Gulnara Karimova has long been seen as a leading candidate to succeed her father, Uzbek President Islam Karimov. So it comes as little surprise that her appointment on February 1 to head a new department for cultural affairs within the Foreign Ministry is widely regarded as a bid to ensure that she eventually assumes the Uzbek "throne."
"The rumors that Gulnara Karimov will become a regional governor or a Tashkent city mayor have been around for a long time. The reason was that if Islam Karimov saw his daughter as his heiress, Gulnara was supposed to gain managerial experience," says Toshpulat Yuldoshev, an independent analyst in Tashkent.
"I think Gulnara Karimova's appointment as a deputy foreign minister means that Karimov is preparing her to become president one day, although I think Karimov, if he lives long enough, would not like to give up power to anybody," he adds.
Karimova, 35, is a Harvard graduate who holds a doctorate in political science from Tashkent University, and also black belt in karate. Karimova has already had several positions within the government -- including as an adviser to the foreign minister and a special envoy at the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow.
But Karimova, one of the wealthiest people in Uzbekistan, is known mostly for her business activities. She reportedly controls the country's oil and gas industries, as well as its telecom and construction sectors.
Her business empire is believed to extend to Moscow, Dubai, and Geneva. It includes entertainment, mass media, retail network, and holiday resorts.
Her activities, which include designing jewelry and singing, have been showcased on Karimova's television channel, TV Markaz, and the radio station Terra, as well as in her beauty and fashion magazine, "Bella Terra."
Official Uzbek media have widely reported about fashion shows and concerts organized by Karimova's cultural foundation.
Observers say a key reason behind Karimova's new appointment is her father's attempt to ensure that the wealth remains within the family after he is gone.
"It looks like Mr. Karimov wants his daughter to have a very high post. But I don't necessarily mean the presidential seat," Suhbat Abdullaev, an opposition politician, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "There are other posts within the government that -- if occupied by [a Karimov] family member -- will guarantee two things [for the family]: first, keep political influence, and secondly, keep the family's wealth."
Opposition Among Public, Elite
But most observers say Karimova has a long way to go if she wants to succeed as a politician and become a prominent figure in government.
Dubbed "the Uzbek princess," Karimova is loathed by many in her home country. There are many rumors about her alleged cruelty toward business rivals, her luxurious lifestyle, and her lucrative business empire. Amid the poverty of ordinary people, these stories rub many Uzbeks the wrong way.
And as a potential presidential successor, Karimova will have to make allies among the political elite. There is increasing hostility directed toward her in recent years because she has taken over business interests from many other prominent politicians. She will also have to learn what her father seems to have mastered -- how to hold rivals at bay in a political system that still remains clannish.
And a Western-educated, Russian-speaking woman raised by an ethnic-Russian mother will have to overcome stereotypes in a male-dominated political system.
"I am quite sure that the Karimov family would like Gulnara herself to become president one day. But I don't think that's very practical," says Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador to Tashkent and an outspoken critic of the Uzbek regime. "I think there are far too many interests who would stand against the continuation of the Karimov dynasty, and, of course, the succession of a female president."
Murray says that if Karimov makes a different choice, his eldest daughter will still retain enough influence on her father to ensure that the country's new leader "will not steal the money off the Karimov family, which the Karimov family, of course, stole off the Uzbek people."
Yuldoshev says Karimova is still known mostly as an influential and wealthy entrepreneur, while her political activities remain obscure for many Uzbeks.
"Her businesses are thriving only because of her father, who is the country's absolute 'owner' and only lord. More than half of the country [is believed to] belongs to her," the analyst says. "However, I can't recall anything about her political activities and achievements. She has been a woman whose business succeeded under her father's protection."
Some observers see another, more pragmatic reason behind Karimova's new appointment. An independent news website, uzmetronom.com, noted on February 3 that Karimova's new job will give her diplomatic immunity, which in turn will enable her to travel abroad.
That's something Karimova can't currently do. After she divorced her Uzbek-born American husband Mansur Maqsudi in 2003, Karimova lost a legal case in the United States over custody of their children, Islam and Iman. She defied that verdict and her kids live with her in Uzbekistan, where a court has granted her custody of them.
But the U.S. verdict has made it risky for her to travel to the United States and any countries that share extradition agreements with Washington. Diplomatic immunity could resolve Karimova's international isolation.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
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