Last Updated:September 05, 2016
- Bruce Pannier
The Karimovs in happier days: (left to right) Lola, Tatyana, Islam with Gulnara’s son, and Gulnara
During Uzbekistan’s 25 years of independence, its first family, the Karimovs, was powerful and greatly feared by the local population. Those days are coming to an end now that President Islam Karimov has died. That could leave some members of his immediate family in precarious positions, at least if they entertain any thoughts of staying in Uzbekistan now that Karimov is no longer president.
The problem is the daughters — Gulnara, the eldest, and Lola.
It’s difficult to believe Karimov’s wife, Tatyana Akbarovna Karimova (his second wife, actually), would face any problems. She has remained largely out of the public eye. More importantly, her family is influential; in fact, it’s doubtful Islam Karimov could have risen to the post he attained without help from his wife’s relatives.
Karimov was an orphan — in fact, he was more of an abandoned child. (Qishloq Ovozi has covered his early years already.) Through his wife’s family, he was able to meet people who guided him up the ladder of the Communist Party when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic. But Tatyana Karimova is an elderly woman now. It’s difficult to imagine anyone would equate her with her husband’s policies.
People in Uzbekistan are aware that the two daughters have been living extravagant lives. For most people in Uzbekistan, the average wage is somewhere between $200 and $300 per month.
The Karimova sisters owned property in Switzerland, according to Switzerland’s Bilan magazine. On its 2009 list of the top 300 wealthiest people in Switzerland, Bilan ranked Gulnara ninth on the women’s list, with assets estimated at between $570 million to $665 million. In 2011, Bilan estimated the two sisters’ combined wealth at around $1 billion. Lola and her husband, Timur Tillyaev, sued Bilan for that.
Uzbekistan’s people probably knew very little about Bilan’s rankings. It certainly is not a topic Uzbek state media would ever cover. And if both the Karimova sisters had kept a low profile in Uzbekistan, it might never have been an issue among Uzbekistan’s people.
Gulnara, however, craved the spotlight. She not only had vast holdings outside Uzbekistan, she also owned some businesses and enterprises inside the country, including television channels.
Her Forum television channel, for instance, featured youth-oriented films produced in Uzbekistan but was heavy on coverage of events that involved Gulnara. Charity concerts she organized were shown on Forum with plenty of footage of her mingling with the people in attendance. Gulnara attended a fashion school in the United States and Forum aired her fashion shows in Uzbekistan, again with ample coverage of Gulnara at the events.
A cartoon filler shown between programs featured a girl with a clear resemblance to Gulnara wandering a flower-filled meadow, ascending a mountain toward the sun, all the while accompanied by soothing music. Her music videos were also regularly aired on the channel.
One of the best-known WikiLeaks cables about Uzbekistan referred to Gulnara as being “the most hated person in Uzbekistan.” Forum TV provided evidence of this one day. A film crew followed a well-dressed Gulnara as she essentially crashed a wedding party. The initial images shown of carefree guests dancing and enjoying themselves quickly turned to people with nervous smiles and stiff postures as Gulnara weaved through the crowd to get a picture with the bride and groom, whom of course she had clearly never met.
Gulnara’s shady financial dealings abroad proved her downfall and she is currently connected to several foreign companies accused of paying bribes for contracts in Uzbekistan.
Gulnara was put under unofficial house arrest in 2014 after tirades against top Uzbek government officials and later against her sister and mother.
However, she has not been seen or heard from in months, did not attend her father’s funeral in Samarkand on September 3, and there are unconfirmed reports that Gulnara is now outside Uzbekistan. She likely won’t be coming back soon, if ever.
While Lola (left) seems unlikely to return to Uzbekistan, it’s unclear where Gulnara is these days.
Her sister Lola has been Uzbekistan’s ambassador to UNESCO since 2008, a position she probably will lose once a new president comes to power. For more than a decade, Lola has funded two charities: You Are Not Alone, which helps orphanages and children with disabilities, and the National Center for the Social Adaptation of Children, which helps provide education and medical help for children with disabilities. She appears to have helped her reputation in Uzbekistan through funding these two charities.
As mentioned, Bilan magazine claimed Lola has assets worth millions of dollars and as recently as 2014 estimated her and her husband’s assets at between $100 million and $200 million. Lola has called that figure greatly exaggerated.
An article in the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail, and a later one in The New York Times, reported Lola and her husband bought a mansion in Hollywood worth $58 million. The Daily Mail also cited The Real Estalker blog as reporting the Tillyaevs bought “a $41 million estate in Geneva” in 2010. The article in The New York Times said the mansion in Hollywood was one of several properties Lola and her husband were connected to in the area. And, of course, Lola has a flat in Paris where she lives when acting in her capacity as UNESCO ambassador.
Lola credits her husband for having all the money in their family.
Lola and her husband have been living outside Uzbekistan for many years. Lola was at her father’s funeral in Samarkand, but given her lifestyle abroad it’s difficult to imagine she would return to the uncertainty of an Uzbekistan without her father in charge. There’s always the example of her estranged older sister’s house arrest.
So Uzbekistan’s future without Islam Karimov also probably means a future without his daughters. Probably few inside Uzbekistan would be disappointed at this prospect.
Karimov’s estranged son from his first marriage, Pyotr, reportedly lives in Russia and may not have ever been in Uzbekistan since it became independent in 1991.
Karimov also has siblings: at least one sister and brother. His parents kept and raised them while Islam Karimov was given to an orphanage. Perhaps understandably, Karimov seems to have rarely been in contact with them and did nothing as his sister’s son Jamshed was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital after writing critical articles of the Uzbek government for independent media outlets.