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Gulnara: Groomed For Greater Things?

  • Daisy Sindelar

Uzbekistan's first daughter Gulnara Karimova can tweet, sing, stretch, style, and oversee her family's massive fortune. But can she rule the country?

Uzbekistan's first daughter Gulnara Karimova can tweet, sing, stretch, style, and oversee her family's massive fortune. But can she rule the country?

Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is adept at skirting pointed questions.

She's repeatedly stalled on a public promise to address her country's abysmal rights record. And December 20, during a tightly orchestrated press conference in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, she played coy when asked if she was mulling an eventual run for the presidency.

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you're going to do five minutes from now," she replied, repeating an Uzbek variation on "never say never."

It's not the first time the 40-year-old Karimova's been suggested as a likely successor to her autocratic father. The country's first and only president is rumored to be in poor health, leading to speculation that he may finally vacate the post he has held for more than two decades when the country next holds elections in 2015.

But whether the notoriously opaque Uzbekistan is headed for a Karimov-Karimova handover is virtually unknowable.

"That's the $64 million question that nobody knows the answer to," says Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It's like reading tea leaves, and I think that if President Karimov has shown anything in the last 22 to 23 years of his rule, he's shown that he plays the cards close to the vest, and we probably won't know the answer to that question until the absolute last moment."

Keeping It In The Family

As far back as 2009, a U.S. diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks cited a high-ranking presidential associate as saying "some members" of Karimov's circle believed his daughter -- better known as an intermittent diplomat, fashion designer, and pop chanteuse -- was being groomed for succession.

Such a move would be fully in keeping with dynastic traditions that have populated governments across Central Asia since the Soviet collapse.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

It might also be the most effective way for Karimov -- who has used what the UN calls "widespread and systematic torture" to silence thousands of opponents over the course of his infamous rule -- to protect himself from violent retribution once he steps down.

Ajdar Kurtov, a Central Asia analyst with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, says Karimov's reputation for ruthlessness -- solidified by the brutal Andijon massacre in 2005 -- has kept the political elite in line for years. But he says it's far from likely that Karimov's associates will ultimately endorse a father-to-daughter succession.

"Gulnara Karimova doesn't possess the same qualities that her father has. And Karimov's inner circle understands that perfectly well," he says. "So right now, they may hold their tongues about their preferences. But when the question comes to a head -- especially if something happens with Karimov -- I think the majority of them will be opposed to the idea of the daughter becoming the next president."

The Gulnara Cult

Karimova -- who alternately goes by the nicknames Guli and Googoosha -- has become an object of bemused fascination, thanks in large part to her movie-star looks, cultural pursuits like a recent duet with Gerard Depardieu, and enthusiasm for chronicling her life on the Internet.

The Russian search engine Yandex recently announced that Karimova had outpaced her father as the most-searched Uzbek name on the web -- the reward, perhaps, for her Twitter posts, often written in breathless, occasionally petulant tones reminiscent of headstrong adolescents.

In a December 21 tweet to Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group, she said she had not had time to address Uzbekistan's human rights abuses because she had a "thousand things at work."

Tinatin Tsertsvadze, a Brussels-based analyst with the FRIDE think tank, says Karimova seems unaware of, or impervious to, the pressures of relatability felt by ordinary politicians in the West and even elsewhere in the former Soviet space.

"I don't think she thinks in the same terms that the rest of us do," she says. "I think she's someone who has very high self-esteem. If you follow her Twitter account, she's posting pictures of herself doing yoga postures. It's all about her and how glamorous she is."

Ill-Gotten Gains?

Karimova, the elder of Karimov's two daughters, has had only a flirting acquaintance with politics, having served in a series of prominent but undemanding diplomatic posts, including as Uzbekistan's Geneva-based permanent representative to the United Nations.

She is widely seen, however, as the driving force behind her family's massive private fortune, which is estimated in the billions.

Karimova is frequently described as a "robber baron" who has used her station to aggressively demand bribes from foreign businesses looking to enter the Uzbek market and strip assets from those who have already made it in.

Her financial activity has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, as prosecutors in Switzerland and Sweden investigate massive money-laundering claims tied to Karimova's direct associates.

A recent report on Swedish TV cited eyewitness accounts of how Karimova used a front man to demand hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from a mobile-phone company trying to obtain Uzbek licensing.

Gulnara's Choice

Karimova has denied any wrongdoing. But the investigations -- paired with growing opposition to Uzbekistan's use of child labor in its massive cotton industry and the country's horrific record on human rights -- have pushed Karimova out of her traditional comfort zone as a moneyed European socialite with homes in Geneva, Paris, and Moscow.

In recent months, she has remained largely inside Uzbekistan, promoting yoga, launching perfume lines, writing movie scripts, and trumpeting the achievements of her Fund Forum charity.

Busy schedule aside, Karimova's protracted stay in Uzbekistan may not be her preference.

Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian nation with 30 million people, is also one of its poorest. Karimova, who betrays little apprehension about showing off her wealth, is frequently referred to as the country's "most hated person." (Karimova argues the phrase was concocted by foreign PR forces.)

But popularity may have little to do with whether the first daughter ultimately becomes president in Uzbekistan, a country where elections regularly deliver 90 percent returns for the entrenched Karimov.

Swerdlow says Karimova, well-traveled and multilingual, may still be the least bad option for those searching for a way to open Uzbek society.

Her presidential ambitions may remain a mystery, he says. But the fact that she's communicating with the outside world has already shed a small sliver of light on a famously isolated country -- and could possibly be exposing her to new information as well.

"What's interesting about that is that it's such a departure from what the rest of Uzbek officials do, which is stay quiet," Swerdlow says. "And, of course, most of them don't have the sort of privileged position vis-a-vis the ultimate leader as Gulnara Karimova. So she has a unique position, she's able to speak, and we're certainly in favor of being able to speak with her and the Uzbek government directly.

"Someone that does travel the world and holds this post at the UN very likely is exposed to a lot of information," he adds. "If she chooses to be."

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