July 15, 2013
Gulnara Karimova - the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov - has quit her position as ambassador to the UN. She denies, however, that the move leaves her open to prosecution in several international corruption cases.
Karimova said she has resigned from her position with the UN in Geneva to "be able to concentrate more on Uzbekistan." However, there is some suspicion that building evidence against her "business" practices may have seen her asked to leave. Swiss public service broadcaster RTS noted her French properties were searched last month at the request of Swiss prosecutors.
According to the BBC's Uzbek service, Swiss diplomats say Karimova has lost her diplomatic immunity after quitting as Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN. However Karimova, who has been targeted by investigators from several other European countries also, denied those claims via Twitter accusing Swiss authorities of "spreading" false rumours.
She also slammed "other parties," especially Russian mobile operator MTS - which was ousted from the Uzbek market in 2012 – for being "clearly involved in this PR action from (the) beginning." Karimova's manoevuring in the telecoms sector has raised most concern from international investigations.
Described in a US government cable published by Wikileaks as Uzbekistan's "robber baron", Karimova has a fortune estimated at around $570m. The embassy cable accuses her of having "bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the country". Her business holdings include assets in the telecoms, cement production, entertainment and media sectors. She also runs several charities in Uzbekistan.
Karimova had seemed to step away from Uzbek politics in recent years, and is believed to be unpopular with other members of the Uzbek elite. With the long-standing president having yet to name a successor, those poor relations are believed to be largely motivated by jockeying for position. However, as the former ambassador to the UN, as well as Spain, Karimova lives mainly outside Uzbekistan, where she is reportedly to be reviled by the population.
In addition to her diplomatic roles, Karimova busily cultivates an image as a philanthropist, fashion and jewellery designer and singer under the name Googoosha. In June 2012, she visited the ancient Uzbek city of Bukhara to film a music video for her latest album. The city was sealed off at the height of the tourist season, and a massive presence including helicopter cover deployed to protect Karimova while filming took place.
In September 2011, Karimova was unable to show her latest Guli collection at the main New York Fashion Week venue following protests over her father's human rights record, in particular the use of child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest. Her business empire has also come under scrutiny in Sweden, Switzerland and Russia.
The focus of those investigations is mainly her activities in the telecoms sector. Karimova has been accused of being behind the decision of the Uzbek authorities to confiscate the operating licence of Uzdunrobita, the local unit of MTS - Russia's biggest mobile provider.
The withdrawal of those rights in July 2012 forced Uzbekistan's largest operator out of business. The tax authorities also targeted the company, and a criminal investigation was launched against several top managers. Uzdunrobita, has since filed for bankruptcy and its assets are being sold off. In a sign of the battle going on behind the scenes, Karimova's $10m Moscow apartment was seized by Russian authorities as part of a money laundering investigation in November.
Remaining in the telecoms sector, Lars Nyberg, CEO of Scandinavian telecoms giant TeliaSonera, resigned in February after murky deals between the company and a Gibraltar-registered company linked to Karimova were revealed. TeliaSonera was found to have paid $337m to the company to obtain its Uzbek 3G licence. An investigation at the company is still ongoing. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Karimova is believed to be among several Uzbek nationals wanted in connection to a money-laundering probe.