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Uzbekistan’s ‘Most Famous Party Girl’ in Sweeping Graft Probe

  • Mike Eckel

Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek fashion designer, pop star, entrepreneur and daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov has generated legions of fans and enemies in her rise and fall.

Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek fashion designer, pop star, entrepreneur and daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov has generated legions of fans and enemies in her rise and fall.

She is Central Asia’s most famous party girl. She designed jewelry and staged fashion shows. She ran television stations. She recorded syrupy pop videos with French film star Gerard Depardieu. And she was once seen as heir apparent to the man who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for decades -- her father.

Now Gulnara Karimova is a publicly named suspect in a sweeping graft investigation brought by national prosecutors in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

The announcement of the probe Monday was the latest chapter in a head-spinning fall from power and prestige for Karimova.

With her fashion houses and media empires dismantled, and hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore banks frozen by European corruption investigators, she appears to have been shut out of the possibility of stepping into the shoes of her aging father, Islam Karimov.

It is astonishing to watch from this distance,” said David Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and former Central Asia researcher for the International Crisis Group. “I’m surprised it’s gone so far, but it’s clearly a sign that the regime is having trouble dealing with this round of internal turmoil.”

Under Karimov's iron fist

A former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan is home to Central’s Asia largest population, substantial oil and gas reserves, a cotton industry where child labor is rampant and a festering insurgency by Islamic radicals spilling over from Afghanistan’s turmoil.

It was also once an ally of the United States in the war on terror, until its relations with the West soured amid reports of human rights abuses and the massacre of hundreds of civilians by government forces in the city of Andijan in 2005.

According to the statement by the Prosecutor General’s office, the investigation stemmed from a probe into an organized crime group led by two men, including Rustam Madumarov, who is known as a close associate and boyfriend of Karimova. Madumarov and several others were sentenced in May for financial crimes including blackmail, extortion, embezzlement and bribery.

Prosecutors said investigators were also focusing on other alleged members of a criminal group, “in particular G. Karimova as well as other members ...”

Karimov has ruled the country since 1991 and, by accounts of Uzbek exiles, human rights groups and anti-corruption advocates, has allowed graft and nepotism to thrive.

'Poet, mezzo soprano, exotic beauty'

Gulnara, the eldest of his two daughters who calls herself "Googoosha," has flourished as an entrepreneur, hosting art exhibitions in Tashkent, buying exclusive nightclubs in the city and getting herself named a U.N. ambassador in Geneva. Until last fall, she was also a prolific poster to Twitter who called herself “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.”

Last year, Swedish journalists revealed some of the extent of Karimova’s dealings, reporting allegations that she was personally involved in negotiating bribes paid by Scandinavian telecommunications giant TeliaSonera to gain access to the Uzbek cell phone market. Karimova has denied the allegations. Other investigations were reportedly ongoing in Switzerland and France.

In October, Uzbek bank accounts belonging to companies linked to Karimova were frozen, and her television and radio stations were taken off the air. A month later, she posted a series of messages to Twitter complaining about her business partners and allies being harassed or arrested by law enforcement agencies. She lost her ambassadorship in Switzerland.

By February, police had searched her Tashkent apartment and arrested Madumarov and other associates. In March, in a letter obtained by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Karimova complained about being under house arrest and being subjected to "severe psychological pressure."

That same month, Swiss prosecutors announced they were investigating Karimova for possible money laundering and "alleged illegal acts taking place in the telecommunications market in Uzbekistan." The statement said around $915 million in funds had been seized by Swiss authorities.

Money, not politics

Experts on Central Asian politics said it was plausible that the prosecution was moving forward not for political purposes, but in an effort to obtain the seized funds from European banks.

“I feel they are playing political games with her, otherwise they could fine her and put her in jail. Instead now she is just on house arrest, because simply her father is a president,” Safar Begjan, an exiled Uzbek dissident, told VOA.

“You shouldn’t rush to a judgment that she’s in trouble with criminal justice in Uzbekistan,” said Scott Horton, a New York lawyer and longtime observer of Uzbek politics. “It could be tactical defensive maneuver by the Uzbek state.”

Whether the investigation will result in a formal indictment of Karimova is an open question.

Regardless, the process has tarnished the Karimov family and its allies, analysts said, and injected an element of instability at a time when Karimov is aging: at 76, he is the oldest ruler in ex-Soviet Central Asia.

Given the danger posed by Islamic militants, past bloodletting between Uzbeks and other ethnic groups and substantial oil and gas wealth, instability of any sort is hugely problematic for the region.

“It’s not like political succession in many systems,” Lewis said. “In these post-Soviet authoritarian systems, if you lose political power, you lose material power and possibly much more: perhaps your family, your allies, your clan loses power as well. There’s no mechanism for this peaceful transition of power….

"And inevitably these people hold on for far longer than is sensible,” he said.

A correspondent for VOA's Uzbek Service contributed to this report