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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) talks with Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian in 1991

A lot has been written about the now deceased Uzbek President Islam Karimov this past week and more will appear in the coming days.

Uzbek state media have played up what they have portrayed as Karimov’s achievements for years and those tales have only gotten taller in recent days. In Western accounts, a more common picture is of a cruel dictator who had prisoners boiled alive and ordered the massacre of civilians in Andijon in May 2005.

I’ve met some of the Central Asian leaders but never Karimov. I have been persona non grata in Uzbekistan for more than a decade and haven’t set foot there since the early days of this century.

But for more than 10 years, starting in 1990, I roamed all over the country. During the course of that decade I met with people everywhere and I remembered what they told me. I continued to travel around and watch as the country changed under Karimov’s rule.

As media and various worthy authorities and authors recall Karimov’s life, it seems a good time to remember his image, among the people of his country, in the first years of his leadership. It’s a story I saw with my own eyes.

In the summer of 1990, I was a student at Tashkent State University, studying the Uzbek language. I wasn’t the only American studying there that summer, but we were few. To the local students, we were exotic animals, so it was easy to meet people and make new friends.

I don’t remember Karimov’s name coming up even once in conversation, though by that time he had been president of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan since March of that year -- and first secretary of the Communist Party there since June 1989. I knew who Kazakhstan’s leader was -- Nursultan Nazarbaev -- because I had seen him many times on Soviet television with Mikhail Gorbachev. But Karimov, no.

When I left Uzbekistan in August 1990, I still had no idea who was running the republic.

When I returned in the spring of 1992 and got to Tashkent, I got my first news about Islam Karimov. That was just a couple of months after the student riots in Tashkent. Officially, only a few people were killed when students in Tashkent protested on January 16-17 over the rise in prices for basic goods, but the people I met told me stories that indicated the number of dead was far higher -- “more than 100,” “more than 200.”

A lot of students at Tashkent State were being sent back to their homes in regions around Uzbekistan. People believed Karimov gave the order to crack down on the students, but they saw this as simply a typical Soviet reaction to unrest.

Tohir Yuldash
Tohir Yuldash

Strangely, when I passed through the Ferghana Valley, no one ever told me about Karimov’s humiliation in Namangan in December 1991, when Tohir Yuldash, later to be a leader of the infamous Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), had forced Karimov to sit and listen as Yuldash lectured him on proper governance. I found out about that much later -- in 1994 and 1995 -- from local rights activists.

The years 1992 and 1993 were a confusing time, not only in Uzbekistan but around Central Asia. No one knew how independence was supposed to work. There was an endless shuffle of local officials as one after another proved incapable or too greedy to be allowed to remain in their posts. I would meet the head of a village, but when I came back three or four months later it was almost always someone different. People in the villages were very unhappy, a bit scared, and already wondering if independence was a big mistake.

The first time I remember seeing Karimov was in the summer of 1992. I was with three Uzbek friends at one their flats and we were watching a session of parliament on state television. They were debating the important matter of whether deputies should stop addressing each other using the Russian word “tovarishch” -- comrade -- and switch to the Uzbek equivalent “yoldosh.” Karimov took the podium and started talking, and I was immediately confused.

“My Uzbek is worse than I thought,” I told my friends. “I can’t understand what he’s saying.”

They all started laughing.

“It’s not your Uzbek, it’s his. He can’t speak it,” they replied.

Uzbek media would later portray Karimov as having led Uzbekistan and its people out of the repressive Soviet Union. But the fact is he could only speak to his people in Russian at first. Karimov did learn Uzbek eventually, but he always seemed more comfortable speaking Russian.

During those times in 1992 and 1993 when I would be at a hotel in Tashkent or Samarkand, I noticed a growing emphasis on television programs about the military. Karimov had been the first in Central Asia to order Russian soldiers out of the country and call Uzbek soldiers in Soviet units in other former republics to come home. It seemed clear enough that Karimov wanted his country to be the military power in Central Asia. I think that was one of the reasons Karimov resented the presence of Russian troops or border guards in the neighboring Central Asian states: It prevented his country from being the dominant power in the region, as he envisioned.

A woman prays as a motorcade carrying the body of President Islam Karimov passes by in Tashkent on September 3.
A woman prays as a motorcade carrying the body of President Islam Karimov passes by in Tashkent on September 3.

I was surprised Karimov refused to allow refugees from the Tajik civil war into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was letting them in. I would even see them in the Almaty area and I encountered them in Turkmenistan, too, though I have no idea by which route they arrived there. But not in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek-Tajik border was the first closed border in Central Asia because that was what the Uzbek government wanted.

