For years, Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, courted the media spotlight, whether as an aspiring pop diva, purveyor of haute couture or a jet-setting football groupie. But now that she has suddenly lost her ambassadorial post in Switzerland, and with it her diplomatic immunity, she is apparently planning an image make-over, voicing more loudly than ever a desire to become some kind of Angelina Jolie-style philanthropist.
The desire to play up her self-proclaimed penchant for do-gooding is very likely related to two ongoing corruption probes that have embroiled Karimova associates – one a Swiss dirty money inquiry, the other a Swedish telecom bribery investigation. Karimova is not a formal suspect in either case. However, with her associates entangled, she has been under intense media scrutiny.
News of Karimova’s removal as Uzbekistan’s United Nations envoy in Geneva broke in mid-July. The cause of her unexpected departure remains a matter of conjecture. “It’s unlikely that there’s one single factor or catalyst – it’s plausible that the media scrutiny has meant that she has become too personally associated with these cases, and that it was judged sensible to remove her from this diplomatic role so as to give less opportunities for negative media coverage,” Anna Walker, senior analyst at London’s Control Risks consultancy, told EurasiaNet.org.
The loss of diplomatic immunity potentially leaves Karimova open to prosecution in either of the continuing investigations, provided investigators come up with incriminating evidence and re-classify her as a suspect. But if she’s feeling any heat, Karimova is intent on not letting anyone see her sweat. Publicly, she has downplayed her diplomatic downfall, tweeting that she wants to concentrate on her “24/7” involvement in projects inside Uzbekistan, where she has embraced charity work and has for some time sought to portray herself as a philanthropist. Such emphasis on good works would seem designed to soften her domestic image as the country’s “most hated” public figure.
There is also a behind-the-scenes reason for Karimova to focus on activities inside Uzbekistan. Political maneuvering among various factions stands to intensify as her father, who is 75, gets older. Karimova, no doubt, wants to keep her options open after the incumbent leaves the political stage.
“Karimova’s diplomatic career, or ensuing speculation over her potential rise or fall in Uzbek politics, … is of importance in the context of the inevitable change of power at the helm of state,” Lilit Gevorgyan, regional analyst at Colorado-based IHS Global Insight, told EurasiaNet.org.
Karimov’s current presidential term ends in January 2015. While he has given no indication that he is prepared to leave office, his advancing age, combined with unconfirmed reports of frail health, makes it likely that a succession struggle is already gearing up behind closed doors.
“Given the president’s age, all political machinations in Uzbekistan, particularly where they involve members of Karimov’s family, can be linked to the succession battle,” said Walker.
Karimova has been active in Tashkent’s turf wars. This spring, for example, she leveled corruption allegations against Rustam Azimov, first deputy prime minister and finance minister – a man seen as well poised to step into Karimov’s shoes.
Karimova – whose own controversial business practices once led to her being dubbed a “robber baron” in a WikiLeaks cable – suggested Azimov was worth $4 billion, dwarfing the $570 million that Germany’s Der Spiegel estimated her fortune at in 2010.
It would seem that Karimova harbors ambition to succeed her father: last year, she wouldn’t rule out throwing her hat into the succession ring. But her chances appear slim, given that she has a weak political powerbase to go along with the fact that she suffers from low public esteem. “The choice of Karimova would be highly unpopular, both with the public and with powerful elements of the political elite, and as such she is not really a credible successor,” Walker suggested.
Karimova is trying her best to distance herself from trouble. She has implied she was the victim of a conspiracy in connection with her removal from her diplomatic post. She specifically aimed her fire not at domestic foes but at Russia’s MTS telecoms company, which has been at loggerheads with Tashkent since it was forced out of the Uzbek market last year. (Karimova sold MTS its Uzbekistan subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, in 2004).
The Uzbek dictator’s daughter lost her protective veil of immunity just as Swiss investigators turned up the heat in a money-laundering case involving Bekhzod Akhmedov, formerly a top figure in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector. At the Swiss inquiry’s behest, French police recently raided properties in France, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on July 16 (declining to reveal details). One was a Paris flat belonging to Karimova, BBC Russian reported, citing an “informed source.”
Akhmedov also features in the Swedish bribery case, which is looking into allegations that Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera made shady payments of $320 million to a one-woman firm in a tax haven – Takilant, run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan (also reportedly a suspect in the Swiss probe). The payments were allegedly intended to help the company to gain a foothold in Uzbekistan in 2007.
Akhmedov was then director of rival company O’zdunrobita – but he nevertheless served as TeliaSonera’s mediator in Uzbekistan. Documentation submitted to Swedish courts indicates TeliaSonera executives believed Akhmedov was Karimova’s intermediary, raising questions about who was the ultimate beneficiary of the payments.
“While at the time there was information circulating that there may have been other beneficial owners behind Takilant, TeliaSonera was not able to establish any owner other than Gayane Avakyan,” John Lough, vice president of BGR Gabara, which describes itself as a “lobbying, crisis management and media relations company,” told EurasiaNet.org by email. Lough, it’s worth noting, served as a spokesman for Red Star/Mina Corp, the firms that were at the heart of a 2010 US congressional probe into allegedly corrupt practices at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. The investigation ultimately did not find evidence of wrongdoing.
In February TeliaSonera’s CEO Lars Nyberg resigned after an internal investigation conducted by an outside law firm found the company disregarded its own guidelines. TeliaSonera executives deny engaging in any criminal activity and none was proven in that internal probe. But Swedish prosecutors continue their own criminal bribery investigation.
Karimova’s removal as ambassador raises the question of why her father did not come to her rescue: was he unwilling to do so, or did he lack the political capital?
As Gevorgyan points out, the “complete lack of any meaningful political debate in mainstream Uzbek politics over the country’s future political setup” leaves room for speculation.
“‘Karimova-watching’ is simply an attempt by the public to decipher the identity of the future head of the state where most of important decisions are made behind closed doors, leaving the public space to be occupied by rumors and guesswork,” Gevorgyan said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.