Gulnara Karimova is already a singer, composer, fashion designer, professor, diplomat, philanthropist, and businesswoman. Now, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov can add wedding party organizer to her overflowing list of "achievements."
2012 has been declared the “Year of a Strong Family” in Uzbekistan, and Karimova is lending her party planning expertise to the government’s family-oriented campaign through the “1,000 Weddings and 1,000 Circumcisions” project organized by her charity organization, Fund Forum.
Partnered with high-profile organizations like UNESCO, UNDP, and the British Council, Fund Forum says the mass weddings and circumcision events are organized for the sake of orphans and young couples from low-income families. At one such ceremony in March, a total of 123 couples were married and 200 boys circumcised in mass ceremonies in Uzbekistan’s Navoi and Kashkadarya regions.
The mood is not all festive, however. People have begun to complain about being forced to hold ceremonies under threat of losing pensions and other social services, and local officials and businessmen claim the elaborate celebrations are draining local community coffers -- making such payments impossible anyway.
Twenty-six-year-year-old Arazdurdi Toshmatov -- who lives off disability benefits and is married with a four-year-old son -- told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that he was coerced by local officials into participating in one of the mass weddings.
“When I went to the mayor’s office to ask for help and complain about my poor life, they forced me to participate in the wedding organized by Fund Forum,” says Toshmatov. He explained that the administrators at the mayor’s office told him that if he didn’t participate in the ceremony his monthly disability benefits would be cut.
In the end, Toshmatov did not receive his benefits anyway. “We didn’t get payments for June and July,” he said. “The bank told us that all the money was spent on the wedding party. It’s a waste of money, the wedding was good but it would be better if it was paid for.”
Toshmatov is not alone. On June 4, Adham, a retired 76-year-old man from Andijon told RFE/RL that when he went to the post office to pick up his monthly pension they told him it would be delayed. The reason? The officials told Adham that the mass wedding ceremonies organized by Fund Forum had exhausted their funds.
Fund Forum acknowledges that local municipalities are partners in the events, but the offices are listed among several corporate and state sponsors. Although the organization boasts of giving “clocks, Gulnara-designed stylish amulets, and other items as gifts,” Toshmatov explains that in his case the carpet, wall clock, and TV set he and his wife were given were actually gifts from a local businessman.
Founded in 2004, the Fund Forum organizes activities ranging from kids’ fashion shows to art exhibitions -- and of course weddings and circumcision parties. It also boasts an impressive array of partners, including (according to them) The Louvre Museum. Gulnara Karimova serves as chairwoman of the organization’s board of trustees.
The exact origins of Karimova’s fortune remain a mystery, but she has long been tied to Zeromax, a holding company that was taken over by the state in 2010 after years of acquiring majority stakes in almost every important industry in Uzbekistan. A Swiss taxpayer, she has an estimated net worth north of $600 million.
For some, the Fund Forum is a sophisticated and well-financed PR machine for Karimova back in her native Uzbekistan, where her image is -- according to leaked diplomatic memos -- less than flattering.
According to Amnesty International's 2011 report, Uzbekistan is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights where torture, religious persecution, and strong censorship laws are the defining hallmarks of the Karimov regime. Fund Forum, it seems, aims to change that image.
The organization had received only modest attention until May, when Karimova was linked to a star-studded fundraiser (actor Billy Zane was there!) for foundations run by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prince Albert of Monaco.
The event featured showings of Karimova’s “Guli” fashion and accessory lines which, according to the Fund Forum website, “represent a particular conceptual approach to jewelry, which consists in [sic] rejecting classical norms in the art of jewelry; Guli seeks to combine previously incompatible aspects, to blend cultures and to come up with impeccable quality in Swiss polishing.”
Karimova has been "able to turn her beauty, charisma, and charitable projects into state-level affairs,” and now Uzbeks can be fashionably attired and married under her banner -- whether they like it or not.