Uzbekistan’s First Daughter: A guide to recent headlines

Thanks to @cjcmichel for his always-brilliant contributions. 

Some observations on Googoosha. There’s a certain realization, ticked somewhere between kitschy pop songs and the attendant parkour-ing along Registan’s skyline, somewhere astride her fashion efforts and her olfactory ambitions – somewhere through all the snide commentary about Googoosha and daddy’s money – that you find yourself looking at her career from a new, oblique angle.

There’s only so much you can say about Gulnara Karimova, the First Daughter and First Pop Star of Uzbekistan, who sings under the name Googosha. We are not going to go into personal criticisms of her, her work and her music. There’s enough of that available. Rather, we want to look at the unfolding events surrounding her ties to various business endeavors, in an attempt to clarify why she has been making headlines lately, and what the implications are for the future of Uzbekistan.

You don’t find yourself pitying her, no more than you would find yourself pitying the Queen’s corgis, or Paris Hilton’s plastic surgeon – Gulnara owns the same fortunes, with even less moral rectitude. (It takes certain gall to be “the most hated person” in Uzbekistan, after all.) No, the irony doesn’t lie in any different than anyone’s yet offered – the woman and her work seem as heinous as you’ll find within Central Asia. But Googoosha, through her musical exploits and haute couture, has, in her own way, shifted Uzbekistan’s international reputation, at least for those of whom know little more than ‘U-beki-beki-stan’ and bug-pit prisons. She’s turned Samarkand glamorous; she’s crafted Uzbekistan into a world of dress tails and smoke-shadow eyeliner and post-Soviet dance clubs. She has, for a small jet-set crowd, turned Tashkent into a tourist destination.

The summary of recent events can be summed up quickly: Gulnara Karimova, aka Googoosha, has ties to questionable international & domestic financial transactions, including money laundering and the illegal seizure of assets from a foreign company.

It’s not as if Googoosha is a mere pop princess, a Hilton sister with a Russified suffix. This one is the political heir to her father’s fiefdom. While families in Central Asia are the topic of corruption and intrigue, none quite see as much political power as Googoosha, the closest thing to a succession candidate – her father is 74 years old – the state yet knows. As such, any kind of pop output isn’t just another spoilt-child offering – these are products of a potential future head-of-state.

But, as with most things existent within Central Asian politics, her ascension is far from certain. Trusted aides, competing elites, or (nigh-impossible) democratic reform could prevent her from taking her father’s throne. Uzbekistani diplomacy, as staid as it may seem from the outside, could take any (or many) shapes once Karimov goes. Googoosha may find the path to presidency more difficult than anticipated.

And that’s only internally — internationally, however, may provide larger impetus in preventing Gulnara’s ascension from Princess of Pop to, um, President of Pop. Recent developments have only exacerbated the difficulties standing in front of her.

Firstly, out in Switzerland, Genevan authorities arrested a pair of individuals in conjunction with a money-laundering probe relating to Coca-Cola Uzbekistan:

Regional news site reported that the embassy was picketed by a group of 10-11 people carrying placards saying “Shame on Switzerland!” in protest against the detention of two Uzbek staff members of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, named as Aliyer Irgashev and Shahruh Sabirov (the latter was named in other sources as Farruh Saberov).

Citing “sources,” suggested the protest was organized by a foundation run by Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov — the Forum of Culture and Art of Uzbekistan (Fund Forum for short).

Karimova’s connection, as EurasiaNet detailed, runs from her divorce from former Coca-Cola executive Mansur Maqsudi. (UZ News reports that Irgashev and Sabirov have since returned to Uzbekistan, posting bail equivalent to the money laundered.) However, her connection’s not merely tangential – a follow-up protest, attended by but a handful of individuals in Geneva, seems to have been funded by an organization run by none other than Gulnara herself.

While the sourcing on the claims remains suspect, circumstantial evidence continues to follow. Following on the heels of the Swiss protest, a Swedish documentary detailed a series of circumspect payments from TeliaSonera, a Finno-Swedish mobile company, in order to operate in Uzbekistan. TeliaSonera partnered with Takilant Limited, a Gibraltar-based organization run by a woman named Gayane Avakyan. Once more, the links to Karimova run beyond mere passing: Avakyan purportedly manages Karimova’s finances, and has helped set up Googoosha’s assorted fashion offerings. Once more, EurasiaNet – which, it should be noted, has followed Gulnara’s troubles quite stridently – bring the details:

Over the course of six years, SVT says, TeliaSonera has paid Takilant 2.2 billion Swedish krona ($336 million) in exchange for 3G licenses, mobile frequencies and phone numbers in Uzbekistan. But, the program notes, the money cannot be accounted for in public financial records.

In a September 19 statement, TeliaSonera said it gave Takilant $30 million plus a 26 percent share in Ucell (the mobile network TeliaSonera runs in Uzbekistan), in order to work in the country.

The statement says TeliaSonera carried out a background check on Takilant and determined “that the persons representing the company had the mandate to do so. TeliaSonera has no insights into how Takilant has used the proceeds, or whether there are any connections to other persons in Uzbekistan.”

While litigation still moves forward with TeliaSonera, and as Googoosha’s circle tightens, it seems her falling stock is compounding upon itself. After the back-and-forth regarding the legal presence of MTS, a Russian cell phone provider, in Uzbekistan — a Tashkent court ruled last week that the state had no right to seize MTS’s subsidiary’s assets. Interfax reported that Karimova’s Moscow apartment was seized. The report, thus far unconfirmed, cites the seizure as part of MTS’s follow-up anti-trust suit. (The apartment is reportedly worth $10 million.)

There’s been no movement in releasing Karimova’s apartment following Tashkent’s ruling on Friday, nor have any rumors of an expedited antitrust suit yet floated out. It’s possible — likely, perhaps — that Moscow will hold Karimova’s apartment for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin’s not shied from strong-arming political rivals, be they domestic or international, recently, and Uzbekistan — following its withdrawal from the CSTO; following its warming relations with Washington — would seem to be the latest to fall afoul of Russia’s strengthened police state. Peeved by MTS’s treatment, Russia, it would seem, has found a way to bat around someone whose reputation has quickly darkened.

There’s little sign any of these legal troubles will slow Karimova anytime soon. (As the international issues swirled, the First Daughter announced she was writing a screenplay on 6th-century Uzbekistan, set to feature the talents of French actor Gerard Depardieu.) And it’s possible — now that the Swiss have bail in tow; now that Sweden’s found a scapegoat in Avakyan; now that Russia’s reclaimed all of MTS’s property — that her worst days are behind her. It’s possible she can now march languidly in her father’s boot-steps, taking over with his imminent passing. It’s possible these legal issues were fleeting, much like the rest of her pop culture ambitions.

Indeed, it’s all possible, with Googoosha. A Renaissance woman, a pop guru, a president-in-waiting: even with these legal over-hangs, Gulnara seems she can do as she pleases. She can make any music, and form any fashion, and force Central Asia-watchers to follow her movements. And so we watch Run Round a few times, read her sensational headlines, and wonder ‘what’s next?’


One comment

  1. […] got into a bit of a spat via Twitter this week with some CA analysts and journalists. We’ve discussed her recent deluge of headlines recently, from the electronic pop album, to the movie with Gerard […]

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