oDR: Investigation

Uzbekistan’s energy crisis reveals authoritarian habits die hard

Presidential chief had energy official arrested without due process in efforts to tackle gas shortage, sources claim

Kamil Mamedov
24 January 2023, 3.12pm

State energy official Muzaffar Aliyev in handcuffs after his arrest in December

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UzA

Insiders have shone a light on the shadowy workings of Uzbekistan’s presidential office during the country’s ongoing energy crisis, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Two Uzbekistan government sources have told openDemocracy that Sardor Umurzakov, the head of the country’s presidential administration, ordered the immediate arrest of a senior energy official who was present at a high-level government meeting in December.

“Those who got us into this situation will not come out of it untouched. Several of them are sitting here among us,” Umurzakov had said in a previous meeting two days before the arrests, which came as people across Uzbekistan lost gas and electricity during extremely cold weather.

Umurzakov, 45, who has been tipped as a possible candidate for the presidency, was apparently angry at the way officials had been dealing with Uzbekistan’s severe energy shortages.

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“If the responsible persons in other regions… permit further law-breaking, then they will definitely face a criminal investigation,” he continued during the meeting days before the arrests, according to openDemocracy’s sources.

The presidential administration of Uzbekistan denied the sources’ allegations, telling openDemocracy that Umurzakov had neither “directly or indirectly ordered the arrest” of the official. The arrest, it said, was conducted by the General Prosecutor’s Office.

A combination of cold weather and import shortages linked to soaring Russian gas prices has left people across the country with no heating over the past month.

Gas and electricity cuts have even affected the capital, Tashkent, which has been spared during similar crises in the past.

“Those people cooking over an open fire outside at night in Tashkent because there is no gas or electricity want to see someone punished,” said Bruce Pannier, a journalist with 35 years of experience covering Central Asia.

More officials seen as responsible for the crisis faced reprisal last week. The mayor of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s deputy energy minister, the head of a power station network and several local officials in the capital were fired for failing to prepare properly for the energy shortages, in the president’s view. Public anger over the situation also reached new levels.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered Uzbek law enforcement to investigate these officials – including Tashkent’s mayor, businessman Jahongir Artykhodjaev – over the ongoing energy crisis.

The government’s response to the energy crisis has been marked by dismissals, arrests and threats of investigation

“This is not an unusual pattern in the decision-making of Uzbekistan’s leadership. Every time any major crisis happens, we see that the people who were responsible for avoiding the crisis lose their jobs,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“What’s unusual is that this is happening at such a high level. Artykhodjaev was originally made mayor of Tashkent by the president himself,” Umarov said.

But beyond the president, it is Sardor Umurzakov who is at the centre of the authoritarian government’s response to the energy crisis, which has been marked by dismissals, arrests and threats of investigation, sources told openDemocracy.

Pannier told openDemocracy that Umurzakov appeared to be taking on the role of the president’s “enforcer” – a role that Mirziyoyev played when prime minister under Uzbekistan’s former hardline ruler, Islam Karimov.

Having an enforcer is particularly important, Pannier explained, as Mirziyoyev is preparing to pass legislation that will allow him to run for two more seven-year terms as president.

“Mirziyoyev needed someone who could keep order while [the government is] moving towards these amendments to keep him in power for another 14 years,” Pannier said. “Umurzakov’s job seems to be the ‘attack dog’ for Mirziyoyev.”

The amendments were released to the public in June 2022, one month before Umurzakov was appointed – leading Pannier to believe that the timing “cannot be a coincidence”.

The presidential administration rejected the ‘enforcer’ comparison, calling it “absurd”. The roles and responsibilities of the prime minister (Mirziyoyev under Karimov) and head of the presidential administration (Umurzakov under Mirziyoyev) are “essentially distinct”, the administration said.

Rise to power

Umurzakov’s rise from trade minister to deputy prime minister to head of the presidential administration in the space of just a few years is part of President Mirziyoyev’s drive to modernise and reform the governance of Uzbekistan.

A crucial part of Mirziyoyev’s agenda has been appointing a younger generation of managers and administrators – including Umurzakov – to top posts, in order to bring new energy and ideas to the administration.

Umurzakov’s father, Uktam, was a renowned academic who became the rector of the prestigious Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanisation Engineers. Uktam was a long-time friend of Mirziyoyev, who studied at the institute.

His son, Sardor Umurzakov, who also represents Uzbekistan on the boards of several international investment banks, appears to fit the bill of a Western-oriented liberal. He studied banking at the University of Reading in the UK before working at the National Bank of Uzbekistan, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and Uzbekistan’s treasury. He was appointed head of the presidential administration in July 2022.

Sardor Umurzakov

Sardor Umurzakov, head of Uzbekistan’s presidential administration

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CC BY-SA 4.0

Umurzakov has made headlines in Uzbekistan for his tough treatment of wrongdoing by public officials. These range from announcing the firing of five regional governors (khokims) for an alleged abuse of power during a single meeting last September to reports of threats of criminal investigations to gas officials over their treatment of small business owners.

“Our respected president has made a decision,” Umurzakov told one regional governor during the September purge. “First, you will be removed from your current post. Second, your actions will be given a legal evaluation. Leave the room.”

The presidential administration told openDemocracy that Umurzakov had “announced the decisions of authorised bodies” rather than ordering the dismissals of the regional governors himself.

Under Uzbekistan’s law on local government, the administration said, Umurzakov “has no authority to fire khokims”, but can initiate reviews of their performance and hold them accountable.

Greenhouses scandal

In October, a leaked audio clip circulated in which Umurzakov appeared to threaten criminal investigations against officials and energy company managers after hundreds of greenhouses were disconnected from gas supplies, causing a public scandal.

