Although characterized by some inside and outside Uzbekistan as “the most hated person” in the country, Gulnara Islamovna Karimova has apparently mastered the art of social networking—in particular, Twitter. The medium is serving to promote and bring more visibility to her professional activities, providing a glimpse into her personal life and possibly building a youthful following. Her tweets range from announcing her new songs, nail polish designs, her poems, re-tweeting quotes about her philosophy on life, as well as messages related to announcing her upcoming projects, responding to provocative articles mentioning her and exchanges with foreign journalists. Thus, lately, in the midst of other discussions in the Twitter universe (“Twitterverse”), she has been involved in exchanges with her followers about the closure of MTS (the biggest, Russian-owned, wireless service provider in Uzbekistan until 2012, then rumored to be shut down because of Gulnara Karimova’s take-over of the company), Rustam Azimov (Vice Prime Minister of Uzbekistan and a possible future contender to the presidency), and the 2005 Andijan upheaval (Twitter, @GulnaraKarimova, May–April 2013; www.centrasia.ru, January 1, 2012).
Karimova is present in the lives of her country’s youth not only online but through the Fund Forum, which she runs with nearly 50 programs focusing on all aspects of Uzbekistan’s social and cultural life. Her online presence is, in fact, a continuation of these programs and most of her Twitter followers are participants in them. The majority of the programs are charitable, targeting mainly youth and relying on young volunteers and local institutions for organizational work. These programs, among others, include selections of the best young regional talent, repair of schools and hospitals, women’s health, various development grants, as well as training and consultations with entrepreneurs (gulnarakarimova.com/eng/, www.fundforum.uz/en/, accessed July 8).
As her role in the social life of the increasingly internet-savvy Uzbek population is becoming more active, her popularity among the many young people plugged into social media intensifies as well. According to an April 2013 entry in her personal blog, she claims that more than 7.5 million people—mainly youth—participated in and benefited from her programs. In the same blog entry she says that she witnessed how each person’s opinion, thoughts and perspectives changed through their participation in her programs (http://gkarimova.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/132/). Youth programs seem to promote the idea of unity and cooperation, she argues, in particular under the annual competition “Kelajak Ovozi” (Voice of the Future), which is held in all regions of Uzbekistan under her “We Are One Team” campaign. Responding to a tweet from @MansurTangishov on May 29, who said, “The most interesting thing is that the former winners of “Kelajak Ovozi Namangan” are mentoring this year’s contenders,” Karimova exclaimed, “At last! That is the main result! Together we are power.”
Tweets directed to Karimova that are not related to her Fund Forum activities range from locals asking her to help finance surgeries for serious illnesses, complaints about the lawlessness of the local militia, and even requests to fund the construction of a road in Osh, Kyrgyzstan ([email protected]). According to the news portal Podrobno.uz, two internet savvy people representing 800 households and 3,000 people in Kibray (Tashkent region) opened a Twitter account (@Darhon3) in order to ask for Karimova’s intervention in stopping the demolition of those houses for a new road project. As a result, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev personally met with household representatives who agreed on an alternative route plan that would not affect those 800 houses (http://www.podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/). Similarly, residents of Chilanzar district in Tashkent also asked Karimova to intervene to save a green patch of land used as a park for neighborhood children. The area was to be turned into a parking lot (http://bump.ru/page/blog/user/view_post.seam?userId=307013&postId=893755).
Speculation has long circulated about whether or not Gulnara Karimova hopes to succeed her father, Islam Karimov, as president of Uzbekistan. But as a female with no independent political base, she has largely been considered an unlikely contender. Yet, if she runs for the presidency in a fair election (currently scheduled for early 2015), one advantage Karimova will have over other politicians is name recognition among the general population. Still, even if she does not run or loses and manages to stay in the country to continue working on her charities, her mastery of social networking seems likely to assure that Karimova will always have wide political support from young people and from those who benefited from her work.
Karimova’s active presence in the Twitterverse shows that she is far ahead of the competition in keeping her communication channels open, as compared to other, predominantly male Uzbekistani politicians raised under the Soviet political system who seldom appear in public. Her accessibility via Twitter to ordinary people and frequent appearances on Forum TV—one of the few local TV channels in Uzbekistan that regularly spotlight Karimova and her Fund Forum’s work—has probably made her the most recognizable figure in domestic politics after her father (http://www.vesti.uz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36093). Therefore, with Uzbekistan’s strong youth power as an unpredictable element, Karimova appears to be focusing on increasing the number of her online admirers and program participants in order to turn those people into her loyal real-life followers who will stick by her and support her political aspirations. Rather than supporting little-recognized candidates in the upcoming election, many inside Uzbekistan may, indeed, be willing to back a candidate who has been carrying out local charitable work and who benefited their lives one way or another.