Uzbek strongman Karimov still calls the tune

Christopher Rickleton

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) - Uzbekistan's strongman leader Islam Karimov has kept a stranglehold on power in the Central Asian state for a quarter of a century, even at the expense of his own children.

Long lambasted for brutally crushing dissent by rights groups, the former Soviet apparatchik -- in power since 1989 -- has reportedly placed his eldest daughter under house arrest after a bitter family feud, with her compared him to Stalin.

The spectacular fall from grace of Gulnara Karimova -- a pop-singing, corruption-tainted socialite once seen as his possible successor -- has shown just how much her father intends to maintain his vice-like grip on power.

The usually severe and unsmiling Karimov even danced at recent Nowruz new year celebrations to quash rumours of his ill health at 77.

"Without a strong government there will be chaos in society," Karimov told a small group of voters ahead of a weekend presidential election he won with more than 90 percent of the vote.

"The time will come when we will give full freedom to our citizens," he added. But accordingly to observers, that time is still some way off.

"Uzbek society lacks democratic traditions," Kamoliddin Rabbimov, a political analyst from the country currently living in exile in France told AFP.

"Stability and control over society relies on the capacity of the regime to use violence."

Ironically for a leader whose family has given him so much trouble, Karimov was raised in an orphanage in the ancient city of Samarkand, before studying mechanical engineering and economics and rising up Communist Party ranks to become head of Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989.

Like the authoritarian leader of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, he led his country through the transition from the former USSR without any major challenge until the palace power struggle within his own family emerged in 2013.

- 'Sorcery' -

The reported arrest of the once untouchable Gulnara Karimova, 42, in late 2013 came after a war of words played out in the international media during which she accused her mother and younger sister of sorcery, and assailed the country’s security chief on Twitter for harbouring presidential ambitions.

She has since been kept under house arrest as prosecutors probe her and business associates over connections to a "criminal gang", her London-based spokesperson said.

Formerly a fixture at Western fashion events, and capable of luring the likes of Sting and Gerard Depardieu to Uzbekistan, Karimova is also under investigation in Europe over allegations she extorted some $300 million (276 million euros) from Scandinavian telecoms firm TeliaSonera for access to the Uzbek market.

"It appears Gulnara miscalculated in overestimating how much security she would gain from being the first daughter," said Scott Radnitz, an expert on the region at the University of Washington.

"It is likely (Karimov) saw her public antics and acquisitiveness as potentially destabilising, and put the interests of his regime first."

While corruption allegations and family feuds might have destroyed a Western politician, Karimov seems immune to the fallout.

"People say that you can tell whenever he is working at his desk in the presidential residency. Tashkent feels different. Officials are on edge," said Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

- 'Hundreds killed' -

Since the majority Muslim republic gained independence in 1991, Karimov's regime has rebutted allegations that opponents have been tortured and child labour used in the country's lucrative cotton sector.

The most persistent accusations from rights activists, however, remain claims that government forces killed hundreds of demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan on May 13, 2005.

The government dismissed the reports of a massacre and said the violence was a response to the Islamic extremism.

Although there was no independent investigation of the killings, which followed the arrest and subsequent jailbreak of a group of religious businessmen, an OSCE report estimated the death toll at between 300-500 people.

In the wake of international criticism Tashkent shut down a US military base used to supply operations in neighbouring Afghanistan, while rights activists say that NGOs and independent media outlets came under heavy pressure.

But a decade on Uzbekistan still receives aid from the United States and in December hosted Russian leader Vladimir Putin as both Moscow and Washington vie for influence, much to the chagrin of rights activists.

"Will the international community be silent about 10 years of no real progress on fundamental rights? We hope not," researcher Swerdlow said.