Gulnara Karimova for President?

Posted: October 26, 2013 in The Long Telegram

President Karimov 2

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Uzbekistan has gained a reputation as one of Central Asia’s most authoritarian and oppressive environments; just possibly eclipsed by the quasi-totalitarian regime in neighbouring Turkmenistan.  Led by former President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic Islam Karimov, the democratic process is almost non-existent.  Elections in 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2007 were criticised by the west as fraudulent, opposition parties are banned, media is heavily controlled and draconian security measures ensure a compliant population.  Western government and human rights organisations regularly highlight instances of arbitrary detainment and torture in the Uzbek criminal justice system, especially targeting opposition and civil rights activists.  The most prominent opposition groups, such as the Birdamlik Movement or the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, are forced to operate outside the country and have little popular support.

The impotence of genuine opposition groups means political change is extremely unlikey to originate from outside the ruling elite (Leaving aside for the moment the question of Islamic militancy).  Instead analysts and pundits, both inside and outside Uzbekistan, are beginning to openly speculate about who will eventually succeed Mr Karimov, who has has been in power over 20 years.  Mr Karimov goes to lengths to present himself as healthy and vigorous, which is common behaviour in systems where stability depends upon the concentration of power in one person’s hands.  In March 2013, however, rumours began to emerge on the internet that Mr Karimov had suffered a serious heart attack and was bid-ridden under the supervision of doctors, which coincided with a long absence from the state media.  Mr Karimov is prone to lengthy disappearances from TV and is often said to float rumours of his own ill health in order to gauge the response of his colleagues. But at the age of 75 he cannot count on his own existence endlessly. He must at some point begin planning for a transition.

Karimova UzbekistanConstitutional amendments, passed in March 2011, state that in the case of death or incapacity of the chief executive, the Chairman of the Senate will become interim president.  This would appear to put current Chairman, Ilgizar Matyakubovich Sobirov, in pole position to follow Mr Karimov.  Mr Sobirov is not considered to have the resources or the power base to sustain a challenge for the presidency, however, and so external analysts regularly focus their attention on a more colourful and controversial candidate, Mr Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova.

Aged just 41 Ms Karimova has attracted significant media attention in western countries over the last decade for her work as a singer (under the stage name Googoosha – apparently a pet name of her father’s), fashion designer, and diplomat as Uzbekistan’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva.  Ms Karimova cuts a swath of colour through the grey corridors of power in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and is doubtless viewed by some as a potentially more cosmopolitan and responsive leader than her father.  Apart from her outgoing demeanour and outrageously stylish fashion, she is also more globally connected as evidenced through her twitter account, to which she spends as much time engaging in arguments with human rights campaigners over the conduct of her father’s regime as she does posting pictures of herself doing yoga. I follower her on twitter myself, although I stress this is purely for research purposes… Karimova shoulder stand

Ms Karimov is regularly photographed at film festivals, fashion shows and charity events in the company of celebrities such as Sharon Stone, Elton John and even former US President Bill Clinton.  Last year she even recorded a duet with former French actor Gerard Depardieu on his swing through Central Asia.

Ms Karimova has certainly done nothing to cool speculation that she aspires to the presidency, refusing to deny it in an interview given to Pete Allman of Celebrity Scene News in March 2013.  I perceive an undercurrent of hope in some quarters that she might actually take over from her father. I cannot tell if this is purely because few western commentators know of any other figures that can rival her for international notoriety and certainly none that have her media friendly veneer, or whether there is true hope she will emerge into a democratic force due to her more consistent exposure to the western world.  Either way, it seems impossible to read an article about the political situation in Uzbekistan without the tag-line: “Gulnara Karimova, tipped by some as the favourite to assume the presidency after her father…” But is she really favourite? I found myself wondering what chance Ms Karimova really has to attain Uzbekistan’s highest office.

The easiest way to dismiss her chances would be to disqualify her on gender grounds.  I have seen one analysis suggest that the conservative, Islamic heritage of Uzbekistan would make it difficult for both the elite and the broader public to accept a woman in the country’s top leadership position.  I don’t believe, however, that this could truly prevent her from securing the presidency is she wanted it.  In the first instance, Rosa Otunbayeva proved a surprisingly stable and successful president in neighbouring and similarly Islamic Kyrgyzstan, and second, power in Central Asia comes from the availability of wealth and power to distribute to your followers. And Ms Karimova certainly has plenty of that…

She is reputed to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful businesspersons in the country.  Apart from her own fashion emporium, Dom Stila, she has known interests in crude oil producer Zeromax, shares in a coca cola bottling franchise in Tashkent and extensive telecommunications interests.  Her fortune is estimated at anywhere between USD 500mn and USD 3.5bn, much of it obtained due to her position as so-called “first daughter of the nation”.  It is regularly alleged that she has used state judicial resources to open tax investigations against target companies, and is not above ordering police raids or arrest to intimidate potential rivals.  Investigators in Sweden and Switzerland are also investigating whether Ms Karimova is linked to payments worth USD 230mn made by the Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera since 2007 for access to the Uzbek market.   The power of her father and the state apparatus has given her access to every sector of the economy and formed a powerful base from which to make a play for the presidency.  But her business interests also give her opponents an opening to act against her.

