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FILE PHOTO: Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivers a speech near a portrait of late President Islam Karimov during a mourning ceremony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 3, 2016. Georgy Kakulia/Press Service of Georgian Government/Handout via Reuters/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan's interim president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, looks set to become the Central Asian nation's second full-time leader since independence in an election on Sunday, facing timid opponents who have avoided any criticism of the government.
Mirziyoyev, 59, served as prime minister from 2003 under President Islam Karimov, who died of a stroke in September having run Central Asia's most populous nation, a former Soviet republic, with an iron fist for 27 years.
Indicating his status as the likely successor, Mirziyoyev was first named to head a commission arranging the funeral - a nod to Soviet-era political tradition - and then appointed interim president when the senate speaker, given that role by constitution, gave it up in Mirziyoyev's favour.
However, diplomatic and business sources have told Reuters that Mirziyoyev is not expected to have his predecessor's absolute powers, sharing them instead with Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and security chief Rustam Inoyatov.
This triumvirate structure has allowed Uzbekistan's elite to avoid conflict over succession, but also creates a future risk of destabilising infighting as some analysts think Mirziyoyev may eventually try to establish himself as the sole leader.
The predominantly Muslim nation's security and stability is seen abroad as important since it is a major exporter of cotton and natural gas, it fought an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, and thousands of Uzbeks are believed to have joined Islamic State militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Running against Mirziyoyev in Sunday's election are Khatamjon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov and Sarvar Otamuratov, the nominees of three parties present in parliament which bill themselves as opposition but have always toed the official line.
"There is no debate among candidates planned and their programmes do not appear to offer voters a significant range of alternative viewpoints," the observers mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in an interim report last week.
"Campaign discourse is dominated by a demand for continuity and stability during the unprecedented transition of power."
Despite pledging continuity, Mirziyoyev has announced plans for economic reforms, including a liberalisation of the tightly controlled foreign exchange market, and has acted to ease strains in relations with neighbouring Central Asian countries.
On the foreign policy side, his first meeting as acting head of state was with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and diplomats say ties with former Soviet master Moscow are likely to become closer under the new leadership.
In a meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu this week, his Uzbek counterpart Kabul Berdiyev praised Russia's military success in Syria and said Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, would increase military cooperation with Moscow.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Mark Heinrich)