For most of 1992 there were no border posts on any of the other roads in Central Asia. I passed from one country into another without any sign that I had crossed. Uzbekistan was the first country to establish border posts along the roads; it started happening in autumn 1992, in the Ferghana Valley. By the time I left at the end of 1993, it was impossible to drive into Uzbekistan from any of the neighboring countries without being stopped and checked.

When I went back in 1995, people had mixed feelings about Karimov. Some had uncomplimentary names for him by then, but most felt that, despite a recent referendum extending his rule until 2000, he wouldn’t stay for many more years -- and there was some optimism that the next leader would get the country on a better, more prosperous path.

That was still the prevailing attitude when I went back in 1996.

My next trip was in 1998 and it coincided with the May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II. For the first time, I noticed the larger presence of police around Tashkent. Even in the countryside, there were more of them than was previously the case.

People talked about Karimov but they were much more cautious in their comments and they never said bad things about the president if other people were nearby.

As part of that trip, I went to meet with the grand mufti of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. I remember being led into his office and seeing a bookshelf with the Koran and a copy of one of Karimov’s books on it.

The next day I left the Hotel Uzbekistan and walked into one of the passages under the street. On both sides of the corridor people had stalls and were selling various items. I stopped at one selling books and looked at what they had. It was mostly books about how to use computers or learn English, but up in the corner of one shelf collecting dust was Karimov’s book Stability And Reform: Articles And Speeches. I told the woman working there that I would buy that and she gave me a puzzled look that said, “Why on Earth would you want that?”

I still have that book on my shelf, collecting dust just as it was when I found it. Never made it past Page 5.

I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 to cover the IMU incursion. I didn’t cross into Uzbekistan proper on that trip, though I did pass through the Soh exclave while traveling to and back from Batken, the closest town to the front line in Kyrgyzstan. I had passed through Soh a half dozen times at least before that, but on my way back in 1999 I was detained and questioned for a few hours. The Uzbek Army officials, and the man with the necktie who showed up, told me flat out that they had every right to hold me and that I had to tell them everything I knew about what was happening in Batken. They were polite enough, but they were absolutely firm about me staying until they were satisfied they had learned all they could from me.

I returned to Uzbekistan in 2000 for the same reason: an incursion by the IMU, this time into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The game then was very different than it had been. I was clearly unwelcome. The only reason I reached the places I needed to go was because I knew my way around Uzbekistan so well by then. Every official I encountered had something to say to me, usually a warning. In Tashkent, I was able to buy a round-trip plane ticket to Termez but only after I endured a lecture in which they accused RFE/RL of “giving terrorists a microphone.” (We had interviewed an IMU spokesman.)

I made it to Sariosiya, the closest place I could get to the front lines. There was a camp for refugees who’d been brought from the mountains where the fighting was going on. There were a couple hundred of them sheltering at a children’s camp near Sariosiya. They were all ethnic Tajiks.

They told me they were given a few hours to collect the possessions of a lifetime. The military told them they would never return to their villages, that the area was being seeded with land mines and it would henceforth be too dangerous to live there.

There was not much to do at the camp. In the evening, they staged some wrestling matches, and most of the men and many of the women and children gathered around to watch. There was a great moment -- a badly needed moment -- when two elderly men, well into their 70s, went out and engaged in combat in the ring. We all smiled and laughed and after about 45 seconds some young men broke up the wrestling match and the two aksakals -- whitebeards -- exited the ring to receive handshakes and pats on the back from members of the audience.

I heard a few months later that the authorities had arrested and imprisoned all of the men between 18 and 45 who were there. When the armed militants had arrived in their villages, they heeded commands to hand over some food and provide shelter to the militants. The government considered those villagers to be collaborators.

I was followed most of the time I was there. When I arrived later at the family home of IMU leader Yuldash in Namangan to speak with his mother, two cars pulled in right behind mine and four men got out and stood behind me a few meters as I tried to speak with this elderly and clearly frightened woman.

On those occasions when I felt I was not being watched and could engage in more open conversation with people, it became apparent they were scared. There was a crackdown. Authorities were looking for potential IMU sympathizers. I spoke with one pious Muslim who told me he kept a crate of vodka just inside the entrance to his flat for all visitors to see. He had been questioned by the security service several times and had taken to offering a shot or two of vodka to security service agents when they showed up.

“They don’t think I’m an extremist when they see the vodka,” he told me.

It was quite a transformation in just some 10 years. I remember the fun I had there in the early 1990s and that everyone around me, even police and officials, shared in it, too. Life was uncertain, but we had good times when we could, which was often. By the end of the 1990s, life was very certain, but the good times were few and far between.

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.

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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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