In a speech full of surprises over the weekend, the president of Uzbekistan dropped an interesting hint about the fate of the former ruling family.
On January 5, Shavkat Mirziyoyev made a reference to the sudden bonanza of revenue coming into the state coffers from the Abu Sahiy wholesale market in Tashkent. Where in the first half of December alone, the market generated around $4.4 million in taxes, the monthly amount before was a relatively meager $625,000, he said.
The discrepancy sparked a swell of online commentary and even provoked a raised eyebrow from a newsreader on the state-run rolling news channel, Uzbekiston, who wondered out loud “where all that money had been going every month?”
“This is an example of how we need clear rules and ways to enforce [those rules] if the economy is going to develop,” the newsreader said.
Mirziyoyev’s remarks were an unambiguous shot across the bow of family members of his predecessor, Islam Karimov. Abu Sahiy wholesale market was established in 2006 by Timur Tillyaev, the husband of Karimov’s youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
Tillyaev turned Abu Sahiy into the largest commercial center in Uzbekistan — a trade ground sprawling over 250,000 square meters. The market served as a clearing house for importing goods from China and Turkey and benefited, according to Tillyaev’s detractors, from highly beneficial conditions. Most Uzbek businesspeople have typically found it extremely difficult to land their hands on foreign currency in hard cash, but Tillyaev has long reputedly been able to buy dollars aplenty, and at the official rate. Before the government’s big bang currency reforms, enacted in September, the difference between official and black market dollar exchange rates was more than twofold.
The main source of chatter about the Tillyaev family’s fortune has to date come from Karimov’s more famous daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who is now in custody in Uzbekistan on corruption charges. In December 2013, following a falling-out with the family, Karimova, who had herself benefited handsomely from her connections, claimed in an interview to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that her brother-in-law was running Abu Sahiy without paying any taxes. The market, she said, had a monthly turnover of around $20 million.
The claims made a small splash at the time, although it was read as little more than an outburst of sibling feuding.
More attention is now being paid Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
The Black Sea, a Romanian-based online magazine specializing in deep dives on allegations of financial wrongdoing, dwelled at length on Karimova-Tillyaeva’s wealth in an article in October. Among other things, the website alleged that Abu Sahiy was supplied by a Dubai-based trading company Securtrade.
“Securtrade undertakes most of its business with dozens of shell companies registered in tax havens,” the Black Sea journalists noted.
The Black Sea report was based on what it said was a trove of confidential documents obtained by France-based online investigate journalism outfit Mediapart. The same documents were also shared with the European Investigative Collaborations network, which pools the resources of several high-profile news outlets in Europe.
The documents obtained by this group of journalistic consortia is said to cover transactions for 2013 and 2014 and purportedly showed that the Tillyaevs accumulated at least $127 million in cash in Dubai over that period.
A lawyer for Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva and her husband told RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, however, that the report was slanderous and just part of an attempt by a former Tillyaev business associate to blackmail his clients.
Control over Abu Sahiy has now been wrested from the Tillyaevs and passed under the control of state entities. The market has been rebranded Tashkent Silk Road.
With Karimov’s 80th birthday looming at the end of January, it seems unlikely that the authorities will risk the public relations hassle that would come with pursuing any action against the Tillyaevs, but it is probably safe to say the couple’s future as entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan is looking pretty grim.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.