Could a pop singer named Googoosha become the next dictator of Uzbekistan, a landlocked former Soviet republic near the Caspian Sea? Despite a deepening corruption scandal and a complicated relationship with her father, current Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, she can't be written off.
Leadership succession is a big problem throughout the former Soviet Union. Of the 11 nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States, only Armenia and Ukraine have built workable power transition systems. Most are ruled by leaders, dynasties or cliques that have been in power for more than a decade.
In Uzbekistan, Karimov has reigned since 1989, first as head of the local branch of the Soviet Communist Party and then as a repeatedly re-elected president. He is now 75 years old, tired and rumored to be in poor health. The suppressed but still active opposition said early this year that Karimov had suffered a heart attack. Official sources denied the allegation.
Uzbekistan's political system has no place for opposition. Most of Karimov's opponents have been forced out of the country. Disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests are well-documented by Amnesty International. During cotton harvesting season, city dwellers are forced to work in the fields or pay bribes to avoid "conscription."
Karimov has done nothing to ensure succession. Many have assumed that he intends to pass on the throne by inheritance, as did his contemporary Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan. This could put Googoosha -- Gulnara Karimova, Karimov's eldest daughter -- in position to become the country's next leader.
Karimova, 41, is a jet-setter with a gift for self-promotion. She records sugar-coated pop songs, including a recent duet with Gerard Depardieu. She runs a number of charities. She professes to be a fashion designer, a painter, a poet and a professor of political sciences. She owns four TV channels and three radio stations. Who better to run the repressive system her father painstakingly built?
In May, Uzbek opposition activist Mohammed Salih told Fergana News that Karimova "would be the most acceptable candidate" for her father because "she would never betray him no matter how much she hated him."
A lot has changed since then. In June, Swedish investigators named Karimova as a suspect in a corruption case involving Sweden's biggest telecommunications company, TeliaSonera. The company stands accused of paying $340 million for access to the Uzbek mobile market to a Gibraltar-based shell company called Takilant, registered in the name of Gayane Avakyan, a close aide to Karimova. A year earlier, Karimova was instrumental in forcing Russian mobile operator MTS out of Uzbekistan. The company had to write off more than half a billion dollars in local assets.
Soon after reports of the investigation surfaced in the Swedish press, the first daughter lost her diplomatic status as Uzbekistan's envoy to international organizations in Geneva. In Uzbekistan itself, the "first daughter's" ally and relative, businessman Akbarali Abdullayev, was arrested for allegedly running an organized crime ring. A number of other people close to Karimova are under arrest or on the run. Karimova's TV channels and radio stations were abruptly taken off the air for formal violations on Oct. 21. A week later, her media company, Tetra Group, had its accounts frozen.
On Oct. 26, an Uzbek opposition site published an article by Usman Khaknazarov, an emigre Uzbek political analyst known for the inaccuracy of his reports, claiming that Karimova had fallen out of favor with her father after secret police presented him with a dossier detailing Googoosha's activities. Karimov was allegedly angriest at his daughter for sharing what he saw as "indecent half-naked pictures." The article was reprinted unusually widely throughout Central Asia and even in Russia, creating the impression that someone was waging a public-relations war on Karimova.
Karimova's younger sister, Lola, is among her adversaries. In a recent interview with the BBC's Uzbek service, the younger Karimova said that the sisters had not spoken for 12 years. In response, Gulnara accused Lola of practicing sorcery. Earlier, a post appeared on a blog called Real Estalker reporting that Lola had bought a $58 million villa in Beverly Hills, California. As the war rages, the Uzbek public has been quietly allowed access to read the attacks on Gulnara on opposition sites, normally unavailable in Uzbekistan.
With her news media empire shut down, Karimova has recourse only on Twitter, where she frequently posts in broken English and Russian. She maintains the secret police is working to bring her down. "Tomorrow they will start cruel reprisals," she cautioned. They even tried to poison her with "heavy metals, including mercury," Karimova tweeted.
Still, she remains loyal to her father. Even when she likened him to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, she said he would remain her father no matter what he had done. This attitude explains why some observers still believe she has a political future.
"No matter who else comes to power, they will take revenge on Karimov," Uzbek human-rights activist Mutabar Tajibayeva, now living in France, told Radio Azattyk. The opposition website Uzxalqharakati.com speculated that the attack on Karimova is meant to set her up as the leader of a pseudo-opposition party.
Secret police chief Rustam Inoyatov, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyeyev and his deputy, Rustam Azimov, have all been named as potential successors to Karimov, jockeying for position as the dictator stalls for time and shows he will not tolerate insolence from anyone, even his own daughter. Eventually, Karimov will have to go, and unless dynastic succession is ensured, "the next president risks a clan war because of his insufficient legitimacy," Moscow's International Institute of Political Expertise wrote in a recent report.
The toughest challenge for dictators facing the inevitable prospect of death or resignation is how to make sure their families' and friends' fortunes will not be in jeopardy. Whatever happens with Karimov and his daughters, their experience will serve as an instructive example for other post-Soviet leaders.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.)