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Under New Uzbek Leadership, Even Predecessor's Widow, Family Are In The Crosshairs

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Tatyana Karimova, the widow of former President Islam Karimov, attend the dedication of his mausoleum in Tashkent on August 31, 2017. It marked Karimova's last public appearance.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Tatyana Karimova, the widow of former President Islam Karimov, attend the dedication of his mausoleum in Tashkent on August 31, 2017. It marked Karimova's last public appearance.

Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoev has pulled no punches going after those who served under his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.

The list of those who have fallen is long -- including hundreds of old guard "rats" in the Finance Ministry, top government officials, and law enforcement agents.

But while some immediate relatives of Karimov -- who ruled the country for 27 years until his death in 2016 -- were caught up in the purge, his widow had escaped being targeted.

No more, it would seem.

In recordings that were recently leaked to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Mirziyoev took aim at the economy of the country's Ferghana Valley. He blamed the lack of industry in the vital region on the clan that was widely known to be in control.

"Over the past 27 years, not a single new factory has been set up in Ferghana. I should say that it would be more beneficial for us if we throw the whole Ferghana refinery plant into scrap metal," he said. "Those brides from Ferghana completely destroyed this plant. [I am saying it] even if it sounds rough. All of you understand who I am talking about.

"Those rats occupied and destroyed everything in Ferghana. That is also the truth. They had control over the Ferghana refinery plant as well," he said. "The gangsters robbed the Ferghana region. All of you know who I am talking about."

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov

To close observers of Uzbek politics, the "who" is Tatyana Karimova and her sister-in-law Tamara, whose son -- Tatyana's nephew -- ran the factory in question, and allegedly stole millions in the process.

It's unclear exactly why Mirziyoev has now chosen to go after Karimova, though it fits a pattern. Karimov's two daughters, Gulnara Karimova and Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, have been under mounting scrutiny for months -- or in the case of the elder Gulnara, years.

"On the one hand, this is totally in the tradition -- in the Soviet, post-Soviet context. You move against the family or the close associates of your predecessor because you see it as necessary to solidify your position," says Jon Purnell, who was the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan in the early 2000s. "Simple as that. Mirziyoev wants to show that he's now the boss.

"On the other hand, it could be a combination. It is that, but it's also that Mirziyoev wants to signal that the kind of corruption -- call it indulgence, what you want -- that went on [under Karimov] will no longer be accepted," he said. "That may be an optimistic view, though."

Personnel Purges

In the months following Karimov's death, announced in early September 2016, Mirziyoev embarked on an anticorruption campaign that has purged scores of top government officials.

That included the powerful head of the country's security service, Ruslan Inoyatov, who many had seen as untouchable even after Karimov's death.

And Karimov himself, who during two decades in power cultivated a "father of the nation" image coupled with dictatorial control, also appears to be fair game, under Mirziyoev.

Karimov's luster dimmed drastically as authorities made several highly public, symbolic moves against the man once known as the father of the nation.

Several state TV journalists reported being given strict instructions not to mention Karimov's name on air. At a state museum in Tashkent, employees reported that all portraits of Karimov were removed.

Meanwhile, Karimov's immediate family has been seen in public only sporadically.

Tatyana Karimova was last seen publicly in August 2017 at a ceremony dedicating a mausoleum to her husband in Tashkent. The ceremony featured her speaking briefly and laying flowers during the event.

Also attending the event was Karimov's younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, who was present along with Karimov's granddaughter Iman. Iman's mother -- Lola's sister -- is the once high-flying Gulnara, a former model, diplomat, fashion designer and socialite who was once seen as a possible successor to her father but fell afoul with the Uzbek authorities in the waning months of his rule.

She is believed to have been under house arrest or in prison for several years since the Uzbek authorities announced she had been found guilty of a host of corruption charges, but her exact status remains a mystery.

