Uzbek first daughter Gulnara Karimova strikes back at recent claims
Aslı Barış ISTANBUL - Hürriyet
In an exclusive interview with daily Hürriyet, Gulnara Karimova says the recent family feuds and investigations have been a 'nice excuse' to make her the poster face for 'all the sins' in Uzbekistan.
These are troubled times for jet-set diplomat Gulnara Karimova: Funds have dried up, TV stations have been shut down, and bank accounts have been frozen. Once the apple of her father and President Islam Karimov's eye, Karimova has now fallen from grace. The question is, will she back down? In an exclusive interview, the first daughter addresses the feuds with her family and the chaotic situation in Uzbekistan.
Your media empire in Uzbekistan is being subjected to an incredible clampdown. It has been written that the authorities have opened official inquiries into your charitable foundations and have apparently frozen some of your bank accounts. How do you evaluate the situation?
To make it clear, we were never talking about my media empire. I participate very actively in structuring new independent media content in Uzbekistan, as our cultural projects generate the essence of many TV programs. I am really proud of the young specialists and new ideas that were flourishing in Youth Media Centers, which supported TV programs through master classes and education programs from bright professionals from all over the world. There was a sophisticated media camp twice a year, and young correspondents had the freedom to shoot documentary movies and news reports.
In the last three weeks or so, many different companies, private TV stations and radio stations, as well as NGOs, [have been subjected] to a strange kind of pressure. Some were closed, some have been simply paralyzed with unofficial restrictions. To tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly how many of them [were cracked down on], because every day some new ones are [experiencing] problems. Some young professionals were pressured into being “participants” of illegal acts that they didn’t commit. They are in shock, because many families all of a sudden were summoned to the prosecutor’s office, and also to Gvardeyskaya Street, which is well known as a scary SNB jail where anyone would accept or sign anything. Some people were clearly blackmailed, so that if they were too sharp and smart they “are not going to see their families.” There were [cases in which] a sick kid, 20-years-old … was sentenced to jail for 15 days for not being present at the National Security office on the first call to answer for his father. Three people were grabbed in the street by four black jeeps, and one of them was not given any food for three days on conditions that he should sign the confession about a company he did not personally know. All this mockery was witnessed by his lawyer, but nobody even cared about it. The second one is still staying in an unknown place without any information for his old parents, family and five kids. This list could go on.
As reports appear, every one of 70 regional private TV and radio companies were put under review by the Tax Committee and the prosecutor’s office, for no reason. Some are under [threat] of closing. Three radio stations were closed in Tashkent and two are under pressure to be closed over tax, which as always in such cases, was surprisingly paid annually and approved by the Tax Committee Report. We have to mention that when there is no wrongdoing in Uzbekistan, the prosecutor’s office usually finds “miracle” tax violations, and this is reason enough to close a company and put an owner in prison.
With regard to my foundations, I have a large infrastructural model of different funds, societies and social movements. There are more than 40 foundations and associations. All of them are united under the Flag of Fund Forum. This well-structured and regionally operated foundation is now more like a social movement. There are no membership cards, but they are participated in by almost 60 percent of active society and youth. Therefore, on the question of how it’s being financed and operated, we have a simple answer: Almost 90 percent of activity is built on volunteers, and not only by students, but by professional and famous people.
In the investigations into your personal accounts, did officials find any wrongdoing?
I should report that there are no gaps in the accounts up to today – [either] personal or those of the foundations related to me. Those who wanted to scare active people away from foundations and building up a human society wanted to show that everyone who is “too active” will be executed. The rumors around it heated up with false reasons such as tax violations, checking documentation orders, and participation in or visiting terrorist sites.
I was told quietly to “go down and be inactive for half a year,” then I could hope for the best. Many were surprised that I raised my voice. But it is because of other people around me - I think there is no reason for good, responsible, hardworking people to be attacked.
You are making these accusations, but some parties deny it. For example, you wrote on Twitter last week that Uzbek investigators had tortured Yanis Galanos. He claims that this never happened.
Let's take it from the start. Human rights organizations, embassies, foreign public media resources and bloggers reported that Yanis Galanos been kidnapped from a taxi in the center of Tashkent by armed guys in two cars, without any info to his family. For unexplained reasons, he was kept in the SNB for three weeks, then there was an attempt to detain 12 of his students from different districts of the 3 million-person city of Tashkent in the SNB office with made-up, unbelievably unreal reasons. These included claims that a few dollars had been found in their pockets - suggesting the illegal smuggling of foreign currencies - visiting terrorist sites on the Internet, etc.
By chance, most of them were brought and kept safe in one house, as two of them were interrogated all night long until 6 a.m. Only after pressure from the world press were they allowed to go home, without any explanations, but after signing a letter of cooperation.
Nobody in the world was surprised when after three weeks we were blackmailed by video on electronic device was sent to us from NB where the sick-looking and face of Yanis Galanos [while showing signs of weight loss] was reading like his own “confession story tale” where even the dates, documents and visits of people who traveled abroad from Uzbekistan were not correct.
Nobody expected me to speak loudly and frankly to inform the world about what is going on, so right after a short phone call from Yanis to his mother [to say that in] the next days that he was going to depart with her back to Europe, she again could not find him or any information of him in the Police Office of Interpol’s local office, controlled by strong security man Yuriy Savinkov. Strange enough that right after waves of questions to Uzbek officials about foreign citizen Yanis Galanos, Mutabar Tadjibayeva (by video) together with “Zamondosh” informed the world that Yanis is happy and healthy “laughing” about questions of family and friends about his safety. Many HR organizations fighters and independent bloggers already strongly criticized that unprofessionally made video “farce” by SNB and their servants. In the video which was strangely enough posted on docs.google as many know that this format is never used for information any one wants to be widely seen.
On video you can’t see the “Human Rights fighters” asking questions but only Yanis with his very well-washed face, uncharacteristically for him cleanly shaved, as he usually has beard, and dressed in a newly washed white shirt with trained huge smile on his face and highly disturbed and scared eyes. How come that neither family, nor his mother, who still doesn’t know where is he, nor friends, nor lawyers, not even me, who as they claim is so powerful, can’t send clothing or food or see him?
In such a “tyrannical state” in the words of Mutabar herself, she has accomplished a miracle: so easily and fantastically quick (through one night) got permission and such an opportunity to quiet down everyone in the world that a person kidnapped three weeks ago happily agrees to sit in jail for administrative misdoing such as a registration delay. Nothing about why to he was held in jail, how long and so on is in the video. One of human rights activist who asked not to mention his name, also let us know that it is a part of a huge conspiracy where M. Tadjibaeva always played her own role backed up by former Ambassador Craig Murray, who was sponsored by Atabek Gaziev [a relative and central person for the Salimov, Usmanov, Alimov and Shodiev clans], Hayot Sharifhodjaev, Behzod Ahmedov through a Pakistani businessman [a trustee of Craig Murray] had mutual business with transit and cotton which they still control through the most secure money laundering companies on the market “Silk Road,” “Korbit,” the “Orient Finance Center,” “Unix Logistics,” “Gorefield International,” “Jeff Invest” as they operate through one and only bank in a 30 million-person country, the “Azia Alliance Bank” through the Rietumu Bank, Commerce Bank and Raiffeisen Bank.
I can easily understand the essence of it as many things came together now: my only visit to the British embassy for a reception due to the queen’s birthday and the introduction of Craig Murray to me was on the invitation of Atabek Gaziev in 2004 and before any intrigue and PR around my, so they say, “business empire” started. [At the time, there] was a phone call from Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Security Service in Tashkent and visit to my house in Geneva with cameras by only two interested people: Craig Murray and Mutabar right before the search as it was explained “just to see if there could be something interesting for investigation against B. Ahmedov as they see me as a third party in this inquiry” and still haven’t given any official request or other printed out docs on that. Does it look real or possible? For [power-hungry people] perhaps, yes.
Let's talk about your situation in Uzbekistan. Last year in the media there were claims that you are to be the next president. Now you are being suppressed by the government. What caused this turmoil to begin with?
I’m not surprised anymore that outside the image of me and my work which has been lately built up by lobby financed and carefully organized by powerful group of locals and interest from outside is very much differentiated from public opinion and the large support I’m getting in Uzbekistan. I understand that to publish good piece about our activity in Uzbekistan is much more difficult than to do negative just because of the image of the country in general and my status. If there wouldn’t be positive activity and so many people supporting the Fund Forum what we have been doing for the past 10 years, we wouldn’t be so under attack… The worst thing is that some family members are involved in it. There is no secret that the closer we are to 2015, the hotter is a situation around it.
You had claimed that the security service is using threats, beatings and forced confessions, even against its own officers. It is also said that the secret police arrested and were torturing your bodyguards.
[It is known that] for some time there has been a lot is going on so to say under the table, including among close family members and childhood neighbors and important security serviceman. It will be nothing to say that a long time ago many of them got strongly commercialized and got in most segments of economy such as transit, resources, gas stations, markets, construction and it obviously related to a the big money outcome rule known that as if you [grow] financially big, you will definitely go and try for power. But when you are on such a “difficult” road, you will use every possible and impossible way to reach your goal, so disinformation about my public work seems a very natural step. They try to claim different absurd stories before too like the tale about B. Akhmedov, former MTS director and his activity surprisingly related only to me from half a dozen of people he personally dealt with and list of companies he was flashing cash through "LAPESCARA BALAMORE," "HAYTKON SERVIS ‘PLYUS,” "ASIA AGRO FOOD EXPORT,” "AGRO TIME GROUP,” "POCATI GORDON QURILISH"... etc, which through many publications in media and case discoveries are claimed to be under Hayot Sharifhodjaev’s control. In same moments it seemed like I was the beneficiary of all MTS capital worldwide. Sounds funny…
‘My mother has a strong lobby that works against me’
Why does Mr. Karimov act as if he has turned against you?
We never fought with my dad in any regards. We didn’t even have an argument lately. Everything started with a BBC interview by my sister which she had to give because of her family accounts were at risk of being frozen as one of those in Switzerland, Bohl, Notenstein Privatbank AG (St.Gallen 17) [had become the subject of a] scandal and was reported in the media when the bank stopped the transfer of 400 million to Grenadine Island because of the absence of documentation for the amount. Dad doesn’t know about it. He was pretty upset when I just mentioned the BBC interview and answers which juristically damaged his name, but the explanation for the necessity of that interview from my mom and sister was as absolute “must have it” situation to explain to the world that she doesn’t have anything to do with damaging her “reputation” character which is very colorfully drawn in following most awful and unbelievably cheap articles claiming to be about me on the internet site “Zamondosh.”
It was shown to my dad as a part of carefully prepared plan to harm him and to destroy me. It was prepared specially for the date of “truth” and chaos, but what my dad doesn’t know is that the internet site was established by a few from the National Security Service [Yuriy Nikolaevich Savinkov, a colonel and trustable high official in SNB as well as a representative member of the local Uzbek Interpol office, who is able to travel on any matter at any time without a visa, his son Igor Savinkov, a potentially trusted official of the SNB, comfortably assigned to watch over tourism, Hayot and Djavdat Sharifhodjaev , brothers and the SNB’s top officials] and their business associates [Ravshan Juraev, the organizer of so called UzReport fully supported by SNB, as well as Timur Tillyaev, my sister’s third husband, on the basis of mutually beneficial business of the Abu Sahiy market without any TAX obligations to the state budget with a monthly turnover of around 20 million dollars].
I think that moment was smartly built up and used by those who were waiting badly for it. And as I know my mom started to act against me as she promised earlier as for discovery of her nephew, Akbar Abdullaev, working for her until last year on the Fergana Oil Refinery Plant, but I didn’t want to believe her then, I guess. I didn’t see my dad for one and half months and was not able to contact him since then because of the strong [influence] of my mom. As the situation went out of hand so much, the aforementioned people [played games], and the situation ended up in such an ugly picture as they also push it in the media.
Do you hold ambitions of becoming the next president?
I never said or confirmed anywhere about my ambition to be the next president, and that I have made it very clear now for those who worry. In any situation like those, I will do my best to support and keep my family safe.
Also, it is claimed that the people referred above want to destroy your business empire. Also via Twitter you mentioned that someone is pushing you to flee the country.
Strange enough, but a few years ago the formula of the existence of my miracle, unbelievably huge “business empire” popped up almost at the same time as my public activity and successful work as you mentioned in your questions came up and became too visible.
Logically and now even more obviously with this “turmoil,” the point stripped out that if this business empire is claimed to exist in different segments, such as they say in resources (cotton, gold, oil, gas, as they claimed I somehow have relations with OXSUS GOLD or ZEROMAX), the transit industry, dairy products (as they claimed the Russian “Wimm-Bill-Dann” was mine), tea factories (as they tried to readdress on me the claim of “Beta Tea”), car production, tourism infrastructures (they claimed the “Marco Polo” company was mine) and simply everything else in the economy, but the rest of those who are clearly running for the presidency and influence would not be allowed to be so, as well as there would not be space for their capital to exist.
I learnt recently that this black PR is being gradually built up over the past few years. Only lately, I finally agreed with my friends from analytics and business that this is a very comfortable concept, elevated by some smart guys to have a nice excuse to make me as a front person for all the sins. Today, by the version of World Ultra Wealth Report calculation combined wealth for Uzbekistan around 12 billion US dollars shared by 80 names and their families. How come I can control basically every and each important segment of economy if at least six of strong influential statesmen, who are getting bigger and bigger every year turned over a billion and more per person? In this moment it appears that anyone can see clearly that atmosphere is far from solely controlled or even loyal to “my business.”
I also don’t want to look too perfect or even saint like my sister in BBC’s interview as I have a comfortable real estate in countries I used to work such as Switzerland, France and just have sold [property] in Russia as well as some investments built up from “Benetton” and “Levi’s” stores income started in 1995 with my former husband’s family.
I believe that you don’t have to steal by using state credits, tenders or tax holidays to get comfortable and rich; if there are strong and clear law regulations at all the levels with less control and purposely built up restrictions which are fully regulated by the state [there won’t be as many problems].
What is the situation right now? Where do you currently live?
I’m clearly in a situation of being pushed out of the country right now and there are so many who by following that bizarre situation already left the country and many are getting together their business and career to leave as people have got the message for most active and those who don’t want to be afraid for each day of their life as such things are happening with my status…, what then can happen to them? I’m still in Uzbekistan to conclude everything and to help others out of it.
On Twitter, you announced that there had been attempts to poison you with mercury and you still are receiving medical treatment.
I had a worst health condition in autumn 2011. I had an awful blood pressure jump attack in the plane and then a few critical health conditions later on that year. After being checked in every and possible way with all the tests in different countries in Europe, I was referred to the clinic specializing on the tests of existence heavy metals in the body, as some journalists at Fergana’s site based in Moscow doubt that fact and announced it was fabricated by me. I have copies of some tests where mercury, silver and zinc are simply above and beyond any norms as me and my son were diagnosed with poisoning by heavy metals. Since then, I’m regularly on certain treatments once in six months and the results are still far from normal. I had some side effects from it and believe me, it’s not the easy ones. I have some ideas about how and who has done it, but I don’t think it clear 100 percent yet who was involved in stand behind the scene.
You accused your younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, and your mother, Tatiana Karimova, of practicing witchcraft and engaging in sorcery. In an interview with BBC, your sister Lola said that the two of you have not been in touch for 12 years now. How do you know about their actions and what are the motivations behind this “witchcraft and sorcery?”
There were never such formulations as sorcery about my mom or sister on Twitter from me. All of them arose from comments and people who knew some stories about my mom’s surrounding and people she is with. I just mentioned that pulling out with a scandal with holy writing like “Bismilla ir-Rahman ir-Rahim” [In the name of God, the most gracious and compassionate] on the steps of a known orphanage in the center of the city by my mom’s security people is out of normal or human understanding. We had an argument about it. It had appeared in Twitter only in relations to some content there without any motivations.
Regarding “12 years of not seeing each other” and the interview of my sister in general for BBC, I spoke earlier. I don’t think that going back and forward between us would do any good as I still believe that there are things in life that you are not allowed to choose or be against it and one of them is your relatives. The only thing to mention in this regards is that dinning together in Paris at “L'Avenue” across from Christian Dior four years ago and exchanging SMSs sometimes after too might be a bit awkward to do when you are so precise about 12 years of trying not to cross someone’s way. Well, if there is a certain necessity for a close one to say that for public it should be so and I don’t have anything against it.
But why start a Twitter feud in front of the world?
It was not a “Twitter feud” and was not to offer sensations. It was the only available way to say truth about unbelievably ugly things as my relatives like Timur Tillyaev paid for provocative, untrue materials [online] and even now in the present situation are trying to damage my image by operating from few tens of accounts on social networks.
Twitter was the only means of communication to the world in an honest and frank manner when the situation in the past few years was getting over-absurd. After getting some experience in life turbulences and lies around me, I believe that open conversation or even try to do so could be in some cases the only way out as well as an opportunity for you and your family to survive.
‘Envy is destroying the family’
You created many projects such as ‘Art Week Style.Uz’ which you initiated in 2006. Do you fear that, without support, all your projects and charitable works will go to waste?
When I introduced Style.uz by Fund Forum at first in 2006, not too many even reacted on two defilés and one exhibition at the Expo Center. Each year, it’s getting bigger and bigger and more recognizable on the surface of the fashion community and cultural events of the year. So many famous people are visiting Style.uz yearly, and we made it tradition for all of them to give a master class for youngsters. It consists of a musical part from world stars and vocal musicians, the movie festival “Golden Gepard” with the participation of around 20 countries, the Biennale of Modern Art, Theater Week with more than eight countries, fashion shows from more than 10 famous houses and brands of the world and national exhibitions, shows and the Festival of National Dress, which is famous in the world.
Altogether, it was around 200 events in 10 days. That is huge work for volunteers, as most of the program is organized for the young and talented. In those days, we usually have around 50,000 visitors and around 100 international guests of honor. This year Style.uz was more colorful and bigger as participation of guests and visitors than year before as always. We had some famous names giving master classes like Dsquared brothers, Jimmy Choo, the famous orchestra of Y.Bashmet and many movie stars and producers.
In regards to “fear,” I would say that people in Tashkent and in regions fear the closing of Fund Forum and are upset about not being able to enjoy a variety of different events though the year after we announced that the Fund Forum was closing its central office in Tashkent just a week ago.
This decision was taking by our board and active members of the team as we can’t and many don’t feel safe to continue our work. In the situation when some participants of numerous NGOs been scared and harmed by those who wants to have more of a quiet, closed, reluctant and deaf society. That is a huge concern for young, active and talented people who will be looking for ways out and, unfortunately for the country, they will find it.
How do you remember your childhood and adolescence? What was it for you to be the daughter of the president? How do you evaluate your relationship with your family overall?
When my father became a president, I was 20, so I was grown up by then. I had graduated from mathematical school with a gold medal, participated in the joint mathematic youth academy and had tons of classes taking on the side. I always thankful to my teachers and because of that had special relations through my life with them; I’m always blessed with the best of them. At home, my father used to call me “a student forever” because I was so obsessed with studying of different subjects all the time as I started with sociology, world economy, through design study in FIT and geopolitics in Tashkent as well as regional study at the GSAS of Harvard for an MA. I continued it with a few other subjects and doctoral degree on terrorism and separatism.
In general I’m lucky that I had half of my life in a normal, very down-to-earth community growing up as an ordinary child having so many restrictions from my teacher about laughing and talking in the class which was my trademark.
I had a normal family with a normal relationship in it, as we had the best time of our life with my sister before my marriage. We were as close as the fingers on one hand. Things usually change with money and politics or power. That is the sad thing, and many don’t go through when are being challenged by those two things. Envy or jealousy always destroys the unity even of one home. I respect my dad for spending a lot of time with me, especially through my childhood when he was more free from work and passing on to me some basic but very important understandings of good and bad, truth and lies as well as other basics.
A couple of years ago, the Turkish actor Halit Ergenç was the face of your perfume ‘Guli/Victorius.’ What made you choose a Turkish actor to be the face of your product? Turkish series are quite in demand lately; who are your favorite Turkish shows and actors?
Last October for Style.uz we had Halit Ergenç as a guest of honor and that was so difficult to do, so I can imagine that “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” [The Magnificent Century] and him as a star of it unbelievably famous. I started to watch Muhteşem Yüzyıl absolutely by chance. I was sick home and my friend suggested I watch it. I had never watched even one series on CD and never was into it, but I think that this one should be named one of the best in terms of complex of eastern nature so well played by actors, historic atmosphere which doesn’t push you into depression but just gives you a little sip of it and the most intriguing story behind each of the episode. Funny or not, but nothing has changed through hundreds of years until now and each move of each character in that series could be transported one to one on those who live and play their games around the head of the state with only one goal to get bigger and richer, including family undercover fights.
Good thing that I started to see that TV story long before of what is happening now, otherwise I would have thought that the modern world and our family relations were going crazy. But the politics has always been the dirtiest thing in the world, destroying so many and offering so much to profit for just few in life around the world.
How do your foundations operate?
In regards to my foundations, I have a large infrastructural model of different funds, societies and social movements. They were built in the past close to 12 years and each were structured by professionals or famous society representatives to the best accomplishments of specific goals. For example, the Women’s Council which had a large range of steps to support women in the business community, professionals, to family issues, health problems and grants and mini credits for those who just are starting their small business.
Kelajak Ovozi (The Voice of Future): A young organization to help professional youngsters with their jobs, to educate more deeply in six professional directions to support young people with starting their business, to implement inventions of students, to allow kids up to 25 years old to participate in national contest from most remote areas (each year it is around 80,000 newcomers) and active life of Youth Centers situated in each region and large university through Uzbekistan.
Yangi Avlod (The New Generation): This organization build a large infrastructure around Uzbekistan for kids from 5 to 12 years old to recognize young talents to support them in different directions such as musical education, drawing, poetry and scriptwriting, sport and national crafts.
Ijtimoiy Goyalarini Qullab-Quvvatlash Jamg’armasi (Social Initiatives Support Fund): A very strong infrastructure from over 40 NGOs in Uzbekistan which usually supply the foundation for many co-operational projects with international organizations and foundations.
Mehr Nuri (The Light of Mercy): The oldest foundation which works on the basis of charitable activity by regional business community which usually chooses in what direction they input such as hospital equipment, school infrastructure, sport-supporting construction, help to poor families and old people. It’s most likely one of the most liked foundations in Uzbekistan, as its workers and volunteers are always in the most difficult remote areas with supportive projects to bring clean water and to install energy generators using clean solar energy.
IJOD (Creativity): An association which unites over 350 painters and craftsmen supporting financially artistic people and professionals.