She was a Princess Diana wannabe of Central Asia, a glamorous blonde who hobnobbed with European high society and made sultry music videos with the likes of Gérard Depardieu. As the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s president-qua-dictator Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova spent her entire life in a tightly-sealed oligarchic terrarium—and, though much reviled throughout the country, perhaps she presumed her position was inviolable.
But in the space of one month, the once-untouchable Karimova has suffered an astonishingly public fall—which she has chronicled via outraged missives on Twitter—culminating over the last few weeks in what appears to be the methodical seizing of her assets by Uzbek authorities. Strings of high-end shops—oddly devoid of shoppers—were closed and their goods confiscated; four televisions stations and three radio stations went black. The accounts of holding companies affiliated with Gulnara were also frozen, according to Radio Free Europe. “They’re cutting off her revenue streams,” says a well-placed source.
Whether the 75-year-old Karimov has decided to allow the very public humiliation of his daughter—she is described in a U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks as “the single most hated person in the country” —is a source of endless speculation inside Uzbekistan, where the news is tightly controlled. Karimov, who has no sons, has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since its creation after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Gulnara was long discussed as possibly next in line for power.
Many observers assume that with mounting legal troubles in Europe and her newfound love of Twitter, she had become too heavy a liability for the aged autocrat, perhaps creating an opportune moment for her enemies to strike. “People are attacking her to get her out of the way as a potential contender after her father dies, or, indirectly, to attack her father,” said one source who wished to remain anonymous.
Gulnara felt compelled to reaffirm her disinterest in political ambitions, via tweet, several weeks ago. Her loyal circle of cronies is reportedly being picked off one by one—either detained or suddenly disappeared into exile. Her younger sister Lola, currently Uzbekistan’s permanent delegate to UNESCO, distanced herself from Gulnara as well, stating that they had not talked in 12 years.
Perhaps isolation and growing panic has compelled Gulnara to take to Twitter to rage against the inequities visited upon her—as well as rail against her mother, whom she has accused of experimenting with black magic, and her sister, whom she has charged with various crimes and an interest in sorcery.
The speed of Gulnara’s ignominious fall is breathtaking, observers say. Until recently, she served as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain. Her vast holdings funded her opulent oligarchic lifestyle, allowing her to jet to various galas and openings draped in designer clothes and expensive jewelry. She appeared on the cover of numerous Russian-language magazines; in 2009 she graced the front of Russian Tatler with the headline “Gulnara Karimova: Queen of Asia.”
Gulnara was always an anomaly in Uzbekistan, a traditional, male-dominated Central Asian country. Glamorous, ambitious, acquisitive, and extraordinarily wealthy, she loved hobnobbing with the Russian and European elites and spent limited time in Uzbekistan. On Twitter, she touted yoga, along with pictures of herself in tight-fitting yoga attire. She also found time to engage those who disagreed with her.
Gulnara attended Harvard; she fancies herself an artist of many talents. As “Googoosha,” she sings in her own music videos, including duets with Julio Iglesias and Depardieu. She has a fan club on Twitter. She also found time to design jewelry for the Swiss firm Chopard. Gulnara has long styled herself a fashion designer; her label is called “Guli.”
Yet Uzbekistan’s reality sometimes darkened Gulnara’s gilded bubble. For example, in 2011, the organizers of New York’s Fashion Week blocked Gulnara from presenting her collection, reportedly in response to protests of Uzbekistan’s human-rights record. They had first asked her to withdraw, but she refused. (She has shown her collection elsewhere, such as China Week in Beijing in 2012.)
In what was widely seen as efforts to improve her image inside Uzbekistan as well as her country’s poor international reputation, Gulnara created philanthropic organizations as well as a think tank, and portrayed herself as a patron of the arts.
With diplomatic immunity—first as permanent representative to the UN in Geneva and then as ambassador to Spain—Gulnara was again allowed to travel freely throughout Europe and the U.S.
Yet clouds approached: prosecutors in Sweden began to look into an allegedly corrupt phone deal that was said to net Gulnara millions, and in Switzerland, investigators moved forward to get to the bottom of money laundering charges against a close associate of Gulnara’s. With investigations swirling, she apparently found it wise to return to Uzbekistan.
Although Uzbekistan is nothing more than a punch line for some, a faraway and unimportant place with a funny-sounding name —remember Herman Cain’s “U-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?”—the country is considered a resource-rich strategic linchpin of Central Asia: it borders Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. With almost 30 million people, it has by far the largest population as well as the largest and most sophisticated armed forces of the region. Uzbekistan was used by the U.S. during operations before and after the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.Uzbekistan also sits on vast mineral wealth, and it is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton.
Uzbekistan has profited greatly from the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, most recently as a transit point for goods destined for U.S. and NATO troops. This has led many human-rights activists to charge that the U.S. and Europe have turned a blind eye toward abuses there in exchange for access to its transit routes.
What Gulnara’s fall indicates for Karimov’s long reign is unclear at best. “Official news” in Uzbekistan has been limited, and western journalists generally do not receive visas to report from there. Moreover, Uzbekistan is a state with a vast security apparatus in which people assume their calls and e-mails are monitored, and self-censorship is habitual. Few would dare to publicly rage against the government, as Gulnara has, for fear of alerting the security services. Those whom the state considers dangerous are walked through show trials and banished into the notoriously harsh penal system.
The ability to find disparaging information about the president, government, or regime has been limited to those available to those with Internet access, which is relatively expensive. However, the latest events “have spread like wildfire,” says the source, as Gulnara’s endless tweets have variously accused the security services, government officials, and members of her own family of extensive corruption.
In her tweets, Gulnara states that “a lot of things are becoming…more transparent and open.” Increased transparency in authoritarian Uzbekistan as a result of Googoosha’s woes would perhaps serve as Gulnara’s most important—and unlikely—act of philanthropy.
The author wished to remain anonymous in the interest of security.