The Game of Thrones-like succession scandal gripping the repressive Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan took a new turn Thursday when President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara, disappeared from Twitter after accusing her mother of a plot against her.
Karimova wrote that she was deleting her account shortly after she posted a rant accusing her mother of "promising to destroy everything to do with me if I so much as think of 'messing in her affairs,'" the latest in a bizarre series of online outbursts pointing to a struggle to succeed her aging father, 75, since he reportedly suffered a heart attack in March. Karimova, 41, gave no explanation for shutting down the account and said she would close her charitable organization, which she appeared to have been expanding nationwide as an independent power base.
A sometime businesswoman, pop star, diplomat, and fashion designer whose dyed blonde hair and relatively lax dress sense make her stand out in the traditional country, Karimova's active presence on Twitter and Instagram provided a rare window into the highly secretive former Soviet republic, which her father has ruled with an iron fist since 1989. Though foreign media has been banned for the better part of a decade and internet access is tightly controlled, Karimova styled herself as a Westernized dilettante. She duetted with French actor turned Russian tax exile Gerard Depardieu and hobnobbed with fashion designers like Jimmy Choo at a fashion week she ran in the capital, Tashkent.
Karimova has long been touted as a potential successor to her father and has made little secret of her own desire to become president. She left her position as Uzbekistan's ambassador to the UN in Geneva earlier this year and mounted a tacit presidential campaign, touring the country and expanding her charity, Fund Forum.
Recently, however, the knives have appeared to be out for her. While Uzbekistan is so tightly controlled that almost nobody knows what is going on, reports have trickled out in recent months pointing to a campaign to sideline her. Her media holding company's bank accounts were frozen. Her TV and radio channels went dark. Fund Forum was investigated for tax evasion. Her cousin, Akbarali Abdullayev, was arrested on corruption charges.
Karimova subsequently took to Twitter to protest the moves against her. After her younger sister, Lola, criticized her in a September interview with BBC's Uzbek service, Karimova accused her of being "friends with sorcerers" and using them to turn her mother, Tatiana Karimova, against her. Yesterday she claimed that members of a youth group she runs were arrested for "alleged extremism."
"What's been going on [in her mother's] affairs for the last two years couldn't but put you on edge!" Karimova wrote in her final series of messages. Karimova went on to accuse her mother of illegal business dealings in China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, and said that this had led to the jailing of her cousin, Abdullyaev, believed to control most of the Ferghana Valley region of the country.
"The female half of our family was always uncomfortable with my personal growth," she added, "but it is progressing depending on circumstances and on the people they talk to!"
Karimova herself is the target of multiple money-laundering investigations in Europe and thought to have a harpy-like zeal for seizing businesses in Uzbekistan: a State Department cable published by Wikileaks referred to her as a "robber baron." Some analysts — including a rollicking account from a political scientist thought to be a cipher for the country's notorious secret services — have suggested that the scandal may be a ruse to help her repatriate the Karimov family's illicit wealth. Others, however, doubt that Uzbekistan's notorious secret services, the SNB, are sophisticated enough for such a strategy.
"As the inevitable presidential succession loomed closer over the last couple of years and the Uzbek elite feared Gulnara's ambitions, plans were made to derail her succession attempts," a London-based business consultant who frequently works on Uzbekistan said. "The SNB has been slowly positioning itself to take over the country for several years - a plan was hatched which would not only clip the president's daughters wings and humiliate her but also return much-needed foreign currency to the empty government coffers or the pockets of the elite," she added.
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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