Something is rotten in the state of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian republic ruled by a secretive family with an iron fist.
Murky news trickling out of the capital, Tashkent, points to a campaign against the president's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, whose omnipresence, suspect business dealings, and impunity earned her the sobriquet of "the single most hated person in the country" in a 2007 State Department cable published by Wikileaks. Long expected to succeed her ailing father, Islam Karimov, 75, who has ruled the country since 1989, Karimova is now embroiled in a clandestine flurry of backstabbing and skullduggery worthy of Game of Thrones.
Last week, Uzbek authorities announced that Fund Forum, a charitable organization Karimova established nationwide as an apparent independent power base, is under investigation for tax evasion. Then her television and radio stations mysteriously disappeared from the air. Opposition websites that frequently publish damning reports about her were briefly unblocked. And on Wednesday, her media holding company's bank accounts were frozen, Radio Free Europe reported.
Uzbekistan's secrecy makes reporting on the country almost impossible. Independent journalists are regularly targeted; foreign reporters are largely banned from the country. Few other observers, including diplomats, have much idea what is going on either. But the knives certainly appear to be out for Karimova, all the more so since speculation over her future intensified in March, when her father was reported to have suffered a massive heart attack.
"People who meet with him say he sits there gazing dreamily out of the window and you have to talk to the [security services] figurehead," a London-based business consultant who frequently works with Uzbekistan said.
Signs of a succession war are everywhere, with Karimova on one side and a senior triumvirate of Uzbekistan's elite who are said to wield the real power in the country on the other.
Karimova's troubles appear to have begun this summer. In July, she unexpectedly resigned her position as Uzbek ambassador to the United Nations and was thus stripped of diplomatic immunity. French investigators promptly raided her properties, while Latvian investigators zeroed in on bank transfers linked to her. Karimova returned to Uzbekistan and appeared to hit the campaign trail, meeting people in the Ferghana Valley region and criticizing finance minister Rustam Azimov, who is also viewed as a potential successor.
Then, in September, Karimova's younger sister Lola gave a rare interview to the BBC Uzbek service, where she said she had not spoken to Gulnara in 12 years and viewed her elder sister's succession chances as "slim." Karimova responded by accusing Lola of being "friends with sorcerers" and trying to bedazzle their mother with the help of witches, a popular folk superstition in Uzbekistan. The next month, her cousin, Akbarali Abdullayev, who purportedly controls much of the Ferghana Valley, was arrested on corruption charges.
Karimova, 41, has long been the rare Western-oriented face of a regime otherwise known for its traditionalism, secrecy and brutality. In addition to her U.N. ambassadorship, she was also ambassador to Spain before that. Using the nickname her father gave her, GooGoosha, she has a side career as a fashion designer and pop singer. Last year she recorded a duet with Gerard Depardieu, the French actor who hobnobs with post-Soviet strongmen. She is also a heavy user of Twitter and Instagram, even though Reporters Without Borders calls Uzbekistan an "internet enemy."
That image barely masks her reputation at the center of Uzbekistan's ruling family clique, which is said to control business with an iron fist. A second U.S. embassy cable released by Wikileaks dubbed her a "robber baron." The German magazine Der Spiegel estimated her wealth at $570 million. European money laundering investigations detailed in the Financial Times suggest she used her influence to extort hundreds of millions in bribes from a Swedish telecoms company, TeliaSonera, and seize the $1 billion Uzbek arm of MTS, Russia's largest mobile provider.
"All the reported investigations really play into the hands of anyone in Uzbekistan who doesn't want to see her again," Tom Mayne, a Central Asia expert at the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, said. "It seems like they have some real ammunition now — it's very hard for someone to become president when their reputation is that low."
Reports indicate that Karimova may be battling it out with the country's ruling elite trio — Azimov, the finance minister, prime minister Shavkat Mirziyaev and security chief Rustam Inoyatov.
Their history of antagonism is long. In 2010, Zeromax, a massive conglomerate Karimova was rumored to run, was shut down amid rumors that it was not paying taxes and owed $500 million in debt to German creditors. Brazilian soccer stars who had signed for a soccer team owned by Zeromax, Bunyodkor, left in droves, complaining that their massive salaries went unpaid. Zeromax's official owner was arrested, and then disappeared. Reports at the time suggested that the government moved at the behest of Mirziyaev and Inoyatov. In April, Karimova accused Azimov of having an illicit $4 billion fortune.
Others took a less sanguine view. "Karimov wouldn't rebuke his daughter for theft and corporate raiding, he does that himself, he taught and encouraged her to do it," said Galima Bukharbayeva, editor of Uznews, one of the outlets that was briefly unblocked. "It's just that Gulya's wings are singed, she screwed up and cast a shadow on her father and the whole family. Papa won't cast her aside — he's just taken her toys away."
"Gulnara's public disgrace is doubtlessly dangerous in that it weakens Karimov himself," Bukharbayeva added. "Gulnara's might was simply testimony to his own might. And vice versa — his tottering daughter automatically makes Karimov himself vulnerable, which provokes movement within a system that wore [him] out a long time ago."
The same month her father reportedly suffered a heart attack, Karimova coyly discussed her ambitions during a bizarre staged interview with a Las Vegas publicist who compared her to Princess Diana.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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