/ 17 December 2010

‘Robber baron’ the scourge of Uzbekistan

American diplomatic dispatches paint a grim picture of the post-Soviet state of Uzbekistan — a nightmarish world of “rampant corruption”, organised crime and forced labour in the cotton fields.

They also shed a particularly harsh light on the antics of President Islam Karimov’s glamorous and highly controversial daughter, Gulnara.

However, the secret cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that the United States tries to keep Karimov sweet because he allows a crucial American military supply line to run into Afghanistan, known as the northern distribution network (NDN).

Gulnara Karimova, bluntly described in the dispatches as “the single most hated person in the country”, allegedly bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the central Asian state and is viewed, they say, as a “robber baron”.

Granted diplomatic status by her father, she allegedly lives much of the time in Geneva, where her holding company, Zeromax, was registered at the time, or in Spain.

She also sings pop songs, designs jewellery and is listed as a professor at Tashkent’s University of World ­Economy and Diplomacy.

Rupert Joy, the British ambassador in Tashkent, was criticised by human rights groups in October when he helped boost her image by appearing with her on a fashion show platform.

But the US cables go some way towards explaining Western ambivalence. They detail how the dictatorial president recently flew into a rage because Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, presented a Women of Courage award in Washington to a newly released Uzbek human rights campaigner, Mutabar Tadjibayeva.

Karimov’s displeasure was conveyed in “icy tones”, which alarmed the embassy: “We have a number of important issues on the table right now, including the Afghanistan transit (NDN) framework.”

On March 18 2009 Richard Norland, the US ambassador, submitted to a tongue-lashing from Karimov with an “implicit threat to suspend transit of cargo for US forces in Afghanistan via the NDN”. Norland claimed to have calmed Karimov down on that occasion, but warned Washington: “Clearly, pressuring him (especially publicly) could cost us transit.”

Gulnara, wryly dubbed the “first daughter” by the diplomats, appeared on the embassy radar in 2004. Describing trips to sample Tashkent’s raucous nightlife, diplomats said she had been spotted at 3am joining her younger sister Lola in a booth surrounded by four large bodyguards.
Lola had arrived in a Porsche Cayenne four-wheel drive — “one of a kind for Tashkent” — and danced all evening with her “thuggish-looking boyfriend” in a club she appeared to own. It served large quantities of imported hard alcohol, the diplomats noted, “which is against the law”.

Dispatches over the next five years chronicle Gulnara’s extraordinary rise, allegedly making local businesses offers they could not refuse.

American businessmen claimed, for example, that since they rejected Gulnara’s offer to take a share in their Skytel mobile phone firm, “the com­pany’s frequency has been jammed by an Uzbek government agency”.

Gulnara acquired interests in the crude oil contracts of Zeromax in “a deal with [a] local mafia boss”, the embassy said. She also got hold of shares in the Coca-Cola bottling franchise after it was subjected to a tax investigation, they claimed.

“Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way. She remains the single most hated person in the country.”

Neil Livingstone, a Washington businessperson closely involved with Zeromax, denied that Gulnara had interests in the company, which has recently had its assets seized in Uzbekistan, following unfavourable publicity alleging corruption by the Karimov family. He said: “Had we had the relationship with the government or the daughter that was rumoured — we would not now be in serious financial straits. I have never met the president’s daughter or even spoken to her.”

Gulnara did not respond to requests for comment, but she has reportedly denied claims that she fully or partly owned Zeromax.

The US diplomats paint a harsh picture of overall life in Uzbekistan, largely corroborating allegations made by the former British ambassador, Craig Murray, who was forced out of his job in 2004 after denouncing the regime. The American embassy reports there are “close connections between organised crime and the government of Uzbekistan”. Both public and private sector jobs are routinely “bought”, they say. —