Among the many lurid stories on the British tabloid Daily Mail this weekend you might have missed this "phenomenal" deal: Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva and her husband Timur Tillyaev were able to purchase a £30 million mansion in Geneva from real estate tycoon Andrew Rosenfeld, a controversial new advisor to British Labour Party leader Ed Milliband, now leader of the opposition.
Rosenfeld paid £9million for the house four years earlier.
Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Tashkent claimed the deal "stank," because the money came from a brutal regime that "stole" from its people, says the Daily Mail.
The revelation adds to an existing controversy in the UK over the appointment of Rosenfeld, an admitted tax exile, following a £1million donation to the Labour Party, making him the party's biggest backer.
Much of Lola Karimova and her husband’s income comes from the Abu Sahiy company which controls the majority of Uzbek imports and is believed to have a turnover of £250,000 a day. The couple have been accused of orchestrating criminal action against commercial rivals.
Ms Karimova’s £30million property purchase was reported in the Swiss press last year as an example of the ‘meteorite’ which had hit local property prices as a result of an influx of money from central Asia.
The British daily The Independent has an intriguing story about a special undercover investigation: some public relations firms would be eager to accept lucrative lobbying contracts from the government of Uzbekistan, despite its horrible reputation for torture, imprisonment of dissidents, and forced child labor.
Journalists from The Independent's Bureau of Investigative Reporting posed as agents of the fictitious "Azimov Group" of British and East European investors in cotton textiles who said they had been tasked by Uzbekistan to help clean up its image.
The journalists said that out of 10 London firms, two refused to do business, several others didn't reply, and five, including Bell Pottinger appeared "keen to work" for a "£1m-plus" fee.
In the film clip accompanying the article, we hear the disguised reporter saying that the Uzbek president wasn't happy about his own Wikipedia entry or the one for Uzbekistan: what could the firm do to help? A representative of Bell Pottinger spoke of "all sorts of dark arts" that could be deployed such as Google-bombing to change the order of search results. Such firms also create fictitious blogs, manipulate parliamentarians, and -- as the agent cautioned -- do things that they couldn't put in their written presentation because if it "got out" it would be "embarrassing."
Says The Independent regarding the investigative reporters' account:
Their claims – which were secretly recorded – will add to mounting concerns that an absence of regulation has made London the global centre for "reputation laundering", where lobbyists work behind the scenes on behalf of the world's most controversial regimes.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to tackle lobbying which he says has "tainted our politics for too long."
The state media never discusses struggles for power and changes in the leadership, so outsiders are left guessing at clues.
But a string of other dismissals indicate the prime minister's power base may be eroding, says NBCA. These include Rovshan Muhiddinov, a former advisor to President Islam Karimov who coordinated the powerful security agencies; Tursunkhon Khudoibergenov, the emergencies minister; and Muhiddin Kiyomov, Uzbekistan’s deputy chief prosecutor, all of whom were reported to have been arrested last month. Khudoibergenov was later said to be freed after signing a pledge not to leave town, Inside the Cocoon noted, citing uzmetronom.com.
Other recent high-level dismissals include Deputy Prime Minister Botir Hojaev and Fergana regional governor Hamid Nematov.
In a shocking departure from its usual docile behavior, Uzbekistan's rubber-stamp parliament took Mirziyoyev to task in July for his cabinet's performance, EurasiaNet reported. That was seen not as a democratic surge from the legislature but rather orchestrated "from on high". Those fired also seem to be figures who were Mirziyoyev's allies.
No other news service, including the semi-official uzmetronom.com which often gets government leaks, seems to have the story NBCA has published:
"It’s possible Mirziyoev will be removed," a high-ranking official in government who wished to remain anonymous said. "He knows too much, and over his many years in office, he’s promoted many of his own supporters."
According to the Russian-language Swiss news sit nashagazeta.ch, last year the controversial Gulnara Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and UN organizations in Geneva, took third place among the wealthiest women in Switzerland, reported fergananews.com
It looks like you have to buy a copy of Bilan at the newstand to see the whole list, but apparently this year Gulnara is tied with her sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, Uzbekistan's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. What with Lola's failed libel lawsuit -- leaving the journalist who called her a "dictator's daughter" vindicated -- and Gulhara's flopped fashion show in Manhattan, the Karimovs may have had some unrecovered expenses this year. The pair have lost $200 million between them since last year, but are still worth $1 billion, says nashagazeta.ch
Other high rollers on the list include Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's daughter Dinara Kulibayeva.
And the debate continues as to whether it really is him.
A EurasiaNet reader Sarah Kendzior writes on Twitter: "Mirziyoyev is not on Facebook. I wrote about this months ago, and so did others (in Uzbek)."
In July, Kendzior noted that the prime minister's Facebook wall posts were "unironic" but wondered if he was really "...a Leon Panetta fan (?!)".
The article in Uzbek in Vatandosh she references denies that the Facebook page is really his, and cites the press service of the Cabinet of Ministers. Vatandosh also mentioned that some of the photos on the account seem to have been taken from the Internet.
But Uzbek colleagues have pointed out to me that some of the photos do seem to be original and do not seem to be from government sites, and they think the site could well be his. As they point out, why hasn't Mirziyoyev had this site closed down, if it isn't really his? In July, when the article was written, there were 400 friends; today, four months later, there are 1,825 friends so it's getting a lot of attention for Uzbekistan.
