Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimova may be down, but her cultural impact, especially among the young, is too great to count her out.by Dengiz Uralov 27 November 2013
Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the president of Uzbekistan, has built up a cultural empire over the years. She has dominated the repressive country’s arts scene and – partly through her pop diva alter ego Googoosha – created a pop subculture that sits in contrast to Uzbek traditions.
The past month has seen what appears to be that empire’s fall, with the silencing of Karimova’s radio and television stations – on opening day of her trademark event, Style.Uz Art Week, no less – and the shuttering of a chain of stores selling her fashions.
In addition, an unflattering article appeared on a website controlled by the security services, alleging that President Islam Karimov had recently been outraged to learn of corrupt business dealings and embarrassing escapades involving his daughter.
A major blow was the failure of the Style.Uz closing party, from which million-selling singer Lara Fabian pulled out four days before she was to headline, at the urging of human rights activists. On her Facebook page Fabian wrote that she did not want to be a “shop-window for the dictatorship” and made a distinction between performing “for the people of Uzbekistan” and signing at events “organized by the regime.”
Those reversals come on top of money-laundering and bribery probes targeting Karimova in France, Sweden, and Switzerland, and against a backdrop of political maneuvering to succeed the 75-year-old strongman president.
Karimova’s domestic setbacks could be down to family politics – she has blamed her mother for the attacks on her – or a rivalry with the country’s powerful security chief, Rustam Inoyatov, whom Karimova has accused of fostering corruption and encouraging torture and whom she says is eyeing the presidency.
But while human rights workers and other critics of Karimova and her father have watched the drama with puzzlement and, clearly, some glee – it has provided another opportunity to quote the 2005 U.S. Embassy cable calling her “the single most hated person in the country” – Karimova has thousands of young fans who call her their “princess.” They openly accuse the authorities of trying to send Uzbekistan back to the Middle Ages, and they cast Karimova as the standard bearer for a progressive, more sophisticated society.
A YOUNG ARMY
Held in late October, the seventh annual Style.Uz Art Week included a fashion show featuring some of the world’s leading designers, the Golden Cheetah film festival, a biennale of contemporary art, a theater festival, and many other events. It is the showcase of the Karimova subculture.
“A distinctive feature of the subculture or quasi-culture that Gulnara promotes is an attempt to imitate contemporary art,” said “Aliakbar,” an art historian and critic from Tashkent who spoke pseudonymously for fear of conflict with Karimova. “Gulnara probably sincerely wants to show Uzbekistan as a modern country, but in the end it turns to kitsch – a parody of something seen in the West through a keyhole that has long gone out of fashion.”
But defenders of Style.Uz say it has transformed the country’s art scene and, in some cases, their own lives. Aygul Semanalieva, a young fashion designer from Tashkent, said it is only with Karimova’s help that she has received any recognition. The designer took part in a show of children’s fashion sponsored by Karimova, who then invited her to exhibit her work at Style.Uz.
Semanalieva said the fashion workshops held during Style.Uz and led by internationally known figures are the most important events in the country for aspiring designers.
Maksim Boyko, a Karimova fan who studies at the National University of Uzbekistan, said Style.Uz put the country on the cultural map. “Now a lot of well-known people come here and praise our country,” Boyko said.
In recent years, Julio Iglesias, Sting, and Gerard Depardieu have come to Uzbekistan, either at Karimova’s invitation or to collaborate with her on some artistic endeavor.
For all its drawbacks, the culture that Karimova champions has a place in Uzbekistan, according to cultural critic Alex Ulko. “The hegemony of ‘tradition’ and ‘national mentality’ that exists in almost every work of contemporary Uzbek art is truly suffocating. [Style.Uz] is a necessary shift of the paradigm,” he said.
“The project diverts young people from a not-to-be-questioned or frozen culture sandwiched between the Muslim and the Soviet dogmas and offers an alternative: an urban, secular, ambitious, playful, and cosmopolitan culture driven by consumerism and personal vanity.”
Almost all of the cultural events held by Karimova are aimed at young people. Never one for humility, she wrote in recent posts on her Twitter account (since deleted): “I believe in the hundreds of thousands of young people with whom our projects were lined up. ... I gave them an opportunity to grow up. ... I created the best workshops in Uzbekistan throughout the decades, with help from them has grown up those who today may be the future of this country.”
Many would agree with her. Karimova’s Fund Forum charity provides scholarships and other grants to young entrepreneurs and athletes, as well as craftspeople, teachers, and scientists. Those programs and her years of dominating Uzbekistan’s cultural scene have helped her amass an army of young fans. That’s important in a country where one-third of the population is under 25 and where the question of who will rule next is far from decided.
Members of Karimova’s fan club created the @GoogooshaFC.uz account on Twitter, which counts several thousand followers. Club members call themselves Gulivers (with one “l”) – a play on her first name and verit, the Russian word for “believe” – and promote the hashtag #Gulivers. Her fan club group on Odnoklassniki, the most popular social network in Uzbekistan, counts about 50,000 members.
Fans’ online posts routinely express gushing admiration for Karimova; as her troubles have mounted, they have taken on a feverish tone. “Our princess! Where are you? Your corns miss you!” wrote Twitter user @timati876, likening Karimova to a corncob. Another, using Karimova’s patronymic, wrote, “Gulnara Islamovna, we will always be with you. You supported us so much and for so long, big thanks to you!”
For many of Uzbekistan’s young people, especially outside the cities, Karimova’s cultural events are “a window into a new, appealing world where everybody lives beautifully and successfully,” Aliakbar said.
“Imagine an ordinary Uzbek man or woman from a traditional family. Their life runs entirely along established traditions. And suddenly Gulnara appears on the scene, an Uzbek Eva Peron, in a skimpy dress with jewelry and speaks to them – ‘Hey, look! You can live like that, bright as a Hollywood star! Here’s an opportunity to learn and to earn money, take it!’ ”
At the same time, Ulko said Karimova’s fans have been “fooled by cheap tricks, blinded by glitter and noise ... in a country where the lack of gas, electricity, and water have become the norm, and where most people are struggling to make ends meet.”
Among the many rumors surrounding Karimova’s apparent fall is that Uzbekistan’s conservative leaders disapprove of her image and the culture she represents for young people.
There is some evidence that Karimova herself buys into that view, or at least adopts it as a more flattering alternative to being outmaneuvered by the security chief or disgraced by multiple scandals.
“In today's world, when a woman does not transmit traditions, national culture, does not recognize the foundations – she often has troubles,” she tweeted.
The Gulivers have only just begun to view themselves as a movement that, in their numbers, has the potential to become a political force. Inevitably, then, their suppression has begun. On 20 November, Karimova tweeted that Evelina Karakoz and Shohruh Ganiev, two young people who work for a training program for future leaders that she sponsors, were arrested. Their location is unknown.
The following day, Karimova’s Twitter account was deleted without explanation.