Mish-mish is the Uzbek word for rumor. And the mish-mish is that Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the late-Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is dead. A conflicting report says she’s alive and a Twitter account alleging to belong to Karimova is happily tweeting away. At this point, there are few ways to verify either claim — which resembles the periodic death rumors of Islam Karimov, always proven false until the last — though there are a considerable number of questions and curiosities to be investigated.
On November 22, the Russian-language news site Center-1 published an incredible claim anonymously sourced to a member of the Uzbek national security service: “Gulnara Karimova killed.” The report alleges that Karimova was killed by poison on November 5 and buried in Tashkent. The anonymous source apparently called Center-1 after participating in the burial, fearing for the fate of Karimova’s two children, Islam and Iman. The sourced seemed to place both in Tashkent, where they are “powerless and helpless.”
As of 2014, Islam Karimov Jr, born in 1992, was studying in the U.K. In an interview with The Guardian that summer, which described him as a second-year business and law student at Oxford Brookes University, he expressed concerns about his mother and his teenage sister, Iman, born in 1998 and apparently kept under house arrest with Gulnara.
In December 2013, Gulnara had given an interview that blew back the veil on the Karimov family’s infighting. Gulnara accused her mother and sister of plotting against her. When Islam Jr. showed up in Tashkent later that December — he said he usually went home for his birthday (December 22) and New Years — he was apparently turned away by armed guards. After finally meeting with his grandfather, along with other family members, Islam Jr. returned to the U.K.
An obvious question now is where is Islam Jr and what does he have to say?
When Gulnara was placed under house arrest in 2014, Iman, her daughter, was 16 and considered a minor. If the rumor that Gulnara was killed is true, a darker question is what has become of her daughter?
Center-1 reported that it had sent such questions to the Uzbek presidential press service but had not received answers.
Ria Novosti pushed back against the Center-1 claim, with an article citing its own unnamed source saying that Gulnara is alive and the death rumors are false. No other information was offered.
In February 2014 Gulnara’s Twitter account was deleted and the globe-trotting fashionista vanished from public view. Natalia Antelava had written in The New Yorker in 2012, “For journalists like me, Gulnara’s love of extravaganzas offers a way to approach an impenetrable country.” She tweeted often and brazenly — flaunting her glamorous lifestyle and, toward the end of the account, lashing out at her family. Gulnara’s downfall paralleled the emergence of evidence laying bare her hand in massive corruption scandals.
The reappearance of Gulnara Twitter accounts, in the wake of her father’s death and her absence from his funeral, caught the interest of Uzbekistan watchers. RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service investigated one of the first to flash recently, @Zabitaya1972 (using the name Afina), and found it to be a fake. There are others, like @GulIslamovna (using the name Gulnara Karimova) which the Center-1 article references as passing off old photos as recent snaps.
In March 2014, as reported by The Guardian, “a BBC correspondent received a letter purportedly handwritten by Karimova talking of her mistreatment in captivity.” Later that month, Uznews.net published a photo, apparently of Gulnara disheveled and drinking Nesquik in decidedly unglamorous surroundings. The link to Uznews, as posted in The Guardian article, now redirects to Center-1, though the original article remains available in the Wayback Machine. Uznews had been shut down in December 2014, with a simple note that “Uznews.net has ceased to exist.”
The Center-1 domain was created in late 2015 and its contact lists a German address. According to the site, it is a project from Galima Bukharbaeva, who had been editor-in-chief of Uznews. Bukharbaeva, an Uzbek journalist, was honored with a 2005 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for her daring coverage of the Andijan massacre. The same coverage earned her the label of “traitor” from the state, ultimately leading her to flee the country.
A single anonymous source is not enough to verify or deny rumors about Gulnara’s death or life, and the Uzbek state isn’t helping itself much either by remaining dodgy about Gulnara’s status and condition.
For the cynics, this is all a circus. Even in disgrace — her corruption laid bare by numerous investigations in recent years — Gulnara gets more attention than jailed journalists, silenced opposition politicians, or harassed social activists. Gulnara flaunted her privilege — pursuing a pop career, a fashion career, and a diplomatic career — all the while swindling the state and the Uzbek people. A cable leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010 referred to her as “the most hated person in Uzbekistan.” Only when she began to fall from favor did Gulnara seem to care about the state’s well-documented abuses. Focus on her remains high while lesser known Uzbeks have also disappeared into the state’s prisons and have been pursued far beyond Uzbek lands.