April 26, 2017 / 1:02 PM / 4 months ago

Exclusive: Uzbek president sidelines member of ruling triumvirate - sources

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaks during a news conference following his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia April 5, 2017.Pavel Golovkin/Pool

ALMATY (Reuters) - Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new president of Uzbekistan, has moved to consolidate his power by sidelining a member of the triumvirate that has ruled the ex-Soviet state since last year, two sources familiar with the government told Reuters.

Uzbekistan, a major cotton exporter which sits on transit routes for natural gas shipped to China and Russia and has considerable hydrocarbon reserves of its own, has been in flux since Islam Karimov died last year after ruling for 27 years.

Mirziyoyev became president but effectively shared power with two other men - Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and Rustam Inoyatov, head of the SNB state security service.

But Azimov, a man long seen in the West as the standard-bearer for reform in Uzbekistan, has now been sidelined, said the two sources. The reform baton has been taken up instead by the president, who has decided to personally oversee a programme of cautious economic change.

That effectively leaves Mirziyoyev and security boss Inoyatov as the two men sharing power in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, potentially reducing the complexity of decision-making.

That could reassure foreign governments worried about the threat of instability in the mainly Muslim country, which borders Afghanistan. But there are tensions between the two remaining men in power.

Last month, sources told Reuters that Mirziyoyev, keen to prove himself a reformer, was at odds with the more cautious Inoyatov over the pace of economic liberalisation and, in particular, moves such as the introduction of a free float for the tightly-managed sum currency.

Mirziyoyev has spoken of the need for economic reform as well as steps to improve foreign ties, raising hopes of greater openness. Foreign diplomats say real progress towards reform is being made under him.

COMPETING POWERS

Major foreign firms were wary of investing in Uzbekistan under former president Karimov, while he had strained ties with Russia and the United States, the two powers that compete for influence in Central Asia. But investors see business opportunities if the country's new rulers adopt market reforms to replace the Soviet-style command economy.

Azimov, the man who has been sidelined, wielded considerable informal power. He was close to the late president and was the lead pallbearer, alongside Mirziyoyev, at his funeral last September.

However, since then, Azimov, 58, has been passed over for the post of prime minister and been replaced as Uzbekistan's representative on the board of governors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

A source close to the Uzbek government told Reuters Azimov's informal influence had also waned. Another source, a diplomat, said Mirziyoyev had supplanted Azimov by building his own team to oversee economic reforms.

Azimov has been tasked with what looks like less glamorous work - implementing a state programme to provide rural households with chickens and lemon trees.

Mirziyoyev has picked Sodiq Safoyev, deputy speaker of the upper chamber of parliament since last December, as one of the men who will lead reforms and attract foreign investment instead, said the diplomatic source.

The source said Safoyev, 63, who last month replaced Azimov in the EBRD role, has effectively become Mirziyoyev's main adviser on foreign affairs.

The Uzbek government, Mirziyoyev's office and Safoyev's office did not reply to requests for comment from Reuters.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche

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