Islam Karimov is the dictator who leads Uzbekistan. A top Communist Party apparatchik in Soviet days and regarded as the most brutal of Central Asia's despots. He was appointed the leader of the Uzbek Republic before Uzbekistan became a nation and like most other Central Asian leaders he inherited his position as president when the Soviet Union broke up. He established one man rule and a repressive authoritarian regime after winning a presidential election shortly after Uzbekistan became independent in 1991.

In 2006, Sen. John Kerry said: “Karimov's acts of barbarism in the name of security are infamous. By some accounts, he has had his victims boiled alive and had others tortured with beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation, rape and burns. Having come to power as a Communist Party official in the former Soviet Union, he has ruled since the collapse of the USSR through a series of suspect elections. He won the presidency with 86 percent of the vote in 1991 and extended his mandate in 2000 with 91.9 percent of the vote.” A Western intelligence report called him "an old Soviet party boss."

Karimov has s overseen a tightly-controlled economy and has advocated an ambiguous policy called “evolution, not revolution.” As time went on, especially after the Andijan massacre in 2005, which left hundreds dead, he become more repressive, more unwilling to compromise or liberalize and more willing to fire back at all critics whether they be Western human rights advocates or Islamists. Personality cult measures began to rank with those of Turkmenistan’s leader. In September 2003, for example, Karimov’s historical writings became the core of the Uzbek national curriculum. Loyalists were places in high political positions. In 2004, Karimov replaced a long time prime minister with Shavkat Mirziyayev, the governor from Karimov’s home region. Karimov extended his term and took other measures to keep himslef in power.

Karimov’s Personal Life and Family

Karimov was born Islom Abdug’aniyevich Karimov on January 30, 1938 in Samarkand, Uzbek SSR, Soviet Union. His family background and history are obscure and the identity of his biological father is unknown, with claims being that he was either Tajik or Jewish. His mother was Uzbek. He married his first wife, Natalya Petrovna Kuchmi, in 1964 and they had a son together, Petr, before divorcing. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Karimov's wife, Tatyana Akbarovna Karimova, is of Tajik and Russian origin. She is an economist. They have two daughters and five grandchildren. His second daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, is known in Uzbekistan for her role in promoting education and sports, as well as championing the rights of children. She is the founder of major charity organizations in Uzbekistan – "You are not alone", Republican Social Children's Fund for helping orphans. +

Karimov’s elder daughter Gulnara Karimova, is an Uzbekistani diplomat, professor and businessperson. She is the founder of several charities and NGOs related to Uzbekistan. However, there have allegations that some of these front organizations crafted to hide and shield her vast business holdings and make her look good. She has also been criticized for extravagant spending and indulging in a jet-set lifestyle. Since early 2014, Gulnara has been imprisoned under her father’s orders. She and her daughter live under armed guard and surveillance cameras.

Karimov and his wife Tatyana Karimova are reportedly separated, according to Uzbek dissident websites. Gulnara has accused her mother of practicing witchcraft and has threatened to "destroy" her by revealing her allegedly shady business affairs. Karimova is an economist by trade and keeps busy by engaging in charity work and accompanying the president on trips. [Source: Business Insider]

According to Human Rights Watch: “A much-publicized feud between Gulnara Karimova, the president’s daughter, and her sister and mother, as well as with the country’s repressive National Security Services (SNB) that unfolded on Twitter and in the press revealed a level of infighting within the political elite in unprecedented fashion. Karimova’s accusations about corruption within the political elite and SNB officials’ use of torture brought to the fore many politically sensitive topics. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Karimov Rise to Power in Uzbekistan

Like most of other Central Asian leaders, Karimov was a Communist Party member who rose through the ranks in the Soviet era. After a series of violent ethnic clashes involving Uzbeks in 1989 and 1990 Karimov was appointed Communist Party chief in part because he was an ethnic Uzbek outsider. He Karimov became head of the Communist Party in Uzbek Republic, still part of the Soviet Union, on March 24, 1990. In elections in February 1990 the Communists took the majority of seats in the Uzbek Supreme Soviet (the parliament) after the popular anti-Communist Birlik (Unity) party was prevented from entering.

Karimov was in control of Uzbek SSR’s leadership and the parliament when the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan reluctantly approved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He declared Uzbek independent on August 31, 1991 shortly after the aborted coup of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and changed the name of Communist party to the Popular Democratic Party of Uzbekistan.

Karimov was voted in as president in an election in December 1991 with 86 percent of the vote. The Birlik party and Islamic parties were not allowed to take part in the election. Karimov ran against poet Mukhamed Salikh leader of the Erk (Freedom) Party. Salikh claimed his party would have won had Karimov not rigged the vote. Later Salikh was forced to flee the country and was sentenced in absentia to 15½ years in prison for his alleged role in bombings in Tashkent in 1999.

