Is Uzbekistan's tweeting first daughter a rebel?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: She's been called the most hated woman in Uzbekistan, also the most powerful. She's Gulnara Karimova, the six-foot tall daughter of the country's autocratic leader. Natalia Antelava has had a rare relationship with Gulnara Karimova and she's done a radio documentary for the BBC about that relationship. Now, I spoke with you about a year ago, Natalia, about Gulnara. Remind us who she is and how you started corresponding with her in the first place.

Natalia Antelava: Well, I'm not sure "relationship" is actually how I would describe it.

Werman: Twitter relationship.

Antelava: Yes, a virtual relationship. Gulnara Karimova is a pop-star. Her stage name is Googoosha. She's a diplomat, she's a businesswoman, and recently she has also become obsessed with Twitter. So once I tried my luck and sent her a Twitter message, and it's important to remember that we are talking about one of the most reclusive countries in the world, it's arguably second only to North Korea. So suddenly when I got a reply from her, I literally almost fell off my chair. And this conversation on Twitter carried on, but what has been a lot more interesting has been her Twitter feed which turned from sort of a place where she would post pictures of herself at fashion shows and in various yoga poses into the single most important news source on Uzbekistan because a lot has been happening in Uzbekistan recently [??] was Gulnara herself. She found herself in a family drama worthy of Shakespeare and she's been tweeting about it all.

Werman: You've never actually spoken with her directly, Natalia, but you do have a recording of her speaking I gather.

Antelava: I do. Gulnara doesn't give interviews. She doesn't like to answer real questions. But over the last few years, she has hosted many people in Uzbekistan. Among them was a lesser-known American actor, Peter Almond, and in conversation, in a recorded conversation with him she made a quite significant statement.

[Clip plays]
Peter Almond: How would you feel if you were president of Uzbekistan?

Gulnara Karimova: Well, I probably will not be able to answer this question before I try it.
[Clip ends]

Antelava: And this was the first time that she indicated what had been rumored for a long time, that she had presidential ambitions. But very soon after that she seems to have fallen out with her father, Islam Karimova. So, over the last year, one by one her empire crumbled. She lost pretty much everything from her businesses to her TV stations, her charity was shut down in Uzbekistan, and she says this is part of a fierce battle for succession and she has blamed her father's top security man for what's happening.

Werman: Yeah, what's the fallout with her father all about?

Antelava: Well, from what we understand, and it's hard to know for sure with Uzbekistan, her father found out about a corruption scandal that she was involved in in Europe. She's accused of receiving a huge bribe, three hundred million dollars, from a Swedish telecommunications giant, a company called TeliaSonera. And from what we understand, her father found out about it, decided to look into her excesses, got very angry with, and decided to clamp down. That's one version of the story. The other version of the story, and that's Gulnara's version of the story, is that what is happening to her is a battle for succession and that it's her father's top security man who is the mastermind of it.

Werman: So a corruption scandal, maybe a battle for succession, and, on top of all this, Gulnara Karimova is now tweeting about human rights and her concerns about human rights? How credible is that?

Antelava: That's right. One of the extraordinary transformations of Gulnara in the last few months has been that she went from basically being the fashion queen into tweeting about torture in Uzbek prisons, about arrests in the middle of the night, about things that aren't really part of reality of life for many, many Uzbeks. And it's a very interesting development because she's clearly standing up to the regime of her own father. However, I think many people don't believe any of this because her record is dark. I mean the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks once described her as a robber baron, and while doing this documentary I met Uzbeks who live in exile now who are still absolutely terrified of being identified, despite being very far away from Uzbekistan and who say that their businesses have been taken over by Gulnara and that they suffered a great deal when she decided to take over their businesses.

Werman: I mean this is really serious stuff. I mean what is the likelihood that Gulnara might come out on top of this power struggle? Going back to that clip, she might like to try to presidency. What might that mean for her country and the region?

Antelava: Well, right now her presidential ambitions seem to be in tatters, but she still matters for the future of Uzbekistan, for the stability of the entire region because it depends on Uzbekistan, it's central Asia's largest country. It's also a key country for the American withdrawal, for the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan because it provides one of the alternative routes from Afghanistan. And the reason why she matters is because for over two decades her father ruled and challenged with an iron fist, but now he's facing his own daughter and his future basically hangs on what he's going to do next and whether he'll be able to control his disobedient daughter.

Werman: That was the BBC's Natalia Antelava.