have endeared him to his supremely paranoid and dour superior, but has recently attracted press attention about his possible future.

When he makes the news, it is when he is meeting dignitaries from Arab states, South Korea, China, and whichever other nations still enjoy halfway cordial ties with Uzbekistan. How surprised he must have been then to find himself on the receiving end of a barrage of brazen allegations from Gulnara Karimova, which has kindled idle chatter about power struggle.

Still, Azimov’s star is in unquestionably in the ascendancy.

Despite increasing evidence the economy is in a state of permanent funk (official figures notwithstanding), Ferghana pointed out in a piece in December that Azimov was still being entrusted to head a state commission on optimizing the structure of government.

The website speculated that this might prove a perfect opportunity for Azimov to cull opponents, while drafting in his own people.

While the balance of power remains to all intents and purposes in the president’s hands, significant authority was handed to the executive under 2011 constitutional reforms that may one day come to be seen retrospectively as a piece of the succession puzzle.

Under one strand of the reforms, the president was denied the privilege of forming and heading the executive. The prime minister is now appointed by a political party in parliament – a kind of five-year special needs retreat camp.

The design could, depending on how you choose to look at it, be intended to acquit numerous functions. On paper (which means little, in fact), the powers of the presidency are substantively watered down, making the position all the less succulent for hopeful contenders unsure of whether they will have the muscle or the numbers to wield the requisite authority.

It is hard to credit the Uzbek regime with this much elegance, but this Chinese torture puzzle appears to consolidate Karimov’s position by making his position nominally less powerful.

The prime minister also acquired other powers, such as the privilege of proposing the appointment and dismissal of regional heads of administration. While the extent of regional power distribution is debatable (as in, there is no such thing), this detail still marks a major symbolic upgrade for the executive, of which Azimov forms a vital part.

Of course, Azimov is not the prime minister, which makes these relevance of these reforms slightly, but not completely, moot. But his not having scaled the heights of PMdom may be for the same reason that no head of cattle rushes to the front of the line at the abattoir.

The big minus sign against Azimov is his flagrant bloodlessness and apparent lack of imposing character. Karimov’s own experience shows that utter lack of charm does not count against you in Uzbek politics, but you could hardly accuse the man of a lack of presence of sorts. Albeit it is the kind of presence that might compel you to fill your underpants were you to meet it in a dark alleyway.

Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev is inevitably one of the oft-named presidential contenders, but that will only remain the case as long as he can absolutely guarantee that the remainder of his time at the helm is marked without a single major crisis or scandal. Some reports suggest he is not even after the presidency at all, and that he has his eye on the Tashkent province governor’s job, for whatever reason that might be.

Before the gambling shops are tempted to close the books on this, there are another couple of options. One is led in this game to speculate that one scenario sees Gulnara Karimova carried into power, presumably on the authority of her father’s name and the shoulders of her dimwitted admirers.

Anybody who believes this, and there is no point being mealy mouthed about this, is an idiot. Karimova indubitably warrants rich psychological study, being that she is absurd and cunning and stupid in such extraordinary and seemingly contradictory ways. Her legendary venality and vanity is ancient Roman in its decadence. She is a latter-day grotesque – her idiocy is a vigorous insult to every person alive and dead that has ever contributed to human knowledge and understanding. As cruel and spiteful as Karimov may well be, it is undeniable he has persistently evinced a degree of institutional responsibility in his own way. There are absolutely no grounds to believe he would want his cretin of a daughter to be his legacy, about which he must care, unless he is such a hidebound nihilist that he relishes the thought of his country imploding in a sickening crunch of blood, feathers and sequins upon his demise.

For want of names, another one bandied about is that of Karimov’s son-in-law (his wife’s sister’s son), Askar Abdullayev, who is also said to control swathes of the economy and wields particular influence in the populous Ferghana region.

But this is all just to keep the game interesting, because Azimov is the man. Right?