The August 2017 ceremony honoring Karimov would be the last time Lola -- who had been stripped or resigned from of all of her state appointments -- would be seen in Uzbekistan. It also marked Iman's last public appearance. She only recently reappeared on radar after an unverified Instagram account believed to hers announced in a series of posts that she was flying home to London.

Lola, who now spends her time between Paris and Los Angeles with her husband and children, had been appointed by her father to be Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations' Paris-based cultural organization, UNESCO.​

Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva in 2017
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva in 2017

Since the 2008 appointment, however, there's been a series of pointed slights, some highlighted by Lola herself, that indicated she and her family had lost access to lucrative business ventures in the country. That includes Abu Sahiy, a sprawling trading complex that had a near monopoly on foreign imported consumer goods under Karimov.

The complex was nominally owned by Lola's husband's family, the Tillyaevs, but most observers said the business would not have thrived for so many years without the protective oversight of Lola's father.

Still, in December 2017, traders in Uzbekistan reported to RFE/RL that there were growing problems with shipments headed to Abu Sahiy, and that the ownership of the complex, and the companies supplying the goods, had changed.

In March, in the clearest indication to date that Lola and her relatives were under new pressure, Uzbek state television broadcast a special nine-minute program in which Abu Sahiy was accused of tax evasion and failure to pay around $55 million in taxes between 2016-17.

In response to e-mailed questions from RFE/RL, Mark Raymond, a U.S.-based lawyer for Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, confirmed "the market's ownership has changed. The Tillyaev family does not hold any shares in the market or in the cargo service."

Gulnara Karimova in 2010
Gulnara Karimova in 2010

He also repeated earlier assertions that Abu Sahiy paid taxes and never enjoyed any exemptions from taxes.

In January, Lola complained she was no longer able to travel to Uzbekistan due "extenuating circumstances." In February, she said that she was leaving her post as UNESCO ambassador. A month later, she said she had been forced to leave her ceremonial role as head of the country's gymnastics federation. Her creation and heading of the Islam Karimov Foundation, which promotes her father's legacy and operates programs in Uzbekistan, is one of her few direct ties to her homeland.

The purge of business leaders and government officials, including from Karimov's family, under Mirziyoev demonstrates how fragile and undeveloped political institutions are in Uzbekistan.

"It highlights the dangerous nexus of politics and business and shows how vulnerable all these people are," says Kate Mallison, a political risk researcher and fellow at the British think tank Chatham House.

"They benefited from patronage politics and they weren't subjected to the same kinds of taxes and regulations like other things," she said.

"Now investors keep asking the question whether these are genuine reforms undertaken by Mirziyoev or it's just redirecting money to other businesses," she said.

Ferghana Brides

The economy of the Ferghana Valley, which encompasses border regions of Uzbekistan as well as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is mainly agricultural, but the Uzbek oil refinery there is a major employer, and a major source of refined oil products, as well as hard currency.

Beginning in at least 2000, according to Uzbek observers, the factory was under the control of Akbarali Abdullaev, the son of Tamara Sobirova, who is Tatyana Karimova' sister. Many of the Ferghana region's other major business, including hotels, a textile factory, and a quartz-mining operation, were also widely believed to be controlled or overseen by Abdullaev.

He was arrested in Ukraine in 2017 at the request of Uzbekistan, which wanted him extradited to face charges of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. That June, however, he was offered refugee status in Ukraine after he told a court he would be killed if he returned to his home country.

Abdullaev's current whereabouts are unknown.

Stanislav Pritchin, a researcher affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences and Britain's Chatham House, said the transition from Karimov's government to Mirziyoev's is the first for post-Soviet Uzbekistan, and the purges of Uzbekistan's elite, as well as the targeting of Karimov's relatives, are unique among the five former Soviet Central Asian republics.

Uzbekistan, he said, "had a high level of personification of power. There are no institutions, only people and personalities."

"Islam Karimov and his family were at the center of power and the economy, and, of course, when the personality changed, the system had to be changed," he said.

With reporting by RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Sirojiddin Tolibov
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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