Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state deep within the Eurasian Steppe, is known as one of the most secretive and repressive dictatorships in the world. For years, President Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara was the most prominent member of the family, recording pop songs under the name Googoosha.
But for months now, Gulnara has gone silent under house arrest, and her son, Islam Karimov, Jr., tells The Guardian he fears his grandfather has killed his mother. The younger Karimov, currently 21-years-old, tells the newspaper he fears the silence from his mother–and teenage sister, who is also under house arrest without charges–means the government disposed of her. “It’s very difficult for me to even say this, but sadly, even if something happened to them or their lives were at extreme risk, I would not know about it and there is no way for me to find out about it,” he said. Karimov notes that he last spoke to his mother in March, and since then has received strange texts from unknown numbers claiming to be her, but “I doubt that it’s them, because it was in a different style.”
Gulnara Karimova’s disappearance would have been almost unbelievable during the peak years of her ubiquity in Uzbekistan. Performing under the artistic name “Googoosha,” Karimova presented herself as a Western-style pop star and released music videos that were, at best, poorly received in the Western world:
Western advertising for Googoosha’s music compared her to Kylie Minogue and boasted of her career as a “poet and mezzo-soprano.” She is also a jewelry designer and was once named a professor at Tashkent’s University of World Economy and Diplomacy. An American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks noted that the advertising did not work on her own people: “Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way… She remains the single most hated person in the country.”
In addition to being involved in what is described by numerous media sources as “rampant” corruption in the nation, Karimova’s efforts as her nation’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva aroused suspicion. Her fashionista lifestyle unfolded, as reports surfaced of egregious acts of torture committed by her father’s government, most notably the burning alive of political dissidents. It was the alleged money laundering she became involved with in Switzerland that many suggest sealed her fate, however.
By January 2014, she was reportedly under house arrest, though she continued to be active on Twitter. Karimova’s Twitter account is described as vaguely coherent and extremely aggressive toward her own family– signs that Gulnara believed she would be killed. The BBC recalls her account “accusing her mother and sister of witchcraft, and her father’s officials of repression and abuses.” By March, the only indication that Gulnara Karimova was still alive was a letter smuggled to the BBC, in which Karimova claimed she had been extensively tortured.
Her son tells The Guardian that “certain people” were out to poison his grandfather against his mother, but fails to elaborate. The prime suspect: Gulnara’s younger sister Lola. In September 2013, the less glitzy Karimova told the BBC that she had not spoken to her older sister for 12 years and actively avoided being in Uzbekistan when Gulnara was visiting. She also, ominously, described her sister’s chances of succeeding her father as “low.” Gulnara Karimova’s accusations have led some to believe her sister was securing her position as successor, though others simply speculate that Gulnara hurt too many people and was simply too ruthless to keep her position.
“She has had business rivals killed… She has been involved in trafficking girls into prostitution in Dubai, a partner in the narcotics trade, and she benefits financially from the open forced labor of millions of small children picking cotton in the state farms,” accused Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan.
There is little indication of whether the world at large will ever know the fate of Gulnara Karimova. Her father is 76- years-old, however, leaving little time to assemble a formidable line of succession and forcing the isolated government to reveal to the world sooner rather than later a plan to cement the iron fist of the Karimov family over the nation.