The activist site WikiLeaks has released another batch of alleged diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent describing the background to appointments of Gulnara Karimova, President Islam Karimov's daughter, and Zeromax, the conglomerate now seized by the state, where she was alleged to have had a controlling role.
A cable dated February 4, 2008 cites a redacted source who said Karimova's appointment was a "good sign" and said Karimova would be good for promoting Uzbek culture and was "more qualified" than her predecessors. This source also predicated (wrongly, as it turned out) that Karimova would be made "deputy prime minister" by 2009. The source added, "He also said (protect) that 'no one' at MFA wants the job of working for her'". Understood.
The big bonus for this appointment, the cable writer explained, was that Karimova automatically gained diplomatic immunity -- and more security in traveling abroad to Europe and the U.S. -- so that a warrant issued in New Jersey for her arrest after fleeing the U.S. with her children in 2001 "following a messy divorce and custody battle" would have no effect.
The cable also relates the U.S. Embassy's conviction that Karimova is involved in Zeromax:
Embassy political FSN believed that Karimova's appointment is an attempt to provide her with diplomatic cover so that she may be able to travel freely once again to Europe, and possibly even to the United States, to inspect her family's finances. Karimova is widely seen as controlling the Zeromax corporation, which is headquartered in Switzerland and controls a large stake in many of the key sectors of the Uzbek economy, including its gas, oil, and gold extraction industries.
The cable writer concludes that it's "hard to tell" whether Karimova was being prepared for succession (it seems not) or diplomatic cover to travel abroad on Zeromax business (now moot). The conclusion seems to be an analysis that still holds true, however, regarding the never-ending story of Karimova:
On the one hand, Gulnora could become a Deputy Prime Minister, though with the number of enemies she has acquired through her rapacious business appetites, this might prove an ill-fated move. More probable, in our estimation, is an attempt to forge for Gulnora a positive international image and perhaps buy her the political protection she will need when and if the Karimovs decide to exit Uzbekistan's political state - and perhaps Uzbekistan itself.
Another cable dated September 18, 2008, contains speculation about Karimova's UN appointment, and notes that the requests for visas to Switzerland for herself and her children came "very suddenly and with pressure for a fast turnaround". The speculation here, too, is that succession plans are not so much driving the appointments as post-Karimov protection plans:
...the fear and loathing that many alienated businessmen in Uzbekistan have for her suggests that her life in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan would be less than secure. It is interesting to note now that both Karimov daughters hold diplomatic postings outside of Uzbekistan--Gulnora in Geneva, and Lola at UNESCO in Paris.
The backgrounder takes the reader (and now the public) through the various twists and turns of Zeromax's aquisitions and subsidiaries and lawsuits including one filed in federal court in Houston in 2007 by a Texas-based tea company that operated in the Uzbek tea market and "sued its insurer for failing to pay out on extortion and kidnap coverage after Karimova allegedly used her influence with the government to drive the company out of the country, even arresting or threatening to arrest company employees to force them to sign over assets".
While the U.S. Embassy concluded that even this and other lawsuits weren't enough to say "don't do business with Zeromax" because "such a stance may not be legally justified or sustainable in practice," it did say businesses should "be entered into with open eyes" and the Embassy was prepared to provide advice.
You have to wonder if the Embassy was prepared to help with ransom fees as well -- and why the US found it so necessary to have to keep in Zeromax's good graces.
Another cable dated November 26, 2007 titled "Resource Nationalism: Grab What You Can" takes a tour through the Uzbek state's ownership of all natural resources and its grab back of joint ventures, but then still concludes optimistically that the government "is not necessarily predatory towards foreign firms" but if a foreigner profits he "comes to the attention of elite Uzbeks who want a share of the profit". As of that cable's writing of more than four years ago, that meant Karimova and Rustam Azimov, then finance minister, -- and now first deputy prime minister of Uzbekistan.
The cables have to be studied some more for clues to President Karimov's possible succession plans and his possible playing off against each other of different power groups in Uzbekistan, but likely there will be many who will find it reassuring that at least somebody is thinking of the day "when and if the Karimovs decide to exit Uzbekistan's political state - and perhaps Uzbekistan itself".