In Uzbekistan, where friction amongst regional elites had also been on the rise since the beginning of perestroika, Karimov continued to depend confidently on the renamed and de-ideologised Communist Party, while building a political system with a de facto strong executive, despite dispersal of powers enunciated in the Constitution.

Erich Follath wrote in Der Spiegel: “After his country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and he was elected president, Karimov complained that Uzbekistan had been exploited as a "raw materials colony" by the Soviet Union and he also accused Moscow of having eliminated political pluralism. But he then banned all opposition parties and held a referendum to solidify his power. He received the improbable total of 99.6 percent of the votes. [Source: Erich Follath, Der Spiegel, April 3, 2015]

Karimov and Tennis

Karimov is said to be a big tennis fan. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Robert Rand wrote in The New Yorker, “The Yunusabad tennis complex, in Tashkent, is not, strictly speaking, the seat of power in Uzbekistan, but the place does have clout. The complex, which was completed in 1994, is spiffier than Flushing Meadows, and the man behind it, Islam Abduganievich Karimov, is a former Soviet Communist Party boss and the first President (he was elected in 1991) of the independent Republic of Uzbekistan. [Source:Robert Rand, The New Yorker, October 22, 2001 <=>]

“Karimov is serious about tennis; it has been said that he practices for several hours a day. In the Tashkent neighborhood where I live, little kids toting tennis racquets half their size can often be seen walking with their parents toward the local courts, which Karimov built. And, despite the poverty and remoteness of the country, he has lured to Uzbekistan a world-class A.T.P.-sanctioned tournament, the President's Cup. “Better tennis racquets than military rockets,” Karimov has said. <=>

“The terrorist strikes against New York and Washington took place on Day Two of this year's tournament. As the world's major media covered the events in America live, the state-controlled Uzbek TV stayed fixed on Yunusabad's center court; not until the following day were images of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shown. In the meantime, Karimov prepared his response. On the Sunday after September 11th, at closing ceremonies for the President's Cup, he ordered a minute of silence for America's victims, transforming Yunusabad into the venue for the Uzbek government's most significant public expression of sympathy for the United States.” <=>

Karimov as President

After becoming president, Karimov eliminated the democratic opposition, took control of the media, and beefed up the military and secret police. He gave the secret police a free hand to crack down on the opposition, corruption and Islamic extremism as they saw fit.

Karimov controls Uzbekistan's valuable assets and has held on to power through manipulating the intelligence and security services. Initially he seemed more repressive but less corrupt than other Central Asian leaders. But later corruption became a serious problem and poverty has endured.

Karimov has been given some credit for paving roads and keeping cities clean and maintaining control under at least a guise of stability but has largely been condemned as being an authoritarian despot. Some have praised him for being on the front line of the fight against terrorism but most believe he has used Muslim extremism as an excuse to clamp down on anyone that poses a threat to his regime.

Karimov has developed a personality cult, albeit one that is rather understated compared to other Communist leaders. His picture is in every government office in the country. Officials pepper their conversations with praises for their leader. Erich Follath wrote in Der Spiegel: On a drive through the Tashkent night, there are few people on the broad boulevards that Karimov had built in the city -- aside from armed guards standing in front of the monumental new buildings he has erected. Like many dictators, Karimov has his own master architect. He wants to leave behind a new world as his legacy. But as with North Korea's Kim dynasty, there's nothing more to it than sheer megalomania. [Source: Erich Follath, Der Spiegel, April 3, 2015]

Karimov’s Inner Circle and Power

Karimov’s inner circle is made up of members of his clan from Samarkand but includes some business leaders from Tashkent. Rustam Inoyatov is the head of the SNB, Uzbekistan’s national security service. Reid Standish wrote in Foreign Policy, “Inoyatov is known for having the president’s ear. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 describes Inoyatov as controlling political access to the president and even extorting various cabinet ministers to keep them in line and prevent them from developing close relationships with the president.” [Source:Reid Standish, Foreign Policy, September 9, 2014]

Erich Follath wrote in Der Spiegel: “Karimov has likewise proven an expert at playing Uzbekistan's powerful families off against each other. Political analyst Alisher Ilkhamov, who, like so many other Uzbeks, was himself driven into exile, describes Karimov's system of power like this: "If you can imagine the battle between the different clans in the country as being a jar filled with spiders, you get an idea of his model of power. Karimov -- who is the leader in addition to being its judge and animal tamer -- constantly ensures that the glass is often emptied and filled with new spiders." [Source: Erich Follath, Der Spiegel, April 3, 2015]

