Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Uzbekistan's glamorous first daughter Gulnara Karimova on September 15 held a private runway show of her latest Guli collection, after her planned show at the main New York fashion week venue was cancelled over her father's human rights record.
Karimova was once tipped as a possible successor to Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan for the last two decades. However, since 2008 Karimova has made her life abroad, giving rise to speculation that the family have given up the idea of holding onto power in Uzbekistan after Karimov's regime ends. Recently, 39-year-old Karimova has been cultivating her image as a socially concerned diplomat, designer and singer - an image that has been severely dented by the public cancellation of her show.
IMG, the organisers of New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, had originally scheduled Karimova's show at the Lincoln Centre on September 15. It was cancelled on September 9 following protests by rights activists, with IMG saying they were "horrified" by human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
Instead of taking place at the main fashion week venue, the collection was displayed at an event space owned by Cipriani restaurant, AP reported. Karimova did not attend the event, and is understood to have left New York.
Extreme human rights violations, including torture, are widespread in Uzbekistan. Opposition activists face imprisonment on false charges, mysterious deaths, or - at best - exile from Uzbekistan. In the most notorious case, dissident Muzafar Avazov was purportedly boiled alive. Religious activity has been suppressed under the guise of fighting Islamic fundamentalism. "We're glad Fashion Week will not showcase a designer who represents such a repressive government," commented Human Rights Watch (HRW) Uzbekistan researcher Steve Swerdlow. "They're sending the message that abusers shouldn't be allowed to launder their image at the expense of human rights."
Child labour is also used every year in the cotton harvest, when up to 2m children are forced to leave school and spend two months picking cotton. Most work in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions for minimal pay.
There is no hint of anything of this, however, on Karimova's personal website, which focuses on her social and cultural activities. In addition to her own fashion collection, Karomova designed the Guli for Chopard line in 2009. She also writes poetry and composes under the name GooGoosha, her father's pet name for her, and appeared in a music video under the same name. Her Fund Forum operates under the Unesco umbrella to organise children's events and provide educational grants. Her other social initiatives include five Uzbekistan-based NGOs and a programme for young footballers.
But back in her native Uzbekistan, Karimova is better known as a ruthless oligarch who has amassed a fortune of around $570m through tactics that rendered her "the single most hated person in the country", according to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Karimova "bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the country", and "uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way", US diplomats say.
She is believed to have been the ultimate owner of Zeromax, the Geneva-registered holding company that until recently was the largest foreign investor in Uzbekistan. Karimova has always denied claims that she is the owner of Zeromax. However, after her departure from Tashkent, a series of investigations into the company by the tax authorities and other government agencies resulted in its bankruptcy in October 2010, with estimated debts of over $4.6bn.
Karimova also worked with crime boss Salim Abduvaliyev to sell government positions, according to US diplomats. A cable from former US Ambassador to Tashkent Jon Purnell said that, "Abduvaliyev puts bidders for tenders in touch with an Iranian businessman holding British citizenship, who submits the paperwork to First Daughter Gulnara Karimova for approval."
Five years ago, it looked as if Islam Karimov was grooming his elder daughter to succeed him. As one of the country's most powerful oligarchs, Karimova seemed to be an obvious successor. In 2005, she launched an intense campaign to improve her image, leading to an avalanche of positive press coverage - and rumours she was preparing to stand in the December 2007 presidential elections.
However, it seemed that Karimova lacked sufficient support within the Uzbek elite to take the presidency. An attempt by Karimov to install his daughter as president-in-waiting would have been resisted by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, who has built up his personal power base in recent years. National Security Service head Rustam Inoyatov and First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov are also possible candidates for the succession.
This being before Roza Otunbayeva's presidency in Kyrgyzstan, the belief that a woman couldn't rule in Central Asia's patriarchial society may also have played a part. Since Karimova's acrimonious divorce from businessman Mansur Maqsudi in 2001, there was no longer the option for power to be shared between Karimov's daughter and son-in-law.
For the last two decades, Karimov senior has crushed all political opponents. However, he has become increasingly reliant on the army and the security services to preserve his position since the May 2005 Andijan massacre, when troops opened fire on demonstrators killing more than 500 people. It has become clear that it is only the extreme authoritarianism of his rule that has prevented a regime change before now, and a peaceful handover of power is looking increasingly unlikely.
Soon after Karimov was re-elected in 2007, Gulnara Karimova was appointed deputy foreign minister for international cooperation, a position that allowed her to travel with diplomatic immunity. In September 2008, she also became Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, and in January 2010 added ambassador to spain to her other diplomatic roles.
Another US diplomatic cable, dated February 4, 2008, says that the probable explanation for Karimova's international posting was "an attempt to forge for Gulnara a positive international image and perhaps buy her the political protection she will need when and if the Karimovs decide to exit Uzbekistan's political state - and perhaps Uzbekistan itself." Karimov's second daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, has also made a life abroad after being appointed Uzbekistan's permanent representative to Unesco in 2008.
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