The government of Uzbekistan recently declared 2012 the Year of the Strong Family. As part of this official campaign, Uzbek citizens are being compelled to participate in a "1,000 Weddings and 1,000 Circumcisions" campaign being held throughout the country. Given that the festival was organized by a foundation run by autocratic President Islam Karimov's ever-present daughter Gulnara, Uzbeks could be forgiven for wondering whether the bizarre event was actually meant to celebrate one family in particular. In fact, the country's citizens have been compelled to celebrate the strength of the Karimovs for the last two decades.
Uzbekistan is not alone in its region. In the absence of democratic institutions, the power of presidential families is often the bond that holds many Eurasian dictatorships together. Commentators often speculate on whether post-Soviet leaders are grooming their children as successors, in the style of the Kims or Qaddafis, but the scions of these regimes are already playing their part. In addition to serving as occasional ambassadors abroad or members of rubber-stamp parliaments, these children often function as crucial players in the regimes' tight grip on the economy, acting as extensions of their fathers' administrations in the business sector and beyond.
Here's a tour through the stories of Eurasia's wealthiest ruling families.
According to WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cables, the general public views Gulnara Karimova as a "robber baron," having reputedly pushed her way into nearly every business sector in Uzbekistan. While she denies widespread suspicions of her involvement, Karimova has been reported to be a key force behind a sprawling Swiss-registered conglomerate known as Zeromax, which was mysteriously shut down by the authorities in 2010. Zeromax had been Uzbekistan's largest private-sector employer, with holdings in agriculture, textiles, construction, mining, and energy.
Karimova is believed to control Uzbekistan's Coca-Cola bottling plant, which was partly owned by her New Jersey-based husband until they divorced and the Uzbek courts seized his stake. In July, officials at Russian mobile-phone operator MTS claimed that Karimova was behind the hostile takeover of the company's Uzbek branch, Uzdunrobita. The branch belonged to Karimova until 2004, when she sold it to MTS. Now that it is valued at close to $1 billion and holds some 40 percent of Uzbekistan's mobile market, MTS executives have complained that regime elites, especially Karimova, are keen to expropriate it, making use of the state's typical tactics (i.e., tax and licensing violations) to do so. The Uzbek seizure upset Russian authorities to the point that it reportedly became the main topic of telephone conversations between the two countries' foreign ministers in August.
Surprisingly, given her controversial business activities, Karimova has acted as an international PR agent for her father's regime, a tough assignment for a government with a well-earned reputation for massacring protesters and engaging in torture tactics that have allegedly included boiling people alive. As chairwoman of the supposedly nongovernmental Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, or Fund Forum, Karimova has devoted herself to "uniting of efforts by diplomatic and public bodies to set up socio-humanitarian and universal ties among countries and diverse national entities," according to the organization's website. The forum's domestic projects include art and cultural festivals with talent handpicked by Karimova, as well as the 1,000-weddings campaign and the Style.uz Art Week -- a Tashkent version of New York's Fashion Week. Internationally, the Fund Forum has built partnerships with the Louvre Museum in Paris, the British Council, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, and UNESCO.
Karimova has also worked to get her high-priced "Guli" clothing brand carried in elite stores and showcased at fashion shows around the world, though some of these attempts have been thwarted by human rights advocates who have tried to link Karimova's label to the abuses of her father's regime and particularly to the use of compulsory child labor in Uzbek cotton fields. When she is not pushing Guli, Karimova performs as "Googoosha," her pop-music alter ego.
Karimova's younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, is a business mogul in her own right. Her commercial enterprises reportedly include Abu Sahiy Nur, a company that controls imports of Chinese goods and boasts a daily turnover of at least $250,000. In addition to businesses, the sisters also own multimillion-dollar properties in Switzerland. Both sisters made Bilan magazine's list of Switzerland's 300 richest residents in 2011. Even after reported losses that year dented their fortunes by $200 million, the magazine estimated that the two still had a combined fortune of $1 billion. More recently, others have estimated that Karimova alone could be worth $3 billion. While the sisters' assets may be hard to quantify accurately, the primary reason for their wealth -- the coercive power of their father's regime -- seems obvious, leading Harper's contributing editor Scott Horton to call Uzbekistan "the biggest family business in the world."
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