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After Uzbek President Islam Karimov was officially pronounced dead in September, Alisher Usmanov, a Russian billionaire of Uzbek origin, made several visits to his native country. This naturally prompted speculation that he might have a hand in shaping relations between Moscow and the new regime in Tashkent.
According to the Uzbek news site Uzmetronom—as well as data from online flight trackers—Usmanov’s private jet landed in Tashkent on a fairly regular basis this fall. His most recent visit coincided with a September 28 meeting in which representatives of Uzbekistan’s competing clans reportedly bid for their share of power under the new regime. Sources cited in a Reuters article from October claim Usmanov was at the meeting.
The fact that this speculation is even taking place speaks to the huge changes that Karimov’s death has wrought. Under Karimov, no one imagined that a Russian oligarch—even one ranked at 73 in Forbes’s global list of billionaires—would ever insert himself into an interclan standoff. The “father of the nation” was adamantly opposed to letting outsiders into his house, regardless of whether they were there for private or official business. Yet his successors, who lack his clout and experience, may feel support from a powerful fellow Uzbek could help shore up their legitimacy.
Likewise, all other things being equal, the Kremlin would probably not mind using Usmanov to advance its considerable economic interests in Uzbekistan. Russia is the country’s largest trade partner, accounting for 21.7 percent of its total trade turnover in 2014. About 2 million Uzbek migrants work in Russia, sending over $3 billion home to their families in 2015. Gazprom has also been active in Uzbekistan since its fallout with Turkmenistan in January—the gas giant is slated to receive 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Tashkent in 2016 rather than the planned 1 billion. Another Russian oil and gas major, Lukoil, began construction in April on a gas facility in the southwestern province of Bukhara whose final annual capacity will exceed 8 billion cubic meters. Moscow recently wrote off $865 million in Tashkent’s debt from 1992–1993, while Uzbekistan renounced its claim to a share of the former Soviet Union’s Diamond Fund, becoming the first post-Soviet republic to do so.
It would not be the first time the Kremlin had teamed up with a billionaire from a former Soviet republic to advance their common interests. In 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili, then a dual Georgian-Russian citizen, helped bring an end to the rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had made no secret of his disdain for Russia’s leadership. (Incidentally, Ivanishvili sold his Russian metallurgical assets to Usmanov in 2004.) In Moldova, businessman Renato Usatii appears to have a similar mission. In Azerbaijan, the so-called Union of Billionaires lobbied Russia’s interests for years.
Yet the effectiveness of these alliances has been debatable. The Georgian Dream coalition that Ivanishvili brought to power has kept the country on a largely pro-Western trajectory. Renato Usatii’s political career has been checkered at best, and Azerbaijan’s Union of Billionaires was disbanded last year.
The Kremlin would face additional obstacles to using Usmanov to lobby its interests.. He no longer works for a Russian state entity, having left Gazprom in 2014. He is not even a tax resident of Russia anymore, spending much of his time abroad. He does not seem to have any business interests in Uzbekistan—or much interest in business, period. Since leaving Gazprom he has taken a back seat in the management of his assets, devoting most of his time to sports (he heads the International Fencing Federation and co-owns Arsenal Football Club) and philanthropy (he was Russia’s most charitable giver in 2015 according to Bloomberg).
As far as Usmanov’s contacts with the Uzbek government, they almost certainly exist. Having served an eight-year prison sentence in the 1980s, he managed to have the Supreme Court clear his criminal record in 2000, something almost unheard of. (The details of the case are shadowy—he claims the case was fabricated for political purposes, but he is widely thought to have been convicted for embezzlement, fraud, and extortion.) He also has a family connection with Karimov’s likely successor, Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, although this link has become somewhat attenuated: Usmanov’s nephew and sole heir was married to Mirziyoyev’s niece until his untimely death in 2013.
Yet high-level contacts do not always equate to high-level political participation. In fact, the news site Uzmetronom suggests that Usmanov came to Tashkent on September 28 not for an inter-clan negotiation but for the wedding of the daughter of his personal chef. Also in attendance were pop stars Alla Pugacheva and Soso Pavliashvili, who reportedly accompanied him on the flight. Of course, Usmanov is a famed multitasker, and could easily have gone to the big meeting after dropping off his famous co-travelers. Yet apart from flight data, there are so far few signs that Usmanov’s various hats include serving as a Kremlin envoy.
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