“If there is even the slightest sign of a crime, you will prosecute them without asking. Within the law,” he reportedly said during the meeting with ministerial colleagues, calling the officials’ behaviour a “threat to national security”.

The presidential administration said the clip was “taken out of context and does not represent the full picture”.

Given that the situation “jeopardise[d] approximately 10,000 jobs”, the administration said, during the meeting Umurzakov “advised relevant authorities to conduct a legal evaluation of the actions of the regional leadership of [state gas company] ‘Khududgaztaminot’ solely within the confines of the law and to bring them to justice if signs of a crime are found in their actions”.

He did so after President Mirziyoyev “learnt of the displeasure of business owners” and “directed the head of the [presidential] administration to look into the matter”.

People don’t really have any say in how officials come to power… so when they get toppled, the general feeling is: good, they deserved it

Pannier told openDemocracy that “suspicion and dislike of public officials are prevalent in Uzbekistan.”

He added: “People don’t really have any say in how officials come to power, they can’t really influence their behaviour, so when officials get toppled, the general feeling is: good, they deserved it.”

Two of Umurzakov’s former employees in the foreign affairs and trade ministries, who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity, commented that threats of criminal investigations fit into Umurzakov’s management style – and that he was an “ambitious grey cardinal”.

The two sources claimed he would hold meetings at the ministries that lasted for hours, while pressurising and humiliating civil servants, including verbally abusing them.

The presidential administration told openDemocracy that Umurzakov had “not used coercive or brutish tactics of persuasion during his career” and that “these statements do not correspond to reality”.

“Mr Umurzakov is regarded as a highly cultured individual and exceptional public worker,” the administration said.

Arrested on the spot

Umurzakov’s attempt to enforce accountability was in stark evidence in December, when abnormally cold temperatures and supply problems were leading to energy outages and heating-gas shortages for homes and companies across the country, including in Tashkent.

These shortages come after decades of neglect, with little investment in Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era energy networks. At times of heightened use, especially during the freezing winter months, energy provision could often depend on connections with the local authorities. The presidential administration told openDemocracy that 192 instances of malfeasance had been reported in the country’s energy management systems “in the past few months alone”.

Pannier said: “This is the third year in a row when Uzbekistan has had major problems with the distribution of electricity and gas during one of the coldest times of year.

“The crisis is doing damage not only to people at the heart of the country, but also the reputation of President Mirziyoyev – who’s been promising them a new, great Uzbekistan.”

On 11 December, Umurzakov held a meeting about the country’s gas supply problems with representatives of ministries and local government offices, as well as Uzbekistan’s deputy general prosecutor, Erkin Yuldashev.

According to the two sources with knowledge of the meeting who spoke to openDemocracy, Umurzakov requested that Yuldashev give a report on criminal investigations into the energy supply situation.

The sources claimed that Yuldashev said the deputy head of the Tashkent branch of Khududgaztaminot, the state gas company, was under investigation. Umurzakov then reportedly asked about the head of the Tashkent branch, Muzaffar Aliyev – who was present at the meeting.

Learning that the top manager was not being investigated, Umurzakov ordered that Aliyev be immediately handcuffed and arrested, according to the two sources.

Later that day, the general prosecutor’s office released a statement on the arrests of energy officials, including a photo of Aliyev in handcuffs – which went viral on social media. Aliyev was charged with abuse of power. According to a source with knowledge of the matter, during the meeting Umurzakov expressly demanded that photos of Aliyev in handcuffs be distributed to the media.

For a pre-investigation arrest to happen, Uzbek law requires a pre-investigation inspection, investigation or an arrest order from a court.

openDemocracy could not independently confirm whether this procedure was followed in the case of Aliyev.

The presidential administration refuted the sources’ version of events, and said that Umurzakov had neither “directly or indirectly ordered” the arrest of Aliyev.

It stated that the General Prosecutor’s Office “presented information regarding the arrest” of Aliyev during the meeting.

“Compliance with the procedure for arrest authorisation falls under the jurisdiction of the competent law enforcement and judicial agencies,” the administration said, noting that a court order had removed Aliyev from office.

Likewise, the administration stated that Umurzakov was “still attending” the meeting in question when the photograph of Aliyev’s arrest was published online, and did not order the photograph to be released.

On 18 January, Uzbek media reported that Aliyev had been granted bail.

New regional role

Two months ago, in another move that suggests Umurzakov’s ambition, the presidential administration introduced a new position within the country’s dozen regional administrations: assistant to the head of the presidential administration.

These new assistants are embedded in public reception offices, which are designed to solve citizens’ problems. The assistants have been given the authority to pass official complaints by citizens against local officials on to the courts, which can hold officials accountable for administrative violations. Regional administrations tend to have a poor reputation for solving citizens’ problems.

Pannier tied Umurzakov’s role to the president’s planned constitutional changes. “Mirziyoyev does not need things happening in the country that hurt his personal image right now,” he said.

“When there were problems in the regions, Mirziyoyev would travel there, as Karimov’s enforcer, and threaten people with severe repercussions if they didn’t get in line,” said Pannier. “Umurzakov might be the new Mirziyoyev.”

Temur Umarov told openDemocracy he believed that “there is a huge level of trust between Mirziyoyev and Umurzakov”, and that the ‘enforcer’ parallels between Umurzakov’s role today and Mirziyoyev under Karimov are “convincing”.

The presidential administration said that “numerous previous and current colleagues of Mr Umurzakov can attest to the fact that, as a seasoned and experienced manager, he encourages principled negotiations that might be sometimes tough on the merits but always gentle on the participants”.

Thomas Rowley contributed reporting for this article

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