ALMATY The man poised to become Uzbekistan's next president will have to share power with two other senior officials because rival clans have been unable to agree on an outright leader, sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring told Reuters.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 59, became interim president last month after the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled the Central Asian state with an iron hand for 27 years. Mirziyoyev, who had served as Karimov's prime minister since 2003, is strong favourite to win a Dec. 4 presidential election.
However, the power-sharing arrangements which are now coming to light indicate that the succession has not been definitively settled, potentially spelling instability for the resource-rich nation that borders Afghanistan and serves as a bulwark against Islamist militants.
Two diplomatic sources and an Uzbek businessman, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, said rival clans had agreed that Mirziyoyev would be the public face of the Uzbek leadership with the title of president, but that he would in reality not be able to make independent decisions.
Both diplomatic sources and the businessman said the new power-sharing triumvirate also included Rustam Inoyatov, 72, Karimov's veteran security chief, and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, 58, who is also Uzbekistan's finance minister.
One of the diplomatic sources said representatives of the regionally-based clans which dominate Uzbekistan's economy and society had agreed at a meeting on Sept. 28 that Mirziyoyev would become president but with curtailed powers.
Mirziyoyev, Azimov and Inoyatov did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters. A representative of the Uzbek foreign ministry also declined to comment on the matter by telephone and did not respond to emailed questions.
Alisher Usmanov, a Russian metals tycoon of Uzbek origin who is a major shareholder in Arsenal soccer club in Britain, also wields influence in the new collective leadership, the businessman and one of the diplomats said.
The Uzbek businessman, who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, said Usmanov's private jet was now frequently seen at the airport in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Usmanov has homes in the suburbs of Moscow and in London.
According to plane tracking website Flightradar24, his Airbus jet was registered leaving Tashkent on Sept. 28 - the day of the clan meeting referred to by the diplomatic source who also said Usmanov had attended that meeting.
A source close to Usmanov, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the magnate had close ties to ruling circles in Uzbekistan. The source also said Mirziyoyev was close to Russia, the former colonial power which vies with the United States and China for influence in Central Asia.
Usmanov's press office said in response to Reuters' questions that he "does not participate in the political life of Uzbekistan".
"The publication of rumours on this theme is speculative and bears no relation to reality," it said in a statement. "Mr. Usmanov has many friends and relatives in Uzbekistan and is always ready to help the country. Mr. Usmanov wishes Uzbekistan every success and prosperity".
A representative of the Russian foreign ministry, asked about Usmanov's role in Uzbek decision-making, declined to comment.
Some political analysts say a collective leadership carries risks because the individuals involved in it were for years rivals under Karimov's rule and could fall out again.
In the Soviet political tradition - which still dominates Uzbek politics - collective rule arrangements such as those which followed the deaths of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin have usually ended with one member usurping power and getting rid of rivals, sometimes physically.
"Mirziyoyev will never become the father of the nation," said Alexei Malashenko, a scholar at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.
"But he is a very tough person and he may eventually seek to establish (full) control ... It is really hard to work with someone like Inoyatov behind your back, for years."
Inoyatov, a former KGB colonel, has run the security service for more than two decades and has long been viewed by diplomats and political analysts as the "grey cardinal" of Uzbek politics who has a say in matters beyond his field of responsibility.
Future disagreements within the triumvirate could destabilise the mainly Muslim state of 32 million people, which has become a target for Islamist militants, Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev said.
Unrest in Uzbekistan, a major cotton exporter that is also rich in gold and natural gas, would have repercussions for Russia, the regional power and home to hundreds of thousands of Uzbek migrant workers, and for the U.S.-allied government in Afghanistan, which is fighting its own Islamist insurgency.
"This would automatically increase security risks across the region and neither Russia nor China nor the United States want that," Satpayev said.
Other analysts disagree that the power-sharing arrangement may prove destabilising.
"I think all the stages at which internal conflict could occur have already been passed," said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political analyst who focuses on Central Asia.
"Inoyatov may hand over his powers to a successor, a younger general, in a year or two. But a link will remain between these three figures, symbolising the consensus of the elites and the chain of command."
Since Karimov's death, the new leadership has relaxed some of his most restrictive policies, among them a ban on several pop stars performing in Uzbekistan.
On the economy, Mirziyoyev has promised to liberalise Uzbekistan's notoriously byzantine foreign exchange regulations, one of the main headaches for both local and foreign businesses, but has so far given no details or timeline for such reforms.
In other moves likely to be welcomed by local businesses, the government has raised the price at which it buys cotton from domestic producers and has halved the percentage of foreign currency revenues that exporters of fruits and vegetables must sell domestically.
But the government has given no indication that it might allow any political liberalisation.
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Lidia Kelly in Moscow and Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty; Editing by Gareth Jones)