According to Human Rights Watch: “A much-publicized feud between Gulnara Karimova, the president’s daughter, and her sister and mother, as well as with the country’s repressive National Security Services (SNB) that unfolded on Twitter and in the press revealed a level of infighting within the political elite in unprecedented fashion. Karimova’s accusations about corruption within the political elite and SNB officials’ use of torture brought to the fore many politically sensitive topics.” [Source: “World Report 2015: Uzbekistan”, Human Rights Watch]

Karimov and Organized Crime

Diplomatic memos released by Wikileaks reveal that the Uzbekistan government has “close connections with organized crime.” Central Asia researcher Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote: “According to an Uzbek country expert, President Islam Karimov’s entourage, which controls the entire economy, is the real mafia. All illegal businesses are done through the state, embracing industries such as oil, gas, sugar production, flour making, Internet distribution, and telecommunications, among others. There have been reported cases of illegal circulations of gold and non-ferrous metals. [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies >>>]

More recently, President Karimov’s family was suspected by some of involvement in organized crime activities in the country, including Karimov’s daughter Gulnara. Gulnara Karimova, along with the handful of ministers with ties to the criminal world, reportedly controls many profitable businesses in the country such as telecommunications, gold mining industry, trade, Internet, and investments to real estate. >>>

“Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, alleges that Gulnara Karimova was “directly implicated in atrocities and the major beneficiary of the looting of the Uzbek state.” Two prominent figures of organized crime of the Soviet times – Ghaffur Rahimov and Salim Abduvaliev – are now believed to be largely passive in Uzbekistan and have mostly legalized their businesses, and live and work abroad. From the mid-90s they “controlled exports of gas and cotton, several aluminum enterprises in Russia, as well as the trafficking of narcotics from Afghanistan to Europe.” >>>

“Reportedly, President Karimov has established good relations with them mostly out of fear. The concentration of power in the hands of corrupt security agencies in Uzbekistan over the past decade, most prominently the National Security Service (SNB), has contributed to the institutionalization of criminality and corruption, giving them enough leeway to take control over key economic and political spheres. The Chairman of the SNB, Rustam Inoyatov, is reportedly the second most powerful person in the country and has “stacked” the state with his people. >>>

Karimov Family Drama

Erich Follath wrote in Der Spiegel, “Welcome to Uzbekistan, a country that... has been home to a drama that could have come straight from Shakespeare's pen. Playing the leading roles are: a dictator, who has had his country under his iron grip for a quarter-century; his glamorous daughter, who he had been grooming as his successor; and his wife, who was conspiring with the head of the country's intelligence agency against the plan. It is a drama about power, billions of dollars and corruption. There's also a possibility of legal proceedings that could land his favorite daughter in jail for a long time to come. [Source:Erich Follath, Der Spiegel, April 3, 2015 |~|]

“The message that had consistently emanated from the president's palace was that a member of his own family should succeed him. The favorite had been his glamorous and clever eldest daughter. Gulnara Karimova, 42, studied in Tashkent and at Harvard and served in Uzbekistan's Moscow Embassy at a young age. Furthermore, she is thought to have purchased holdings in lucrative oil firms and cotton export companies. With support from her father, all doors were open to her. |~|

“Her true passions, however, were for fashion and pop music. She even started her own a line of clothes and jewelry under the "Guli" label, derived from her nickname, and showed her collection at New York's Fashion Week in 2011. Furthermore, she recorded a cover of "Bésame Mucho" together with Julio Iglesias and sang a love song in a duet with Gérard Depardieu. For the elaborate production of a video to a disco song, she had a stuntman flown in for scenes of him climbing on the medieval walls of Bukhara. Together with Gulnara, he brought the city to a halt for an entire day. One US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks back in 2011 noted that she was the "most-hated woman" in all of Uzbekistan. |~|

“But then Gulnara ran afoul of her father. In March 2014, Swiss federal prosecutors announced they were investigating her on "suspicions of money laundering." Similar investigations were launched in Scandinavia, although she has denied any connection to dubious transactions. Gulnara's father has remained silent about the accusations against his daughter, but her younger sister has publicly spoken out against her. "I no longer consider her to be a part of the family," says Lola Karimova, who is her country's ambassador to UNESCO and also resides in a $40 million mansion in Geneva. She accuses her sister of corruption and of having a weak character. |~|

“Gulnara struck back. "None of us are clean," she tweeted, going on to say her sister used cocaine and was trying to plot against her. She accused Lola of falling victim to black magic, or being in cahoots with her mother and of hoarding large amounts of dollars in a secret hiding place beneath a bathtub in the president's palace. Gulnara Karimova has been under house arrest since February 2014.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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