She is known as the Uzbek Princess, a powerful businesswoman, tipped by many to succeed her father as ruler of the largest country in Central Asia. But Gulnara Karimova has been branded a harridan, a wicked witch, a dragon lady. Her bitter divorce battle has spiralled into an international scandal, involving accusations of kidnapping, corruption and dirty politics. It may even have significant implications for America's "war against terrorism".
When I meet Ms Karimova in the foyer café of a smart Moscow hotel, the 31-year-old seems an unlikely source of such controversy. She wishes to reply to her critics, she tells me. Yet she appears quiet, almost shy, but very beautiful. In a city full of new-rich exhibitionists, she is modestly dressed, with almost no make-up and her hat pulled far down over her forehead. But this fugitive from US justice, accused of "kidnapping" her children, is determined to set the record straight.
"It is all a terrible mess," she says. "I didn't want it to turn out like this. I just wanted a normal, civilised divorce." Karimova's predicament derives from an extraordinary set of circumstances that reflect extraordinary times. A Harvard-educated martial-arts black belt, she is the elder daughter of Islam Karimov, the former Communist Party leader and now President of Uzbekistan - America's key strategic foothold in Central Asia. Many would describe Karimov as a dictator. With a population of 25 million, the former Soviet state has an estimated 6,000 political prisoners and in 2002 a UN investigator found that the use of torture there was "systemic".
At the age of 19, the President's daughter was married to a man she scarcely knew. Mansur Maqsudi was the brother of a family friend, from a wealthy clan of long-time Uzbek emigrants who lived and made money in the United States. She had met him, aged 19, when she was working as a conference interpreter in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. After their marriage in 1991, she lived the life of a minor jetsetter, dividing her time between studies in New York and Boston and homes in New Jersey and Tashkent. Meanwhile, her husband's business enterprises flourished. He established a local bottling plant for Coca-Cola in the Uzbek capital. And it was here that Karimova gave birth to her first child, a boy called Islam. Six years later, after a spell working at the UN in New York, she had a girl, Iman.
By 2000, though, the marriage was in difficulty; the couple were spending more and more time apart and the following summer, her husband announced that he wanted a divorce. At this point Karimova took off for Tashkent with the children and the trouble really began.
Maqsudi filed for divorce in the US courts, claiming that he would not receive a fair hearing in Uzbekistan. The New Jersey Superior Court agreed to proceed, and ordered Karimova to return before the hearing. She describes this as a period of round-the-clock torment: the days spent studying the small print of lawyers' letters and faxes, the nights - because of the time difference - in anguished phone calls with her now estranged husband, arguing over custody and finances. "It was all such a mess," she says again. "After a while, I just decided not to react."
In his legal submissions to the divorce court, Maqsudi claims that, following his split from his wife, his business interests in Uzbekistan were crippled. A month after their separation, a series of raids began on Coca-Cola's local bottling plant - by tax inspectors, fire inspectors, customs inspectors, and even an anti-narcotics official; this culminated in a four-month shut-down of the plant. Uzbekistan's attorney general also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maqsudi, his brother and his father, accusing them of tax evasion, corruption and trading oil for Saddam Hussein. The Uzbeki authorities deny that there was any connection between these actions and the divorce proceedings of the President's daughter.
In the summer of 2002, the couple's case was heard in New Jersey. Maqsudi was awarded sole custody of the children. Karimova, still in Tashkent, did not attend the court or comply with the custody order; a warrant was then issued for her arrest, although this remains unenforcable in Uzbekistan as the necessary international agreements are not in place.
"I didn't ignore the court," she says, "but physically I wasn't capable of going. For a civilised country and a civilised court, I found it very strange that they did not take this into account."
Karimova says that she considered appealing. But "there was a question about where to get the huge sums needed to pay the lawyers". With a wry smile, she adds: "It doesn't matter whose daughter you are. You still have to be transparent about where you got the money." If she had the necessary $300,000 (£166,000) to spare, she says, she would rather spend it on her children than on US lawyers.
Ms Karimova's detractors, behind whom she sees her ex-husband and his lawyers, claim that she is an extravagantly wealthy woman, who has made a fortune on the back of privatisation and public contracts in Uzbekistan obtained through her family connections. They claim that her assets include $4.5m (£2.5m) worth of jewellery, $11m (£6m) in bank and investment holdings in Geneva and Dubai, a $10m (£5.5m) retail complex, nightclubs worth $4m (£2m) and a $13m (£7m) resort in Uzbekistan.