Facebook doesn't have a system for public figures to notate their personal account as "validated" as Twitter does, but it does enable public figures to make public profiles to which members can subscribe. Mirziyoyev's account is of the personal type.
As our sister blog The Bug Pit reported this week, speculation is mounting that a November 17 “terrorist attack” that knocked out a rail line connecting Uzbekistan with southern Tajikistan may not be all the Uzbeks say it was. One doesn’t have to look hard to find a motive for sabotage. Certainly, the episode seems to have limited archrival Tajikistan’s ability to supply NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
For Uzbekistan, perhaps the most significant aspect of the rail line in question is its complete irrelevance to its own economy, and to its role as the hub of the Northern Distribution Network that is essential for supplying NATO troops. The damage occurred on a section of track after the NDN freight turns off to Afghanistan, in the desert before crossing into Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has no other use for this line and appears in no hurry to see it repaired.
In an interview with Richard Solash of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Miklos Marschall, the deputy managing director of Transparency International, says that countries that were performing poorly in the past tended to stay in the low rankings: "corruption is so endemic that that is almost the system. So it's not a deviation from the system, it is the system."
The Arab Spring uprisings show that people are losing patience with their corrupt systems, says Marschall. That "should send an important message to some governments in Central Asia and some other places that corruption can lead to regime changes," he said.
Marschall is rather bleak on the prospects for these countries.
"The really, I would say, dark situation [is] in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where there is hardly any accountability whatsoever. The governing elites have practically no accountability," he says. "There is no political opposition. There is no civil society. There is no free press. So these are basically almost closed societies, and that's why there is no improvement."
That's a bit harsh, as in Uzbekistan, there is a small, hardy core of human rights defenders and independent journalists who do get the word out, and political opposition groups in exile do have some resonance inside the country, although it is difficult to measure.
That's the provocative theory that is beginning to circulate, fueled by the Uzbekistan government's refusal to disclose basic information about an alleged attack, and some pointed questions being asked in Tajikistan about who has benefited and who has suffered from a rail bridge explosion near the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. When the bridge was blown up on November 17, the Uzbekistan authorities called it a "terrorist act" and most observers, not least this blog, speculated that it might be Islamists trying to scuttle U.S.-Uzbek cooperation over the war effort in Afghanistan. Initial reports about the area affected suggested that it could have been on a line renovated by the U.S. for use in its Northern Distribution Network, by which the U.S. and NATO ship military cargo overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.
But since then, Uzbekistan has said nothing more about the incident. And it's emerged that while the U.S. military traffic to Afghanistan wasn't affected by the blast, shipping to neighboring Tajikistan -- with which Uzbekistan has chronically bad relations -- has been. A Tajikistan rail official complained that: "with the Uzbek railroad’s capacities, they should have been able to repair the bridge within a day. The Tajik railroad had offered to provide any assistance free of charge to speed up the restoration of traffic on the ... line, but had no response from Uzbek authorities, and no indication when repairs would be completed."
Perhaps this belongs to the department of "if you can't beat them, join them" -- the prime minister of Uzbekistan seems to have a Facebook page. (It could be a spoofed page, but it appears authentic.)
On Facebook, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev (if it's really him) doesn't just have an automatically-generated public figure page or a fan page that somebody made -- it's his individual page. He has 1,787 friends.
Although Uzbekistan has been trying to control the Internet to prevent any imitation of the Arab Spring, the number of web users has doubled to more than 7.7 million in the last year. The government has even encouraged an ersatz Facebook social network called Muloqot that promises data-scraping by the secret police instead of just by a private company.
From the Facebook page, you can see that Mirziyoyev is inspired by Nicolas Sarkozy, Lee Myung-bak, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and last but not least -- or maybe last and therefore least? -- Islam Karimov.
Under activities, Mirziyoyev has other pages he likes by Leon Panetta, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, MTS Uzbekistan -- and Karimov and Obama again among others.
For his religion, he puts "100 percent Islam," and for his political views he posts "conservative" which comes with a picture of the 18th century Irish statesman and Whig Edmund Burke. What does that mean, exactly, this "like" of a Western conservative? Burke supported the American revolution, but opposed the French revolution.
Mirziyoyev doesn't seem to control the comments on his wall very much -- under his last uploaded photo, which shows him flanked by Lukashenka and other regional leaders, a friend writes, "Except Medvedev, this is a nice shashlyk of gansters!"
Elena Urlaeva and Abdujalil Boymatov with signs calling for President Karimov's resignation in 2003.
Just as Uzbek authorities are reportedly releasing one political prisoner unlawfully held in a psychiatric hospital -- he happens to be President Islam Karimov's nephew -- they are busy threatening a human rights activist with forced psychiatric confinement, a practice still lingering in Uzbekistan from the Soviet era.
Elena Urlaeva of the Human Rights Alliance received a notice last week from Tashkent Psychiatric Clinic No. 2 that her case was being transferred to a court with a request for compulsory psychiatric treatment because she had supposedly violated the terms of her out-patient status, uznews.net reports.
Urlaeva says she was last put in a psychiatric hospital in 2005, after which the court pronounced her unfit to stand trial but then released her. Earlier in 2003, she was examined independently by Russian doctors who certified that she was sane.
The government seemed to drop the psychiatric angle for some years, so Urlaeva has been trying to understand why this notice has been contrived now. There's some speculation that perhaps it's a response to her recent involvement in cases in the city of Yangiyul in Tashkent region, where Urlaeva says she has discovered corrupt and violent police and prosecutors.