Published on April 24th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
Image © Timir01
Uzbekistan: Like Father, Like Daughter
She is glamorous, beautiful, charitable, down-to-earth and caring. She is a businesswoman, economist, a pop-star; a fashion designer, a diplomat and according one US diplomatic cable “The single most hated person in the country”. Gulnara Karimova is the 40-year old daughter of the current Uzbek-president Islam Karimov and if reports are to be believed the future president of the Central Asian republic. President Karimov, 75, is believed to be in poor health and this has triggered a debate about his succession.
Uzbekistan is a new country, based in an ancient land. It boasts Samarkand, once one of the great cities of the world, which was at the centre of the silk-road route. However, like most of Central Asia it was colonized by the Soviet Union. The Soviets divided Central Asia up-into 5 countries or ‘Stalin’s five republics’. Uzbekistan was one of these republics. Soviet rule and its subsequent collapse has left the country stagnated and isolated. Uzbekistan, which has a population of 29 million, is a mainly Muslim country and has a large youth bulge with 50% of people being under 25. President Karimov has been it’s only president since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The majority of the population has no memory of life before him.
Uzbekistan has a growing economy but this wealth is concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite. Many private enterprises are owned by the Karimov family. An estimated one-million children and adults are forced (by the government) to pick cotton, making the country number 3 in the list of countries which use slave labour. Under Karimov the country’s health service has declined– in 2004 it is estimated that there are 53 beds per 10,000 people in the country. There is an acute shortage of medicine with bribery being the main means by which citizens obtain essential medicines. The drinking water is polluted and this has spread diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, cholera and the spread of cancer.
Karimov has a large internal-security apparatus, which keeps him in power. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray wrote a memoir of his time in Uzbekistan. Entitled ‘Murder in Samarkand’, he documents the systematic rounding-up of suspected Islamists and the torture methods used on them. One such method included boiling opponents to death. British and American security services would use information passed on by the Uzbek government which was obtained under torture according to Murray. Uzbekistan is an important supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan and so the-US and UK is careful not to upset the Uzbek authorities.
This image of a oppressed, dying country is off-set against the image of the opulence in which the Karimov family live. Gulnara Karimova lives a luxury life-style founded upon corruption and violence. She is a ‘pop-star’ who has performed a duet with Julio Iglesias and last year she released her first album in the US. She also has her own jewellery collection and has staged her own fashion shows in New York. Gulnara subsidises her life-style by taking over Uzbekistan’s industries, which were ‘privatized’ under her father and this includes the depleted health sector. She has “bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the country” according to US diplomats. One Uzbek exile businessman recalls that Gulnara visited his restaurant once- she liked it. Later that day, the security forces visited him and told him the business no longer belonged to him- and he was under constant harassment from the authorities.
Gulnara has also had a colourful private life. In 1991 she married Mansur Maqsudi, an Afghan-American businessman. They had two-children together, but subsequently divorced and the US courts handed custody of the children to the father. Gulnara removed her children from the US and was subject to an International arrest warrant from Interpol. This warrant was withdrawn in 2008. In the last ten-years she has been seeking to raise her profile. Her father gave her diplomatic status and made her ambassador to Spain. She heads a number of NGO’s and charities in her country, which is designed to soften her image.
It is widely-believed that she intends to become president after her father dies, a thought that horrifies many Uzbeks. Her father has been seen in public a hand full of times due to ill health. There is speculation amongst Uzbek exiles that he has either suffered a heart attack or been poisoned. Reports of ill health have been officially denied- with Gulnara tweeting “Don’t try to grate on my nerves with this lowly talk”. Whatever the truth, Mr Karimov is old and cannot go on forever, there will be a succession crisis and Gulnara may take of the velvet gloves and reveal an iron fist of her own.