ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev consolidated his power on Wednesday by sacking veteran security boss Rustam Inoyatov, who had been regarded as the second most influential official in the Central Asian nation after the president himself.
The move cements Mirziyoyev’s position as an uncontested ruler of the most populous nation in the ex-Soviet region where presidents-for-life are a norm and institutions such as courts and parliaments are under the executive’s thumb.
It may also allow Mirziyoyev to push through economic and administrative reforms more quickly - diplomatic sources have told Reuters that Inoyatov’s resistance had been slowing down moves such as foreign exchange liberalisation.
Mirziyoyev’s office said in a statement on Wednesday that Inoyatov was dismissed as chairman of the state security service because he had been named an adviser to Mirziyoyev - a position often given to retiring senior officials.
Inoyatov, 73, a former Soviet KGB officer, had led the powerful SNB security service since 1995 and was one of the closest confidants of President Islam Karimov who had run the nation of 32 million for more than a quarter of a century.
Karimov positioned himself as the protector of his nation against the threat of militant Islam, and Mirziyoyev’s SNB spearheaded the fight against religious militancy - which included bans on beards and on the use of loudspeakers by mosques to call worshippers for prayer.
Human rights groups have criticised Tashkent’s tactics as heavy-handed, accusing security forces of arbitrary detentions, abuse and torture - a charge the government has denied.
Crackdowns on alleged militants earned Uzbekistan a reputation as one of the world’s most repressive regimes and caused tensions with Western governments, leaving Tashkent in near-isolation.
Karimov died in September 2016 and Mirziyoyev, then prime minister, emerged as his successor.
Diplomatic and business sources told Reuters Mirziyoyev’s appointment as an interim president and subsequent nomination for full-time presidency were a result of compromise between various clans within the elite.
Despite getting the top job, sources said, he effectively shared power initially with two other senior officials who used to be close to Karimov - Inoyatov and deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov.
Mirziyoyev has since gradually sidelined Azimov and sacked him last June. He started chipping away at the powers of the state security service while also getting rid of Karimov-era holdovers in his cabinet.
In November, Mirziyoyev sacked Elyor Ganiyev, minister of foreign trade, who was described in a leaked 2006 United States diplomatic cable as “the pawn of senior officials at the National Security Service” run by Inoyatov.
Last month, Mirziyoyev said he would reform the intelligence service as it had become too powerful.
On Wednesday, he named Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, 51, a career lawyer who has until now served as prosecutor general, the new head of state security.
Since his election in December 2016, Mirziyoyev has implemented a series of reforms aimed at opening up the resource-rich nation and reviving its economy which had stagnated under a Soviet-style centralised command system.
He has also eased security policies, striking some 16,000 people off a blacklist of potential extremists and dissidents, and releasing several prominent political prisoners.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov in Tashkent; Editing by Maria Kiselyova, Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean