Safe h(e)aven for Uzbek strongman’s daughter

By Sergei Blagov writing in Asia Times

MOSCOW – The Russian Foreign Ministry has accredited Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s daughter as a counselor at the Uzbek embassy in Moscow in a move that could be interpreted as a new sign of Uzbekistan’s political drift towards Moscow. However, Russian media outlets, notably Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, speculate that Gulnara accepted the post simply to obtain diplomatic immunity.

Gulnara Karimova-Maqsudi has already sought international immunity in a bitter custody battle over her children, on the grounds that Uzbekistan is not party to international agreements on civil matters, commonly referred to in legal circles as the Hague Conventions.

In January, the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled that Mansur Maqsudi, of Mendham, New Jersey, deserved sole custody of the couple’s two children, 10-year-old Islam and six-year-old Iman. His ex-wife, Gulnara, had taken the boy and the girl to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 2001, when her estranged husband sought to dissolve their marriage. The court called on Gulnara to “cause the children to be transported to the United States or to another country which is a signatory to the Hague Convention”.

Moreover, the court disclosed some information on the division of assets, indicating the affluence of the Karimovs. For instance, the court awarded Maqsudi the house the couple had shared in Mendham, New Jersey. He also is to take possession of two luxury cars, a $7,000 piano, over $440,000 in bank and brokerage accounts, a stake in a business called the ROZ Group – valued at close to $6 million – and $3.3 million in cash. According to the ruling, Gulnara could keep $4.5 million worth of jewelry, 20 percent of Uzbekistan’s Uzdunrobita wireless telephone company, worth $15 million, $11 million in bank and investment holdings in Geneva and Dubai, a house in Tashkent, a $10 million retail complex, a $13 million resort in Uzbekistan and Tashkent nightclubs worth $4 million, and a TV station, recording studio and spa worth $5.5 million. The wireless phone company is a joint venture founded by the state (as a minority shareholder) and an American cellular concern.

Moreover, to feel more at home in Moscow, Gulnara reportedly purchased 420 square meters of three-level apartments at the “Camelot” deluxe compound in downtown Moscow. Details of the deal are yet to be disclosed, but the apartments’ price is estimated at $1.5-2 million.

To date, there has been no official clarification on how Gulnara, who reportedly worked in the state bureaucracy, obtained such extensive business and property holdings. It is yet to be revealed whether the Moscow penthouse is counted as Gulnara’s private property, or Uzbekistan’s diplomatic asset.

Gulnara’s new-found diplomatic privileges come at just the right time as she is now seeking immunity from the US ruling, having failed to comply with the New Jersey court’s January custody order. This forced the same court, on June 10, to order Gulnara’s arrest. In a tit-for-tat response, Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General issued international arrest warrants for Mansur Maqsudi, his father Abdul-Rauf and brother Farid, all ethnic Uzbeks naturalized in the US.

This controversy has overshadowed bilateral relations between the US and Uzbekistan, which is increasingly drawing international criticism over its human rights practices. At the same time, Tashkent faces growing pressure from global financial institutions to introduce currency convertibility, and to take other steps to liberalize the economy.

The latest government crackdown in Uzbekistan is the harshest since the one in the aftermath of the 1999 Tashkent bombings, international observers say. In recent months, human rights advocates, independent journalists and opposition political activists have endured arrests, beatings and other forms of intimidation.

Last May, human rights advocate Ruslan Sharipov was arrested on homosexuality charges. An Uzbek court sentenced him to a five-year jail term on August 13. On August 28, Surat Ikramov, an outspoken defender of Sharipov, was abducted from his car in Tashkent by four masked men, according to a statement issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. He was subsequently beaten, sustaining concussion and two broken ribs.

The crackdown has created a dilemma for US diplomats, given that Uzbekistan is Washington’s most important strategic partner in Central Asia. Uzbek military bases have been used to back international efforts in Afghanistan.

Both Karimov and Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev, a former ambassador to Washington, have stressed that Tashkent’s desire for expanded economic ties with Russia does not mean a deterioration in relations with the US.

Karimov used the September 1 opening of the fall parliamentary session to stress the importance of bilateral relations with Russia, and recalled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand in August as “important”. He said that he and Putin sought to reach agreement on all topics they discussed, and that he was greatly satisfied with the outcome.

During the Samarkand meeting, Putin and Karimov concentrated primarily on the prospects for expanding bilateral economic cooperation, especially the export of Uzbek cotton and natural gas, and the participation of Russian companies in exploring oil and gas deposits in Uzbekistan. Karimov’s daughter taking up a position as a diplomat in Moscow might help support these initiatives.

Adding spice to the controversy swirling around Gulnara are unconfirmed reports that she had married Sadyk Safayev, who has been touted as Karimov’s successor; although all of the former Soviet states are technically republics, family succession plays a big part.