Gulnara Karimova’s Fall From Grace
There was a time when Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s autocratic president, was one of the most powerful people in Central Asia. As the dictator’s eldest daughter, she was untouchable. Karimova had her own fashion line, a pop music career, represented her country at the U.N. in Geneva, and an ironclad grip ...
There was a time when Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s autocratic president, was one of the most powerful people in Central Asia. As the dictator’s eldest daughter, she was untouchable. Karimova had her own fashion line, a pop music career, represented her country at the U.N. in Geneva, and an ironclad grip on several major businesses. But that all melted away on Monday, when state prosecutors charged her with systemic corruption.
Karimova’s fall from grace has been uncharacteristically public for Uzbekistan, one of the world’s most isolated and repressive countries. Up until March, Karimova, known for her active Twitter presence, had been tweeting about her fall-out with her strongman father and the erosion of her business empire. But that ended six months ago, when she was unceremoniously placed under house arrest in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, assumedly under her father’s authority, with all communication to the outside world cut off and her Twitter account disabled.
The charges against Karimova are the culmination of a 20-month dynastic struggle among Uzbekistan’s ruling family and the president’s inner circle. Islam Karimov, Gulnara’s father, has led Uzbekistan since it was still a part of the Soviet Union. But at 75, the president is rumored to be in poor health. Gulnara was once considered a contender to succeed her father. Many experts see her downfall as the product of an emerging power vacuum ahead of upcoming elections in 2015.
One figure that Karimova is believed to have locked horns with is Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the SNB, Uzbekistan’s national security service. In December 2013, Karimova claimed on Twitter that Inoyatov had turned her father against her in an attempt to seize power. Inoyatov is known for having the president’s ear. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 describes Inoyatov as controlling political access to the president and even extorting various cabinet ministers to keep them in line and prevent them from developing close relationships with the president.
Although Karimova’s downfall may be the result of a Shakespearean power struggle, her high-profile financial misdeeds are also likely to have played a role. The charges against her claim that she plundered approximately $60 million worth of assets from the country. This isn’t the first time that large-scale corruption charges have been leveled against Karimova. Swiss prosecutors have been investigating Karimova for money laundering since last year. Her diplomatic immunity as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva shielded her from investigation. But once she left the post in July 2013, she became the subject of the Swiss probe.
Upon learning about the investigation, Karimova returned to Tashkent in September 2013, which is when the feud within Uzbekistan’s first family became public. That same month, the family appears to have turned against her. Gulnara’s little sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, said in a rare interview with the BBC that she had not spoken to her sister in 12 years. The comments illuminated the emerging rift in Tashkent, as Karimova’s family and other members of the ruling elite tried to distance themselves from her tainted reputation.
Karimova’s controversial international business dealings are not confined to Switzerland. In 2012, Swedish journalists uncovered evidence linking the Swedish-Finnish telecom company, TeliaSonera, with a $300 million bribe in 2008 to enter Uzbekistan’s mobile-phone market. The money was traced to an offshore company registered in Gibraltar, which was owned by Karimova’s close associates. The scandal has since become the biggest corruption case in Swedish history and Karimova became an official suspect.
Like the other scandals, Karimova denied any involvement and the company itself denies any wrongdoing. In a March letter believed to have been written by Karimova while under house arrest and smuggled to the BBC, the author insists that the charges are the work of Inoyatov, the security chief.
Amid the power struggle, it is uncertain what role Islam Karimov has played in all this. It is unlikely that Gulnara could have been targeted without the approval of a leader who has spent the last 23 years consolidating his hold on power. But who will succeed him remains a mystery. For that reason alone, the country’s political turmoil may not be over.
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan