Uzbekistan: Dismantling Gulnara’s Business Empire
Four months after the precipitous downfall of Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman leader Islam Karimov, the most visible arms of her former business empire still stand shuttered in Tashkent – although some enterprises are slowly coming back to life under different management.
Karimova has reportedly been under house arrest in Tashkent since February, after coming off worst in a power struggle with the influential head of Uzbekistan’s domestic intelligence service, Rustam Inoyatov, and her own mother Tatyana Karimova and younger sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
Nothing has been heard from the once powerful president’s daughter for three months, when she apparently smuggled a letter out to media complaining of ill treatment at the hands of her captors.
When the authorities isolated Karimova in February, businesses associated with her in Tashkent, where she had fingers in many pies (from telecoms to retail and entertainment), were abruptly shuttered.
Karimova’s face still stares down from the window of one outlet on Sadyk Azimov Street in downtown Tashkent, a once bustling DVD, CD, and computer game store that was part of a chain called Nirvana. The poster advertising the president’s daughter in her pop diva persona, Googoosha, remains, although the store stands closed and Googoosha’s songs have disappeared from the airwaves.
This poster is one of the few public signs left of the business empire presided over by Karimova, who once had such an appetite for swallowing up rivals’ interests that American diplomats dubbed her a “robber baron.”
No shops are rushing to stock her luxury designer clothes and cosmetics range these days. The upmarket Tashkent outlet Begum, which once touted Karimova’s Guli-branded perfumes for $500 a bottle, stands padlocked (although elsewhere in the city the Fitness Spa Aesthetic Haven that she reputedly owned is back in business under new management).
The once popular Premier Cinema has shown nothing on its silver screen since it was hurriedly closed as the authorities moved against Karimova in February. In early June, there were laborers at work inside – suggesting a grand re-opening may be in the offing.
In another sign of a shake-up at Gulnara-related interests, Uzbekistan-bottled Coca Cola has all but disappeared from stores in Tashkent, leaving customers reaching for local alternatives such as Libella (a dead ringer, with its red-and-white bottles, for its more famous American cousin) or Fensi.
The firm’s Uzbekistan branch, Coca-Cola Ichimligi Uzbekiston, is linked to Karimova through her former husband, Mansur Maqsudi, once a Coca-Cola Uzbekistan executive. According to the Uznews.net website, after their acrimonious divorce, “Karimova assumed control of Coca-Cola's Uzbek venture.” Reports of suspected irregularities at the firm emerged in January.
A company source told EurasiaNet.org that work is continuing as normal at the bottling factory. A Coca-Cola Ichimligi Uzbekiston official, contacted by telephone on June 10, declined to comment on company operations.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s telecoms market – one of the keys to Karimova’s downfall (she is a suspect in a money-laundering case in Switzerland and connected to a graft probe in Sweden relating to her affairs in the sector) – is expecting a makeover. Russian company MTS, which exited Uzbekistan acrimoniously in 2012 amid a row with Tashkent, said last month it may be back this year.
That may mark a return to business as usual in Uzbekistan’s notoriously murky investment climate, but the ongoing divvying up of Gulnara-related assets suggests she will not be playing a role any time soon.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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