Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Robin Mills: family feud at the heart of power struggle in Uzbekistan

Gulnara Karimova is now in the middle of a power struggle to succeed her father, Islam Karimov, the ageing president of Uzbekistan.
Gulnara Karimova pictured in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  Yves Forestier / Getty Images
Gulnara Karimova pictured in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Yves Forestier / Getty Images

Gulnara Karimova portrays herself variously as a businesswoman, singer named “Googoosha”, fashion designer, diplomat and human rights activist. But she is now in the middle of a power struggle to succeed her father, Islam Karimov, the ageing president of Uzbekistan.

At the heart of Central Asia, geography and demographics make the country important. Uzbekistan borders petroleum-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. One of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world, it commands the key transit route for Turkmenistan’s huge gas reserves to China and Russia. It has water disputes with Tajikistan and border squabbles with Kyrgyzstan. And its 30 million people make it the most populous country in Central Asia.

Despite its own gas resources and exports of gas and electricity to its neighbours, Uzbekistan suffers recurring energy crises. Oil and gas production have been declining, and last week the country boosted fuel prices by 20 per cent. Power cuts and long queues for petrol are common, and consumers turn to coal and wood in winter.

Recently, Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas decided to exit all of its investments in Uzbekistan. And this month, Tethys Petroleum, one of the few western investors in the country, announced it would pull out. The company had come under pressure over allegations of stealing oil and the head of its Uzbekistan unit was arrested in November. Such investigations commonly cover asset-stripping by powerful individuals, with two gold mining firms forced out previously. This does nothing to improve declining energy production or the country’s widespread poverty.

Mr Karimov, Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era boss, president ever since independence, is now 75. His repressive regime is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt, with widespread use of torture and the massacre of several hundred protesters at the town of Andijan in 2005.

Described by United States’ diplomats as a “robber baron”, Ms Karimova was accused of using extortion and torture to gain control over businesses. Although never officially an owner, she was believed to control the conglomerate Zeromax. The company, which reported income of US$2.8 billion in 2008, had a dominant role in key sectors of the Uzbek economy – oil and gas exploration, pipelines, textiles, farming, football and other business.

But Zeromax was shut down in 2010 – it is not clear whether this was to burnish Ms Karimova’s image, deflect domestic concerns over corruption, reduce its distorting effect on the national economy, or redistribute the ill-gotten gains to regime insiders.

Until recently, Ms Karimova seemed in line to succeed her father. But last year she came under attack from her own family. Her younger sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva told the BBC in September that Gulnara was unlikely to become president, and that the two had not spoken for 12 years. Now Ms Karimova has lost control of her fashion shops, TV stations and charitable foundation, and been removed from her post as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Writing mostly in Uzbek and Russian to her 57 000 Twitter followers, she accused her mother, sister Lola, and the powerful head of Uzbekistan’s security service of conspiring against her. The prime minister and deputy prime minister are also possible opponents.

The scenario of an ageing tyrant and his apparently westernised, business-friendly but deeply corrupt children is a familiar one from Libya, Egypt and Syria. Signs of similar succession struggles have surfaced in Kazakhstan. But two other petroleum-rich Caspian states, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, have managed smooth transitions to the next generation.

The intrigues may be nothing more than a smokescreen or a tiff between father and daughter. But the implications go well beyond Uzbekistan’s first family – perhaps shaking this pivotal country, sitting at the centre of the fragile web of Central Asian borders, ethnic groups, rivers, electric grids and pipelines.

Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: January 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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