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Qishloq Ovozi

The Karimovs in happier days: (left to right) Lola, Tatyana, Islam with Gulnara's son, and Gulnara

During Uzbekistan's 25 years of independence, its first family, the Karimovs, was powerful and greatly feared by the local population. Those days are coming to an end now that President Islam Karimov has died. That could leave some members of his immediate family in precarious positions, at least if they entertain any thoughts of staying in Uzbekistan now that Karimov is no longer president.

The problem is the daughters -- Gulnara, the eldest, and Lola.

It's difficult to believe Karimov's wife, Tatyana Akbarovna Karimova (his second wife, actually), would face any problems. She has remained largely out of the public eye. More importantly, her family is influential; in fact, it's doubtful Islam Karimov could have risen to the post he attained without help from his wife's relatives.

Karimov was an orphan -- in fact, he was more of an abandoned child. (Qishloq Ovozi has covered his early years already.) Through his wife's family, he was able to meet people who guided him up the ladder of the Communist Party when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic. But Tatyana Karimova is an elderly woman now. It's difficult to imagine anyone would equate her with her husband's policies.

People in Uzbekistan are aware that the two daughters have been living extravagant lives. For most people in Uzbekistan, the average wage is somewhere between $200 and $300 per month.

The Karimova sisters owned property in Switzerland, according to Switzerland's Bilan magazine. On its 2009 list of the top 300 wealthiest people in Switzerland, Bilan ranked Gulnara ninth on the women's list, with assets estimated at between $570 million to $665 million. In 2011, Bilan estimated the two sisters' combined wealth at around $1 billion. Lola and her husband, Timur Tillyaev, sued Bilan for that.

Uzbekistan's people probably knew very little about Bilan's rankings. It certainly is not a topic Uzbek state media would ever cover. And if both the Karimova sisters had kept a low profile in Uzbekistan, it might never have been an issue among Uzbekistan's people.

Gulnara, however, craved the spotlight. She not only had vast holdings outside Uzbekistan, she also owned some businesses and enterprises inside the country, including television channels.

Her Forum television channel, for instance, featured youth-oriented films produced in Uzbekistan but was heavy on coverage of events that involved Gulnara. Charity concerts she organized were shown on Forum with plenty of footage of her mingling with the people in attendance. Gulnara attended a fashion school in the United States and Forum aired her fashion shows in Uzbekistan, again with ample coverage of Gulnara at the events.

A cartoon filler shown between programs featured a girl with a clear resemblance to Gulnara wandering a flower-filled meadow, ascending a mountain toward the sun, all the while accompanied by soothing music. Her music videos were also regularly aired on the channel.

One of the best-known WikiLeaks cables about Uzbekistan referred to Gulnara as being "the most hated person in Uzbekistan." Forum TV provided evidence of this one day. A film crew followed a well-dressed Gulnara as she essentially crashed a wedding party. The initial images shown of carefree guests dancing and enjoying themselves quickly turned to people with nervous smiles and stiff postures as Gulnara weaved through the crowd to get a picture with the bride and groom, whom of course she had clearly never met.

Gulnara's shady financial dealings abroad proved her downfall and she is currently connected to several foreign companies accused of paying bribes for contracts in Uzbekistan.

Gulnara was put under unofficial house arrest in 2014 after tirades against top Uzbek government officials and later against her sister and mother.

However, she has not been seen or heard from in months, did not attend her father's funeral in Samarkand on September 3, and there are unconfirmed reports that Gulnara is now outside Uzbekistan. She likely won't be coming back soon, if ever.

While Lola (left) seems unlikely to return to Uzbekistan, it's unclear where Gulnara is these days.
While Lola (left) seems unlikely to return to Uzbekistan, it's unclear where Gulnara is these days.

Her sister Lola has been Uzbekistan's ambassador to UNESCO since 2008, a position she probably will lose once a new president comes to power. For more than a decade, Lola has funded two charities: You Are Not Alone, which helps orphanages and children with disabilities, and the National Center for the Social Adaptation of Children, which helps provide education and medical help for children with disabilities. She appears to have helped her reputation in Uzbekistan through funding these two charities.

As mentioned, Bilan magazine claimed Lola has assets worth millions of dollars and as recently as 2014 estimated her and her husband's assets at between $100 million and $200 million. Lola has called that figure greatly exaggerated.

