According to the Chinese zodiac, 2013 was the year of the snake. But if there was a journalists’ zodiac, it was the Year of Gulnara.
From her Twitter rampages to a dubious duet with Gerard Depardieu, the past year has transformed Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimova from an occasional back-page curiosity to a full-time weird-news magnet — and a useful springboard for exploring more resonant questions about the country’s deplorable rights abuses under her father, President Islam Karimov.
With Karimova once tapped as a likely successor to her authoritarian father in 2015, any news about her — silly or serious — seemed potentially pertinent. But now, with her political star reportedly crashing back to Earth, some are asking: Did the Year of Gulnara serve a purpose, or was it merely tabloid fodder?
Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch, has provided some of the year’s best Gulnara-watching by Twitter-sparring with Karimova over her country’s record of prison torture, forced labor, and illegal detentions.
He says Karimova’s celebrity has proved useful in introducing many people to an isolated country that rarely makes headlines in the global press. But in terms of improving human rights? Not so much.
“Was it useful to have her out there and communicating and doing kind of weird things, like talking to activists on Twitter? Did it help us to highlight these issues? Maybe in part,” Stroehlein said. “But the fact is, none of that made any significant changes on the ground in Uzbekistan. It’s still an absolutely horrific state when it comes to human rights abuses. So it’s been a bit of a sideshow, unfortunately.”
Princess Or Pillager?
The 41-year-old Karimova’s range of activities has often made it difficult to gauge where she lies on the scale between pampered frivolity and steely ambition.
She appears to take earnest delight in her softer pursuits: pop music, fashion design, and yoga. But she also sits atop a massive fortune built on a ruthless accumulation of rival assets and corrupt dealings with foreign investors.
Gulnara Karimova: Losing Her Accessories. Hover over the black dots to see how Karimova’s world is changing.
Documents have shown Karimova, who sits at the center of Swiss, Swedish, and French money-laundering probes, appearing to demand bribes from the Swedish telecoms giant TeliaSonera in exchange for entry to the Uzbek market. The local TeliaSonera branch, UCell, continues to sponsor lavish pet projects like her Fund Forum charity and the annual Style.uz festival.
At the same time, Karimova has sought a degree of political legitimacy on the international stage. Even before rumors of her presidential ambitions began to swirl, she had served as her country’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva.
Young, polished, and well-traveled, Karimova once seemed ideally placed to address growing concerns about Uzbek atrocities such as the 2005 Andijon massacre and the use of children and students as unpaid labor in the annual cotton harvest, an issue that fueled a boycott of her designs during New York Fashion Week in 2012.
But Karimova has steadily rebuffed all opportunities to engage with the wider public on human-rights issues. Mutabar Tadjibaeva, an Uzbek rights worker who spent years in prison before fleeing to France, said she was unable to “even find an office” for Karimova’s Geneva staff, and was subjected to police questioning after approaching Karimova’s $20 million villa in the city’s posh Cologny neighborhood.
“There’s a fairy tale about a princess who thinks she can do anything she wants because she’s the daughter of the sultan. And that’s precisely the kind of woman Gulnara is,” Tadjibaeva says.
“She doesn’t behave like an Uzbek ambassador to the UN in Geneva,” she adds. “She doesn’t behave like a PhD who can talk about how many diplomas they have. No. She behaves like a common woman on the street who shouts and lays blame on others, no matter whether she’s right or wrong.”
Alone Again, Naturally
Karimova’s own family might agree. The past month has seen a spectacular unraveling of the Karimov clan, with Gulnara accusing her younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, of practicing sorcery and using it to bewitch their mother, Tatiana. (Local press accounts claim Tatiana Karimova, goaded by Lola, helped ignite Gulnara’s recent troubles at home by informing Islam Karimov about their daughter’s myriad corruption and criminal complaints.)
Since then, Karimova has lost her bodyguards, seen her circle of allies arrested, and watched as her TV and radio channels went black. Several of her organizations, including the powerful Fund Forum, have reportedly been put under investigation, and at least one — the TerraGroup media holding company — has had its bank accounts frozen.
The assault on Karimova’s domestic assets has been so sudden and sweeping that it is widely seen as a direct order from the president himself — an astonishing rift in the father-daughter relationship that has prompted the still Twitter-armed Karimova to compare her father to Stalin, and herself to Stalin’s ill-fated sons.
Alisher Ilkhamov, an Uzbek native, says no matter how many bridges Karimova burns, there is only one she needs to rebuild in order to regain her footing — the one leading to the president.
“She still probably has some kind of ambitions. And she probably hopes to somehow throw out all these negative issues and mend the relationship with her father,” says Ilkhamov, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London.
“Because for her to survive — politically and even physically — is something that can be achieved only by regaining her political position in the country. Especially after Karimov, because it’s unclear what the source of her subsistence will be in the future.”
More To Come
Karimova’s reported demise has revived Uzbekistan’s succession drama, with at least three top officials — Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, and secret-police chief Rustam Inoyatov — believed to be vying for the top spot. Neither is it certain that the 75-year-old Karimov, despite poor health, is ready to give up his post during the country’s next elections in 2015.
Many believe that Karimova may be the only person who could offer her father, and the family overall, protection from criminal prosecution once Karimov gives up the post. (Some observers have speculated the current tiff may be mere political stagecraft meant to throw Karimov’s rivals off the scent, and that Gulnara is still her father’s top choice.)
The prospect of the presidency going to someone other than a Karimov has sparked both hopes of reforms and fears of chaos, but according to activist Tadjibaeva, one thing is certain: “No matter who comes in, the first order of business will be to take revenge on the Karimovs.”
In this way, activists suggest, Karimova may yet have a useful role to play: that of the victim.
Ann-Sofie Nyman of the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights says there have been few positives to Gulnara’s well-publicized rise and fall. But if the “dictator’s daughter” herself falls prey to the criminal autocracy that once fed her success, it will be the ultimate lesson of how barbaric the Uzbek regime can be.
“In a way, it’s also a bit ironic that the fact that her media has been shut down. It shows that even people who are so high up, even members of the elite regime in Uzbekistan, can also become victims to these repressive policies,” Nyman says.
“Maybe that is also sort of symbolic of the situation in the country. No one is safe.”