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