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Gulnara's Millions: U.S. Tracks Down Illicit Funds, But Not Ready To Hand Them Over To Uzbek Officials

The seizure of funds linked to Gulnara Karimova is one of the largest ever by the U.S. Justice Department, which used it to tout its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, a program designed to seize illicit gains from corrupt officials around the world and repatriate illegally acquired assets to their home countries.

With the sun apparently setting on the house of one of Central Asia's most ruthless and enduring leaders, political elites are vying for power and control of the purse strings in Uzbekistan, a country that watchdog groups say is mired in corruption.

But what about the massive amount of assets already pocketed and stashed around the world by the family and allies of the late President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced in early September after he'd run the country virtually unchallenged for nearly three decades?

U.S. officials are pursuing at least some of that illicit money in an ongoing case that highlights the fragility of relations between Washington and Tashkent at a crucial juncture in Uzbekistan's development. It also showcases the potential obstacles to returning such funds to autocratic regimes.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department placed a seizure order on nearly $600 million stemming from an audacious multiyear bribery scheme allegedly involving Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara, and a shakedown of major multinational telecom companies.

Since then, the Americans have been in tough negotiations with Uzbek officials about what to do with the money.

U.S. officials say they want to return it to Uzbekistan, but they are also reportedly insisting on transparency in how the money is subsequently disbursed.

Uzbek officials, meanwhile, are said to be chafing at the idea of Washington dictating how they spend money that they see as rightfully theirs.

"For me, the asset-recovery issue is the biggest unacknowledged, unpublicized issue of U.S.-Uzbek relations at this moment," says Alexander Cooley, a Barnard College professor and co-author of an upcoming book about Central Asian government elites. "This is the issue that is really shaping ties."

Changing Rules

The situation is complicated by the death of Karimov and questions around potential successors, including possible openness to democracy and the rule of law, as well as Uzbekistan's future foreign-policy orientation.

Washington's relations with Tashkent have cooled since the early days after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, when the U.S.-led international coalition needed a conduit for NATO and other troops and supplies in the effort to dislodge Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Washington also welcomed Uzbek help in targeting international terrorism and particularly Islamist radicals, some of whom were based in Uzbekistan.

That relationship unraveled as Karimov's administration engaged in what human rights groups say were increasingly brutal tactics on civil-society activists and some religious believers. The United States and many Western states openly broke with Tashkent after a massacre of demonstrators in Andijon, in eastern Uzbekistan, in 2005.

Meanwhile, Russia regards fellow former Soviet republic Uzbekistan as a natural ally with deep trade and security ties to Moscow.

Pushing, But Not Too Hard

So while Washington might regard the asset return as a possible lever to push Uzbek authorities for reforms, it is likely keen to avoid alienating Tashkent.

"The U.S. will want to gain traction with a new leadership in Tashkent, and the need for good relations with a new Uzbek president may well have an impact on the negotiations over the funds," says David Lewis, a former Central Asia researcher with the International Crisis Group who now teaches at the University of Exeter.

The seizure of Karimova-linked funds is one of the largest ever by the U.S. Justice Department, which used it to tout its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, a program designed to seize illicit gains from corrupt officials around the world and repatriate illegally acquired assets to their home countries.

Even before Karimov's death, however, the Uzbek talks were said to have been what one Western consultant familiar with the process described as "very difficult."

In Tashkent, a Uzbek government official with knowledge of the negotiations said a delegation of Uzbek representatives recently returned from Washington "in a very depressed mood" after discussions.

"There was no result, and almost no hope that they would get this money back," the official told RFE/RL.

Officials at the U.S. State and Justice department declined to comment to RFE/RL about the talks.

Who To Give Money To?

Independent activists and Karimov critics have argued that the seized funds could be repatriated and channeled to groups outside the government's control -- groups involved in, say, economic development, human rights, or civil society.

Some observers have pointed to the recent appointment by Uzbekistan's acting president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, of a former head of the Communications Ministry to his old post despite his responsibility for issuing telecoms licenses at the heart of bribery cases against Karimova.

The opaque nature of Uzbekistan's government and the clans that vie for control behind the scenes limits any prospects that repatriated money could be handled fairly or without government interference, they say.

"If the money [seized from the Karimov family] is repatriated,... it's just going to be pocketed," says Erica Marat, a professor at Washington's National Defense University who wrote a book in 2009 about the role of the armed forces in Central Asian states. "It's not going to go into any investments, or charities, or let alone NGOs. There are no NGOs."

She adds, "It's wishful thinking."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Zamira Eshanova
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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.