Pacific Prospective features the research of graduate students.
By Hannah Smith – hannah.smith [at] alumni.ubc.ca
British TV series Downton Abbey follows the Earl and Countess of Grantham in early twentieth century England as they endeavour to save their immense family estate. Viewers have been enthralled by this fictitious upper class English family’s efforts to make successful marriages for their daughters to ensure the estate remains in the family’s hands —at the time, daughters could not inherit titles and the properties that went with them.
Though far removed from England in the 1900s, the families that dominate Central Asian governments often look strikingly similar to that of Downton. Powerful families essentially form governments, state wealth is treated like personal bank accounts, marriages meet business interests and the accompanying dramas are worthy of the intrigues of Grantham’s three daughters and unexpected heir.
In pre-2010 Kyrgyzstan, President Bakiyev’s brothers controlled various areas of government: provinces, law enforcement and elements of the justice system. Even post revolution, Bakiyev’s sons remain linked to state financial resources through corrupt banking institutions.
In Uzbekistan, President Karimov’s infamous daughter Gulnara has extensive economic influence in oil and gas industries. Along with suspected business interests in Coca-Cola, she acts as head of PR for her father’s regime, promoting Uzbek culture through partnerships with the British Council, UNESCO and others.
In Kazakhstan family-run government meets business, with both the President’s daughters owning wealth worthy of the Forbes rich list. Daughter Dinara owns wealth estimated at $1.3 billion, making her the fourth richest person in the country. Presidential grandson Nazarbayev is engaged to the daughter of an oil baron (echoing Presidential son-in-law Kulibayev’s long-term affair with oil tycoon Goga Ashkanazi).
Extreme wealth is accompanied by danger for family members. Rakhat Aliev, former son-in-law of the Kazakh President, may have secured a fortune, but upon expressing presidential ambitions was charged with murder and remains in exile. The brother-in-law of Tajikistan’s president, under similar circumstances, was reportedly killed by one of his nephews.
In Downton Abbey, a distant cousin, Matthew, becomes the heir. He first financially secures Downton and then begins substantial reforms. Though unpopular, they preserve the estate while others crumble around it. Central Asian Downtowns require the same treatment, but where is their Cousin Matthew?
Hannah Smith is an MA Asia Pacific Policy Studies candidate, and a Fellow, at the Institute of Asian Research, The University of British Columbia.
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- Corruptistan, Freedom House, September 2012
- Central Asia: Presidential Families reach Dizzying Heights, ISN ETH Zurich, June 2007
- Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Clan set to Grow, Eurasianet, June 2013
- Glamorous Oil Tycoon Makes Waves back Home for Kazakh First Family, Radio Free Europe, July 2013
- Central Asia: Ambition Often the Downfall of Powerful Presidential Relatives, Eurasianet, May 2008
- Downton Abbey, IMBD
- See our other memos on Central Asia