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Central Asia: Presidents' Daughters Emerging As Unlikely Political Forces In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan

Two unlikely political forces are emerging in Central Asia. In a region traditionally dominated by men, the daughters of the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents have dominated the news recently and are being talked about as possible future leaders.

Prague, 24 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dariga Nazarbaeva and Gulnora Karimova are the eldest daughters of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, respectively. Both are rising national stars, though until recently neither had been considered a major political player.

Forty-year-old Dariga Nazarbaeva, daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has long been a public figure in Kazakhstan. For many years, she was head of the state-owned Kabar news agency. She occasionally comments on political matters in the Kazakh media and recently became a leader of the social movement Asar (Altogether).

Earlier this month, in Kazakhstan's northeastern industrial city of Pavlodar, Nazarbaeva made a surprise announcement. A local journalist in Pavlodar, who asked that his name not be used, recounted Nazarbaeva's appearance: "On 16 September, Dariga Nazarbaeva, the leader of the Asar public movement, came to Pavlodar. She held a special briefing with representatives of the local mass media. She said that her movement will turn into a political party."

In Pavlodar, Nazarbaeva said the "future of Kazakhstan is in the hands of young people" and that Asar would concentrate on helping the "most needy and the poor."

The biggest political party in Kazakhstan is Otan, "Fatherland" in Kazakh. Otan is a strong supporter of President Nazarbaev and, in fact, nominated Nazarbaev to be party head at its founding congress. Nazarbaev turned down the post, pointing out that it was unconstitutional to be a party head and head of state simultaneously.

Nazarbaeva's Asar could throw its support behind Nazarbaev, too, a situation that concerns Kazakhstan's opposition parties.

Murat Auezov is the former leader of the opposition Azamat Party, who co-founded Asar with Nazarbaeva. He said it had been agreed that the movement would never become a political party. In an interview with RFE/RL, Auezov discussed the relationship between Asar and Otan: "If Asar turns into a party, what will the relations between Asar and Otan be? So are those two parties going to be pro-government or will they oppose each other? That is why I think it would be a mistake," Auezov said. "In other words, if a popular movement uniting different people of different political backgrounds becomes a political party, supporting only the government or even a single person, that would be a big mistake. It's going to be a big mistake."

Petr Svoik is a leader in the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Svoik said Asar could replace Otan as the leading party supporting Nazarbaev and members of his family. "We understand that this is the latest attempt of the same family to create yet another version of a political party -- that is, a new Otan," he said. "This is recognition that Otan has not worked out, and that in place of Otan, they put Asar."

During a visit to the city of Turkistan on 18 September, Nazarbaeva denied her party was created simply to serve the needs of her father. "In creating a new political party, I have not set the goal of defending my father, President Nazarbaev, from the attacks of his opponents," she said. "He simply does not need such help."

Steve Sabol is an expert on Kazakhstan who teaches at the University of North Carolina in the United States. He agrees that Asar's transformation into a political party would likely act as a further support base for the Nazarbaev family. He assesses Nazarbaeva's chances of a successful political career as fairly high.

"I think most observers believe that this is designed to keep power in the hands of those who are loyal to the president," Sabol said. "So it seems to me that this is a natural step. You form a social group that is designed to, so it seems, help the poor, as [Nazarbaeva] says. That will gain influence. And then, as in the past with Zheltoqsan or some of the other parties, it will assume a political platform that could lead to her election to parliament. And then there seems little doubt that she would rise quickly through the leadership of the parliament."

If she is to move forward, however, Nazarbaeva may need to distance herself from the scandal known as Kazakhgate. Kazakhgate is the U.S. criminal investigation into illegal payments totaling tens of millions of dollars allegedly made by Western oil consortiums to top Kazakh officials, including Nazarbaev's family.

Thirty-one-year-old Gulnora Karimova, eldest daughter of ailing Uzbek President Islam Karimov, entered the media spotlight in August when stories emerged of her personal wealth, as well as of her marriage to Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev. The Foreign Ministry denied the reports but nevertheless advised that it was improper to inquire about the personal lives of those in the president's inner circle.

Karimova was recently appointed adviser to the Uzbek ambassador in Moscow. That move sparked stories that Karimova, who received a master's degree from Harvard University's graduate school, could be seeking to advance in the political world.

Bahodyr Chigatoy is an Uzbek political analyst. Only half-jokingly, he said Karimova's appointment could be the first stage of a rapid ascent through the political ranks. "I think the naming of Gulnora Karimova to the embassy in the Russian Federation is a step that brings to light future sociopolitical changes," Chigatoy said. "They say those who named her to this post had a clear goal -- that she become ambassador to Russia, in 2005 [to become] foreign minister, and in 2007 a candidate for president or prime minister."

Atanazar Arifov, the first party secretary of Uzbekistan's opposition Erk Democratic Party, takes Karimova's political ambitions more seriously. He said her political career is just one more sign of the regime's corruption. "I am sure of one thing -- our authorities have, since the start [of independence], built their regime on lies," Arifov said. "And therefore we believe that [Karimova's political rise] is confirmation of the beginning of the end [for the regime]."

On 18 August, the British "Financial Times" newspaper called Karimova one of the most powerful businesspeople in Uzbekistan but said, "the origins of her wealth and extent of her influence have remained shrouded in speculation." The paper said it had uncovered evidence that Karimova has acquired a substantial business empire that includes key stakes in the country's largest mobile-telephone provider and a big cement factory, as well as property and trading activities.

The newspaper speculates that the amassing of wealth by Karimova could be "an attempt to smooth the family's exit as her father departs the political scene" or "a means of holding on to power."

Karimova is also dealing with two ongoing court cases. Karimova's former husband, Mansur Maksudi, lives in New Jersey and won a court case there for custody of their two children. The court has issued a warrant for Karimova's arrest due to her failure to comply with the ruling.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has filed a case against Maksudi for tax evasion in what some analysts see as a tit-for-tat move. But Maksudi is unlikely to leave New Jersey, while Karimova must worry about traveling to any country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S.

(Merhat Sharipzhan and Oktambek Karimov of RFE/RL's Kazakh and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)