An article in the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail, and a later one in The New York Times, reported Lola and her husband bought a mansion in Hollywood worth $58 million. The Daily Mail also cited The Real Estalker blog as reporting the Tillyaevs bought "a $41 million estate in Geneva" in 2010. The article in The New York Times said the mansion in Hollywood was one of several properties Lola and her husband were connected to in the area. And, of course, Lola has a flat in Paris where she lives when acting in her capacity as UNESCO ambassador.

Lola credits her husband for having all the money in their family.

Lola and her husband have been living outside Uzbekistan for many years. Lola was at her father's funeral in Samarkand, but given her lifestyle abroad it's difficult to imagine she would return to the uncertainty of an Uzbekistan without her father in charge. There's always the example of her estranged older sister's house arrest.

So Uzbekistan's future without Islam Karimov also probably means a future without his daughters. Probably few inside Uzbekistan would be disappointed at this prospect.

Karimov's estranged son from his first marriage, Pyotr, reportedly lives in Russia and may not have ever been in Uzbekistan since it became independent in 1991.

Karimov also has siblings: at least one sister and brother. His parents kept and raised them while Islam Karimov was given to an orphanage. Perhaps understandably, Karimov seems to have rarely been in contact with them and did nothing as his sister's son Jamshed was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital after writing critical articles of the Uzbek government for independent media outlets.

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev is considered a likely candidate to succeed the late Islam Karimov as the country's president. (file photo)

In a country whose government kept silent for four full days after revealing that its only post-Soviet leader was in the hospital with an undisclosed ailment, it's tough to read the tea leaves about who might come to power in the wake of President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced by Uzbek state TV on September 2.

There have been hints, however, that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev could be the most likely candidate.

Experts outside Uzbekistan spoke of Mirziyaev as a main contender for the helm in the first days after the government's August 28 announcement. There were further indications later in the week when Mirziyaev led a procession to lay flowers at the Independence Monument in Tashkent on August 31, the eve of Uzbekistan's Independence Day. That task had previously been reserved for Karimov.

And on September 1 -- a day before the government announced that Karimov was in critical condition after a stroke -- Mirziyaev abruptly flew to Samarkand, the president's native town. Reports from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, showed there was frantic activity under way cleaning streets and digging in the cemetery where Karimov's mother and one of his brothers are buried.

Mirziyaev, 58, has been in his post since 2003, making him the longest serving prime minister in Uzbekistan's 25-year history as an independent country. Prior to that he was the governor of the Samarkand Province (2001-03), and the Jizzakh Province (1996-2001).

He was reportedly born in the Jizzakh area. His parents were doctors. In his university years Mirziyaev trained in irrigation and mechanized farming. He became a local leader in the Komsomol, the Soviet-era youth group.

'Hot Temper'

Mirziyaev has spent his time as prime minister in the shadow of Karimov, drawing little attention despite what some who have known him say is a hot temper and a stubborn streak.

Sharaf Ubaidullaev, who served as Karimov's spokesman during the 1990s and is no longer in Uzbekistan, described Mirziyayev as an "unpredictable" man and one "who always believes he is right."

During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh, Mirziyayev was reported to have beaten up a farmer who dared complain about the situation in the province.

Ubaidullaev told RFE/RL that this happened to more than one farmer, and that it was known that people who failed to meet state production quotas were likely to be punished once Mirziyaev found out.

Asked whether he thought Mirziyaev would be a better or worse president than Karimov, Ubaidullaev was quick with his answer: "Worse."

He also expressed doubt that Mirziyaev could lead Uzbekistan effectively on his own, saying: "He is not independent like Karimov."

ALSO READ: Analysis: The 'Day After' Has Arrived For Uzbekistan

Ubaidullaev suggested that made it all the more probable that Mirziyaev would lead an "oligarchy," granting informal power to tycoons in what he said would be one of the worst scenarios for Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan’s constitution says that if the president dies or is unable to perform his duties, the head of the upper chamber of parliament assumes the president's authority for a period of three months, and a new election is held.

The current head of the upper chamber, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, is not widely seen as a likely contender for the presidency.

In addition to Mirziyaev, others viewed as potential successors of Karimov include Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, 56, and National Security Committee (SNB) chief Rustam Inoyatov, 72.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service and Reuters

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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