The Uzbekistan First Family

The first family of Uzbekistan: ruthless authoritarians or Kardashian wannabes? How about both?

As a 30-something Canadian guy, I have an irrational (or, in my opinion, a perfectly reasonable) hatred for Canadian politics. After the election which ushered in the Liberal majority under our dearly beloved (and extremely photogenic) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I’ve often been guilty of calling the man “Prime Minister Selfie” for his tendency to take self-portraits with his fans and supporters. It always seemed un-statesman-like to me. Or perhaps I’m becoming an old-fashioned geezer in my mid-30s. Whatever.

Reading up on recent news about the death of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan however, it becomes clear that my beef with Canadian politics is at best cosmetic and at worst frivolous. Because, hot damn, we got it good here.

Reading about the Karimovs is like watching a film mash-up of Keeping up with the Kardashians and The Godfather, mixed in with some good ole fashioned Stalinism and voilà, the soufflé has risen.

The Bad

Around a million Uzbeks are forced to help harvest the country’s ‘white gold’ every year.

Around a million Uzbeks are forced to help harvest the country’s ‘white gold’ every year.

Uzbekistan is the fourth biggest exporter of cotton globally, and its government uses one of the largest state-sponsored systems of forced labour to harvest it: every year, over one million of its citizens are forced, under duress, to grow and harvest cotton. The farmers face threats of penalties, including the loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges, and fines if they do not grow cotton and deliver production quotas, while the labourers face threats of expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits.  According to Anti-slavery International, Uzbek cotton production yields an annual profit of around US$1 billion. However, all the profits go to a small elite sampling of the most powerful people in the country, while most of the population remains impoverished.

Blatant human rights abuses aren’t the only issues cotton-growing has caused in Uzbekistan.

In fact, the government’s pursuit of cotton profits is also causing an environmental disaster. It is killing the Aral Sea, located between northern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, an area of 68,000 square kilometres. It was, 50 years ago, the world’s fourth-largest saline lake.

Related Article: Combatting Desertification 

Today, it is 15 percent of what it used to be, according to the Toronto Star.

Cotton is a thirsty crop. In Uzbekistan, almost 20,000 litres of water are required for each kilogram of cotton harvested. And where does the water come from? Amu Darya and Syr Darya, two rivers that originate in the Tajik-Afghan mountains and flow through the plains of Uzbekistan. But the cotton growing effort has withdrawn as much as 80 percent of the water from these rivers, so nothing ever reaches the Aral Sea.

The drainage of the Aral Sea has uncovered hundreds of square kilometres of former sea floor. What is left now is dry mud flats contaminated with salt and pesticide residues. The United Nations’ Environment Program has called it one of the most staggering disasters of the 20th century.

The Juicy

Googoosha, properly known as Gulnara Karimova, appears during a video shoot in 2012. Credit: Realgoogoosha/Facebook

Googoosha, properly known as Gulnara Karimova, appears during a video shoot in 2012. Credit: Realgoogoosha/Facebook

Gulnara Karimova. Eldest daughter of Karimov. Former heir-apparent to her father’s leadership. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister. Ambassador to Spain and the Uzbek representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Fashion designer, jewellery designer, business conglomerate magnate and now, the most hated person in Uzbekistan.

It all came to a head in 2014 for Karimova, when she was put under house arrest by her father, after she was implicated in a major corruption scandal in Sweden. Journalists made public that telecommunications giant TeliaSonera had allegedly bribed Uzbek officials to enter the country’s mobile phone market. The path of the money was traced back by prosecutors to Karimova. That seemed to be the last straw for her father, as he withdrew his support and loyalty when he found out.

According to a confidential US diplomatic cable from 2008, published by Wikileaks, Karimova used to be a favourite of her father and was simply referred to as the “Uzbek princess.” After graduating from Harvard in June 2000, she became adviser to several foreign affairs officials and advanced to the position of deputy foreign minister. Even as far back as 2005, she was described as “the single most-hated person” in the country. According to the diplomatic cable, she was perceived as greedy, power hungry and interested in using her father’s power to her own financial advantage. According to the Washington Post, by 2010, Karimova was believed to own the largest conglomerate of Uzbekistan, which she used “in support of her private business interests.” When her suspicious businesses were abruptly shut in 2010, Karimova moved on to become ambassador to Spain and the Uzbek representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Karimova faces a separate investigation related to money laundering in Switzerland as well, but by then she has already been put under house arrest by her father.

Within only six years, Karimova went from being Uzbekistan’s deputy foreign affairs minister to the reputed owner of the country’s largest business conglomerate. After working in secret, she became the most prominent face and voice of the Uzbek nation. 

So. After learning about the Karimovs, I will never complain about our “Prime Minister Selfie” ever again.

Prime Minister Selfie Justin Trudeau

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About the Author

This is Will, current content coordinator at Trusted Clothes. Will is a writer at heart with a journalism print background. An award-winning writer and video producer, Will divides his time between super-heroing at Trusted Clothes and being a complete die-hard Star Trek fan. And wearing funny Captain Picard shirts too.

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