- - Thursday, September 15, 2011

MOSCOW Glamour queen. International diplomat. Plunderer of the poor. Gulnara Karimova has been called all of these things. But all the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s aging authoritarian leader appears to want is for people to like her.

By the looks of things, that isn’t quite working out.

Over the weekend, the producers of New York’s Fashion Week canceled a show by Ms. Karimova amid pressure from a human rights group and a planned protest about the use of child labor in her country.

In a face-saving gesture, her backers revived the event Thursday at ultrachic Cipriani on 42nd Street.

Turning up at fashion shows and dropping by at the Cannes Film Festival are part of a carefully nurtured public relations exercise by Ms. Karimova, who despite her frivolous image is seen as a possible successor to her father.

On the international scene, she has carved out an image as a fashionable jet-setter. In her home country, Ms. Karimova is feted by official media as an accomplished diplomat, academic and philanthropist devoted to the cause of disadvantaged women and children.

To her many detractors, Ms. Karimova, 39, is a “robber baron” who has ruthlessly used her power to pillage businesses in Uzbekistan and who luxuriates in self-imposed European exile, while many in her country endure crushing poverty.

Uzbekistan, a mainly Muslim nation of almost 28 million people, is strategically placed along a key transportation route supplying U.S.-led coalition troops engaged in combating insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.

It is rich in natural gas and gold, as well as being one of the world largest cotton producers, making it potentially attractive to investors.

Although officially touted as an international stateswoman, Ms. Karimova rarely appears to bother herself with such matters.

Her official website conveys the image of a carefree fashionista obsessed with gaudy jewelry flitting between charity events in Uzbekistan and gala evenings in Europe.

Ms. Karimova appears to take inordinate pride in having been photographed with notables including former President Bill Clinton, singer Elton John and action film star Steven Seagal.

Another website, Googoosha.uz, documents Ms. Karimova’s short-lived pop career: She sang under the name GooGoosha - reputedly her father’s favorite nickname for her. One particularly eye-popping music video depicts a flying sports car wending its way to a palace in verdant mountains, greeted by Ms. Karimova bedecked in a flowing white dress.

On top of all that, Ms. Karimova heads her country’s diplomatic mission at the United Nations’ office in Geneva, where she lives with her son and daughter.

What the Harvard regional studies master’s course graduate’s websites don’t mention are her widely alleged links to obscure Swiss-registered Zeromax GmbH, a failed holding company widely believed to have been under her control.

In a letter to Swiss magazine Le Temps earlier this year, Ms. Karimova denied ever having had any ties to Zeromax.

Whatever the truth, the slow-motion collapse of Zeromax amid a mountain of debt has set some talking about Ms. Karimova’s future.

The winding-down of Zeromax is seen by some as a way of definitively erasing Ms. Karimova’s image as the oligarch and thereby making her more palatable to the general public.

What might come next for Ms. Karimova was the subject of a passing remark in a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan written in February last year and obtained by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Karimova has always been very visible on Uzbekistan’s political and cultural stage, and some local observers believe that she is the being groomed as the president’s successor,” the cable said.

Islam Karimov, 73, has ruled his country with an iron fist for two decades, mercilessly stamping out all opposition and any signs of Islamic radicalism.

Rumors have long abounded of Mr. Karimov’s ill-health, and government websites heavily edit his photographs to airbrush away signs of aging.

With almost all major international media outlets, including the Associated Press, barred from the country, Uzbekistan-watchers must grasp at what little reliable information is available to help understand what will come after Mr. Karimov departs the scene.

If Gulnara Karimova’s carefully nurtured domestic image as a kindhearted philanthropist is aimed at ensuring a soft landing for her after her father is no longer running the country, it is far from certain that anybody is buying the line.

Another leaked U.S. cable from 2005 spelled out allegations normally reserved for whispered conversations.

“The discussion of the honest, hardworking (Gulnara), looking out for the best interests of her country, likely irks the many business people who have been crushed by Karimova and her greed as well as the general public, who view her as something of a robber baron,” one dispatch reads.

But recent tweaks to Uzbekistan’s constitution have served only to fuel the speculation about her potential succession to the presidency. Mr. Karimov has one estranged son from an earlier marriage and another daughter, who is not taken seriously as a successor.

According to reforms approved by lawmakers in March, the Senate speaker would take over the reins in the event of Mr. Karimov being incapacitated and unable to properly perform his duties, prompting talk that Ms. Karimova is being primed for that role.

“These rumors have been circulating, and I think there are people lobbying on her behalf, but it is unclear what [Mr. Karimov] himself thinks about all that,” said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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