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Inside Uzbekistan’s First Family Feud

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Asia Life

Inside Uzbekistan’s First Family Feud

In a rare interview, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva has put the maximum distance between herself and her roots.

All is not what it seems in Uzbekistan’s ruling family. At a glance they share a few things in common: they are all fabulously rich and they try to present a positive face to the world. But according to the youngest daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, a rift divides her and her birth family that is beyond repair.

The father, Islam Karimov, has ruled the Central Asian republic for more than two decades with an iron fist. The eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, 41, is a socialite, UN ambassador, fashion designer, philanthropist and pop icon who has released her own album, performing under the name of GooGosha. The album features a duet with French actor Gerard Depardieu – yes, you read that right. The younger daughter, 35-year-old Lola, leads a relatively quiet life in Geneva where she lives with her husband Timur and three children, runs a foundation called “You Are Not Alone” for orphaned and disabled Uzbek children, and serves as the current UNESCO ambassador for Uzbekistan.

While Gulnara has reportedly been touted as a potential successor to her now 75-year-old father, widely considered a dictator, Lola, the current UNESCO ambassador for Uzbekistan, stands at the opposite pole. In a recent interview with BBC – her first ever with the Western media – she has revealed just how deep the divide goes between her, Gulnara and their father.

Of the rift, Lola says, "We (she and her sister Gulnara) have never hidden this from anyone… We have neither family nor friendship contacts. We don't even meet each other for family activities," she said, adding that they have had quite different characters from childhood. "With the years, the difference only grows.”

Lola once sued a French online journal (Rue 89) for calling her a “dictator’s daughter.”

“I know my name outpaces myself, but I want to be seen as a person with her own principles and viewpoint,” Lola said. She added that she and her father “don’t discuss politics” during her visits to Uzbekistan, which she makes two or three times annually.

This disconnect is quite shocking in a culture that places great importance on family ties.

But Lola has just cause. Uzbekistani President Karimov is known to smash all forms of dissent and refuses to countenance opposition political parties. Torture in prisons and the massacre of hundreds of protestors in Andijan in 2005 are among the other accusations that have been leveled at Karimov.

Under Karimov, the media is also routinely and strongly suppressed. Just this week media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concern for journalist Sergei Naumov, who has been missing since September 21. Naumov was reporting on forced labor camps in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, which are widely accused of using child labor during harvest. Poverty and unemployment are rife across the nation.

Karimov insulted the whole nation in June when he lashed out at Uzbek migrant laborers, whom he called “lazy people.” He said: “One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there (overseas) for a piece of bread. Nobody is starving to death in Uzbekistan.”

Of all forms of coercion or oppression daughter Lola said: "I categorically reject any use of force, whether it is forced labor or other forms of violence against any person, especially children."

It turns out that helping children are one of Lola’s greatest passions, hence her foundation for Uzbek children. Gulnara runs an Uzbekistan-focused foundation of her own – “Fund Forum” – which she has actively promotes via social media (she’s known to be an avid tweeter). Criticizing her sister’s public flaunting of her good deeds, Lola said: “I have noticed that the more you talk about what you're doing, the less pleasure you get from your business.” Lola has also dismissed her sister’s chances at the presidency as unlikely.

To be fair, Lola’s criticisms are justified. Gulnara, allegedly described as a “robber baron” by American diplomats according to a WikiLeaks cable, has reportedly been linked with a far-reaching fraud probe, from bribery to money laundering. But tough questions have also been put to Lola regarding her own spending habits and the source of her and husband Timu Tillyaev’s fortune.

This July, Lola purchased a $58 million mansion in Beverly Hills. Photos of the interior of this mega-mansion, Le Palais, can be seen here. She and her husband Timur Tillyaev are listed among Switzerland’s richest people, and have purchased a $46 million mansion in Geneva’s Vandoeuvres area. Despite these eye-popping acquisitions, she claims her husband acquired his wealth via a share in an Uzbek transport and import company, and dismissed claims that Karimov’s connections helped in any way.

Lola said: “We ourselves were surprised when we saw we were ranked among the richest people in Switzerland. I still joke about it with my husband,” she says, claiming the figures given for their fortune were “far from reality.”

Are the differences between the sisters really as vast as they seem?