I’m so excited I don’t even know where to begin. Why? Because the following story has long raised our attention here at the blog. It came up at that allegorical first editorial meeting at that allegorical pub where we discussed how fascinated we were by how one can get so far having a bulletproof last name – as we discussed the rise to fame of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s only leader since 1989, Islam Karimov. Our guess is that the story will not end here so this piece will probably serve only as a brief introduction to the fabulous life of Googoosha or Guli. Why is now the time? It is because this Monday, the Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office named ‘Karimova G.’ amongst others as a suspect in the investigation of an organized criminal group.
As a prime introduction to Gulnara, I suggest you watch this:
This report from the 2013 Uzbek Fashion Week has everything that’s glamourous in it: fashion, music, famous people, Central-Asia-specific falconry motives and love messages both for FashionTv and well… Guli. It was posted on December 28, 2013 in the middle of the tumult that followed her return to Tashkent in September 2013 from Geneva.
As the linked RFE story goes about listing the conflicts of interest between her public persona and her business career (based on what we seem to know about the latter), it may become obvious to the reader that she kept a very high profile internationally for the past few years. She was involved in the fashion industry having her own fragrance and Guli fashion line but was also a popular singer and a poet in Uzbekistan (who even inspired the likes of Gerard Depardieu [sic]). Not an artist only in a-r-t, she accumulated a large fortune through her business ventures in media and telecommunications (apparently she was interested in restaurants, too) even as she had to master the art of diplomacy as Uzbekistan’s representative to the UN in Geneva. And, by the way, she also headed a charity organization called Fund Forum. Yet, regardless of said charitable niceties, she hails from a country where students are allegedly forced to pick cotton on the fields year after year. Accordingly, she had been strongly criticized for years for not doing enough, as a UN representative, to improve Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record, and was even implicated in it personally when her fashion show at the New York fashion week was cancelled in 2011, due to human rights organisations’ protest. On the other hand, she could enjoy a lavish lifestyle in Europe and largely undisturbed business back home up until 2012. That is when her opponents began to capitalize on her business scandals in Europe.
Her fall from grace was just as public as her life had been as a ‘princess’. Although she was named ‘the single most hated person in Uzbekistan’ by a WikiLeaks cable, she had 50,000 followers on Twitter including many of her younger fans who regarded her as the smallest evil when compared to other potential successors to her 75-year-old father.
The biggest blow to her public profile came in 2012 when news broke of Karimova’s close associates who allegedly accepted bribes worth of 320 million USD from TeliaSonera in exchange for governmental protection in Uzbekistan. The scandal has since provoked investigation in Sweden, France and Switzerland. This piece of Gulnara’s life would be worthy of its own post on the blog but now we will focus on the aftermath that has become a battle ground between Gulnara and her business associates, pitting them against Karimov’s closest circles, represented especially by Rustam Inoyatov, the president’s right hand, head of the Uzbek SNB state security service, and Gulnara’s younger sister Lola and her mother Tatyana.
Events sped up last year when Gulnara had to step down from her UN post in July (mostly because of the TeliaSonera scandal) and returned to Tashkent in September. In October and November her TV and radio stations were closed down, as well as her charity, the Fund Forum. In the beginning of 2014, she and her daughter were put under house arrest in Tashkent. And finally, after some of his associates were sentenced, including her boyfriend Rustam Madumarov on May 24, she was officially charged this week.
The mesmerizing characteristic of the affair probably isn’t even that a Central Asian high profile businessperson, let alone a presidential sibling, is brought under investigation but on how public this all turned out to be. As noted by FP, unusually for such circles, Gulnara’s fallout with her family was ‘uncharacteristically public’. She had always been known to be very open about her life on Twitter, which she had used to inform her growing fan base of her latest plans, whether it was her yoga class or her next musical collaboration. When her family turned against her, she decided to use the same platform to inform the public about the details of her struggles and began to accuse Inoyatov, as well as her mother and sister of trying to control the president and turn him against her. In the process, her account was disabled, deleted and reinstated multiple times only to finally disappear for good in February, which only strengthened her resistance against the pressure she claimed she was put under.
As a response, there was a BBC interview with her sister last September where Lola attempted to distance herself from Gulnara, saying they hadn’t kept in touch for the past 12 years. Then, after a handwritten letter obtained by the BBC in which she claimed she was held by her family, Gulnara’s son sat down with The Guardian selling the family out once again while voicing his concern for her mother’s well-being. The latest news came in August, when BBC received a voice recording from Gulnara herself repeating her cries for help from the international community to free her from her captivity where she was (and, if true, may still be) treated ‘worse than a dog’. We are speculating (and speculating only) that charging her officially was the response of her adversaries – and so we are eagerly waiting how the story continues to unfold.
Gulnara, freely roaming a field, once upon a time…