King Lear on the Silk Road? In Uzbekistan, a daughter’s antics challenge her dictator father

Sorcery, poisonings, and infighting pull back the curtain on politics in a country key to stability in Central Asia.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov gestures during a news conference in Tashkent in 2005. Karimov, a former Communist Party boss who has led Uzbekistan since the 1991 Soviet collapse is one of the most repressive leaders of former Soviet Union countries.

In Uzbekistan, a dusty, repressive former Soviet republic known for rampant child labor, ancient Silk Road cities, and one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, the woman known as Googoosha cuts a wide and public swath.

The eldest daughter of an aging dictator, the 41-year-old Gulnara Karimova is a glamorous fashion designer and former United Nations ambassador. She owns television and radio stations and exclusive nightclubs. She sings syrupy pop tunes and films videos with French film star Gerard Depardieu. A relentless presence on Twitter, she calls herself “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.” According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, she is “the single most hated person” in Uzbekistan.

Now, a very public spat involving Karimova, her father, and other top officials has opened a small window on the government’s internal dynamics, and the beginnings of a succession struggle. It’s a struggle that portends deep uncertainty in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a former US ally that is home to half the population of all of Central Asia and a resilient Islamic insurgency.

“It’s a question of stability in Uzbekistan, which determines the stability of Central Asia,” says Scott Horton, an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School and longtime observer of Central Asian trends. “To a large extent, what’s been happening in Afghanistan has been nothing more than a preface to the concern about Islamic radicalization of Central Asia, which is an important natural resource base for the world.”

Wedged between Afghanistan in the south, and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, Uzbekistan is home to the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and the Aral Sea, a once-vibrant body of water destroyed when the rivers feeding it were diverted for cotton production. Dependent on modest oil and gas reserves and cotton routinely harvested by young children, the country has been ruled by Islam Karimov, a former KGB chief, since the Soviet collapse. 

Islamic radicals gained a foothold in the 1990s, as violent radicalism spilled over from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A series of bombings and other incidents in the capital, Tashkent, were credited to various groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. IMU militants fighting alongside the Taliban were routed in 2001, when US forces invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Karimov became an ally of the US, allowing American troops to use a base in the south for Afghan war operations. However, the US and other Western allies soured on Karimov, as evidence mounted of rampant and brutal human rights abuses committed by government security forces targeting, among others, moderate Muslims. Some human rights groups documented evidence of people being boiled alive.

In 2005, government forces brutally suppressed an unauthorized demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan. Rights groups documented hundreds of deaths, and at least as many arrested. The government says only a few dozen died.  The chorus of Western criticism ultimately resulted in Karimov halting US military access, kicking out many Western-funded NGOs and slowing foreign investment to a trickle.

Against this backdrop, Gulnara Karimova rose in both visibility and wealth, holding ambassadorships in Spain and Switzerlandbuilding a network of business ventures in jewelry and cosmetics, and running a number of charity funds that most experts believe profited off her family connections. A US State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks in 2005 reported that Uzbeks, in addition to their hatred, perceived Karimova as a “robber baron.”

Earlier this year, Swedish investigative journalists pried open some of the details of Karimova’s dealings, alleging that she was personally involved in negotiating bribes paid by Scandinavian telecommunications giant TeliaSonera to gain access to the Uzbek cell phone market. Karimova has denied the allegations. Other investigations are reportedly ongoing in Switzerland and France.

In July, after Karimova was recalled from Geneva, observers speculated that her father’s allies wanted to rein in her public lifestyle. A businessman who is a close ally of Karimova was later arrested in Tashkent.

The family feud, meanwhile, burst into the open in September when Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, Karimova’s younger sister and the permanent Uzbek representative at the UN cultural and educational agency (UNESCO) in Paris, told the BBC that she hadn’t spoken with her sister in 12 years. Karimova-Tillayeva, who reportedly owns a multimillion-dollar mansions in Geneva and Beverly Hills, also suggested that Gulnara had little chance of succeeding their father.

In October, Karimova posted a note on her Instagram account, saying: “one part of the family (our father) 'provides', but the other destroys and is friends with sorcerers.”

Last week, Uzbek authorities abruptly closed down four TV stations linked to Karimova, which she later confirmed on her Twitter account. News reports said her holding company’s bank accounts had also been frozen.

One lurid account of Karimov’s inner circle – published last week on a web site by an exiled opposition figure – said that Karimova had openly embarrassed the powerful head of the country’s security agency over the arrest of a cousin. The report, which could not be independently verified, includes details of Karimov throwing an ashtray at his security chief, yelling at several top ministers and slapping his daughter.

After that report, Karimova appeared to compare her father to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and herself to Stalin’s doomed sons, quoting a line in a recent Russian TV miniseries: “Comrade Stalin has been, and is … and he is my father! And he will remain so until I die.”

Two days later, she alleged she was the target of an assassination plot, tweeting: "Already (they) tried to poison me, heavy metals like mercury… by the will of God, I have not been brought down, although I am still getting treatment.”

Expert watchers of Central Asian politics say the spat highlights the struggle over what will happen once Karimov leaves office or dies. He is believed to suffer from diabetes, and lacks a unified base of support among the clans that control different parts of the country and economy.

One veteran analyst, who asked to remain unnamed so as not to jeopardize access to top Uzbek officials, said Karimov was worried about who would succeed him, and the fight between Gulnara and the security chief might foreshadow the infighting that happens before Karimov’s term ends next December.

Another possible explanation, says Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College, is that the multiple criminal investigations in Europe have worried President Karimov ahead of the expiration of his term.   

“It’s possible that that this singular, despotic ruler is so incensed at her for opening up her vulnerabilities, these investigations, that he’s pretty much ready to throw her under the bus, and teach her a lesson,” he says.

“This will sorted out before the term expires and not afterwards… it’s no one interest to have a prolonged uncertainty or instability, whatever it is the plan will be hatched before the term is up,” he says.

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