She denies this angrily: "All this stuff about a fortune, with hotels, complexes, etc is rubbish. Yes, I have a lot of friends who have things like restaurants and hotels and who restore buildings. But that does not mean that these things are mine."
She claims two interests of her own: a major share in Uzdunrobita, the country's main mobile-phone company, which she claims she personally built up to 150,000 subscribers, and jewellery design, which she says she does largely as a hobby and which brings in little money.
Maqsudi has asserted that his wife sought $6m (£3.3m) of his own considerable fortune as a divorce settlement, but Karimova insists she doesn't want a penny of his money: "I felt that if you even touch something that doesn't belong to you, it will stain you for good." If he wants to send money to the children, she says, that must be between him and them. "The two things must run on separate scripts."
Karimova complains that she has jewellery and personal effects still in the US that cannot be sent to her until a final settlement is agreed. After the formal divorce proceedings were over, she says, "they cancelled all my credit cards. Ten years of marriage was over, as though it had never been. I had maybe $2,000 (£1,100) in my account. Basically, I had no money."
The divorce and its aftermath became a political issue in the US that even found its way to Congress. "His is a big family," she says, "and if you cross it, you're not just an enemy of the family, but of the whole community, the clan." She says that they made representations to the congressional committees concerned with human rights in Uzbekistan with a view to getting the children sent to the US. She suspects, too, that they were instrumental in having her diplomatic passport cancelled, and with it her immunity from prosecution while outside Uzbekistan.
A further complication is the US military presence in Uzbekistan following the intervention in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan and is strategically important to the US, which has the use of a former Soviet airbase there. This, she hazards, may eventually work to her advantage. With its troops stationed in the region, the US administration does not want to get mixed up in anything that could cause friction with the Uzbek leadership - which means Gulnara's father.
And President Karimov, who has no son to anoint as his successor, is staunchly behind his daughter. "He told me that no daughter of his would be put in a position where she would have to take money from a man," she says of her marriage break-up, adding that he encouraged her in her incipient diplomatic career. "He said you've got to take the knocks and build an independent career and see what you can do." Since her time at the UN in New York, she has worked on disarmament at the Uzbek mission to the UN in Geneva and is now at her country's embassy in Moscow. "It was very hard at the start, but he told me: "Don't disappoint me by running away.'"
Gulnara's bond with her father is clearly stronger than that with her mother, whom she describes as a traditional wife and mother. The elder of two sisters, she sees herself as her father's daughter. "He is a fighter," she says, "a professional, and he gave me his sense of family. He is my life's mentor." He is also one reason why she did not apply, as she could have done, for a US green card and US citizenship after her marriage. "In my position, it would have been difficult. It might have embarrassed my father."
She has travelled enough to be well aware of his, and her country's, dubious reputation. "Yes, he has made mistakes," she says, "and you can disagree with some things and with some of the people he chooses, and maybe we take different approaches on some things." She acknowledges that human rights is a difficult area - "I have my own view of these issues" - but she insists that with the triple threat of Islamic fundamentalist violence, the illicit arms trade and drugs, the situation in Uzbekistan is complicated, and any leader of the fledgling nation has a tightrope to walk.
Karimova is also aware that she has a similarly thin line to tread personally. "I'm an independent person," she says. "I'm not a typical Arab woman, sitting in Tashkent, afraid to open my mouth. I'm educated, I have a career. But my husband could pursue me from country to country." Her immediate concern is that if the court order is not rescinded soon, her hopes of sending her elder child to public school in Britain could be thwarted. She fears her ex-husband might try to "kidnap" him back.
Make of Gulnara Karimova's story what you will. You can see her as a privileged brat whose life fell apart when it crashed into harsh reality. You can see her as an aggrieved mother, sheltering her children, or as a manipulative go-getter, exploiting her contacts for financial gain. Or you can see her as an innocent at large, marooned between a host of competing expectations and ambitions - her own and those of her father, her family and her former husband.
There is probably some truth in all these versions. What is certain is that Karimova is the product of a unique moment in history, her fate caught up between two ages and cultures: between Soviet Communism and its chaotic, free-market successor, between Asia and the West.Reuse content