Karimova UNAllegations of her dubious behaviour have long been known to the international business community and foreign officials.  US diplomatic cables from 2005, leaked by the Wikileaks organisation, have described Ms Karimova as “a bully” and that she is seen by Uzbeks as a “greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.” It appears, however, that in recent months she has bitten off more than she can chew by picking a fight with MTS, a Russian telecommunications giant with extensive assets in Uzbekistan.  In July 2013 the Uzbek authorities forced MTS to shut its Uzbek operations, which provide coverage to a third of the population, on the ground of a massive unpaid tax bill of close to USD 600mn, following the disappearance of its regional CEO Bekhzod Akhmedov.  Soon afterwards Lombard Odier, a private Swiss bank, expressed concern that Mr Akhmedov, one of its customers, was allowing his accounts to be used by known associates of Ms Karimova, several of whom are already under investigation for involvement in the TeliaSonera bribery affair.  Suspicions have since emerged that Mr Akhmedov, an old associate of Ms Karimova’s maybe have been working willingly to undermine MTS’s Uzbek subsidiary, Uzdubrobita, on behalf of the so-called first daughter.

If these allegations are true and Ms Karimova is behind the attack on MTS she has chosen a formidable enemy.  Although she herself has a reputation for combative resilience the quarrel could see her make an enemy out of MTS’ owner, Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov.  In what has been a dangerous and competitive post-Soviet era for Russia’s mega rich (look no further than Mikhail Khodorkovsky) Mr Yevtushenkov has survived and prospered.  His Sistema Corporation is the largest publicly listed Russian company with no state holding and he is used to defending it.  As an unnamed source told the Financial Times in early 2013 “[…} this Russian oligarch is different. He eats other Russian oligarchs for breakfast.”  If the spat grows, and given the competitive nature of both Ms Karimova and Mr Yevtushenkov  there is every possibility it will, it could damage the valuable economic relationship between Russian and Uzbekistan.  A former employee summed up the situation nicely when he commented “When she [Ms Karimova] picks fights, she constantly makes mistakes and corners herself, and this makes it harder for her subordinates and Uzbek authorities to defend her.”  The faceless oligarchs and powerful security officials who comprise Uzbekistan’s elite are unlikely to look favourably on her antics and the potential fallout.

Rustam AzimovIt is possible the TeliaSonera and MTS affairs have already prompted Ms Karimova’s rivals for the presidency to move against her.  The consensus amongst analysts are that the three top candidates are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, Deputy PM and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (seen right) and head of the National Security Service Rustam Inoyatov.  The indications that she sees at least one of these figures as a rival were evident in April when she used her twitter account to air and re-tweet allegations that the Mr Azimov has made a fortune through corruption and mismanagement, apparently safe in the knowledge that her father’s patronage would defend her from similar criticism.  But it appears these attacks have stirred her opponents into action.  It is thought that this triumvirate was responsible for her dismissal as Uzbekistan’s representative to the UN in July 2013.  As she is currently under investigation on corruption charges related to TeliaSonera in Switzerland, the loss of her diplomatic immunity could see criminal charges laid and will complicate her access to foreign deposits.  The ease with which this success was achieved seems to have encouraged her opponents to escalate her downfall last week when her Markaz TV, SOFTS and NTT television stations all abruptly stopped transmitting right in the lead up to her fashion festival.  Apart from being a personal humiliation to the first daughter, reports that an order came from above to “clean up the act”, on stations that broadcast extensive footage and advertisements for Ms Karimova’s charities and philanthropic pursuits, is a clear sign of outside interference.

gulnara-karimova_FashionSo, while Ms Karimova undoubtedly harbours some aspirations to occupy the president’s chair, the odds appear to be stacking up against her.  For her to successfully make a bid for the top job in the face of competition several stars would have to align for her.  She would either have to attract considerable popular support and have resources enough take over the patronage networks that have maintained her father, or she would have to have the backing of key sectors of the regime, especially the security services.  Unfortunately for her both US diplomatic cables and anecdotal evidence suggest she is widely disliked in the country because of her extravagant wealth and heavy handed business practices.  There is also no evidence to suggest she has any support amongst the bureaucracy, the finance ministry or security forces (though this author doesn’t doubt conscripts up and down the land don’t admire her willowy figure and talented voice), which are controlled by her rival, Mr Inoyatov.  It is also hard to imagine the elderly and stern Uzbek Generals taking orders from a colourful and flamboyant fashion designer.

Karimova Queen of AsiaThe only factor that keeps her in with a chance for the presidency in the face of what seems to be attacks by her rivals is her proximity to her father.  For years his patronage has shielded her from outside criticism and allowed her to build up a massive business empire.  But it appears that even he can’t defend her from recent schemes designed to diminish her prestige and reduce her influence.  Which adds emphasis to the even more intriguing question of just how healthy and effective Mr Karimov is, that he is unable or unwilling to prevent his daughter losing her UN post or her major media outlets.  In the end Ms Karimova is unlikely to make it to the pinnacle of Uzbek power, but I wouldn’t say she is destined for obscurity.  Her enormous wealth and business influence will give her a powerful platform to fight her enemies as well as a prominent voice in selecting his successor.

  1. Pauline Frost says:

    “The Succession Problem” is always very interesting, especially in dictatorial regimes. Look at what happened after Tito died. In this case the outside world knows little about Uzbekistan so this is a very informative overview of a book that has been closed to most of us.

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