Uzbekistan blog day: A Central Asian primer and call for action

I signed the pledge to blog about Uzbekistan set up by the Disillusioned Kid in response to comments by former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray on this, Uzbek Independence Day. I freely admit to – before beginning this post – knowing little or nothing about the country or the region. Not many people do, let’s face it – and that’s the whole point of this exercise – to raise awareness. (Other posts are being compiled by the Disillusioned Kid here.)

It’s one of those places ending in “stan” which everyone always gets confused and no one can find on a map. It doesn’t even help much if you say it shares borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, because most people will only really know anything about one of those. It may be helpful to have a quick overview of them all. Unsurprisingly, all are more or less fucked up:

Afghanistan we know about – the Taleban, terrorists, decades-long battles, land-mines everywhere, the source of the majority of the world’s heroin, and currently undergoing enforced efforts at democratisation despite ongoing insurgency under a US-led military occupation. Still, things are at least loosely on the up since the Taleban were booted out, even if there are rumours of a resurgence of those mad mullahs in the provinces.

Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, with a wealth of oil, gas, and mineral reserves. Its president since 1989 has been Nursultan Nazarbayev – elected in 1990 for just four years he got himself “re-elected” for a seven year term in 1999 in elections condemned by the OSCE. The ex-communist has allowed some economic liberalisation to capitalise on the country’s mineral resources, yet retains a somewhat Stalinist attitude towards political freedom, disqualifying opponents from office, vetoing parliamentary legislation at will, and muzzling the press – which just happens to be run by his daughter. There are also rumours of rampant corruption – such as the US$1 billion allegedly stashed in a Swiss bank account in case of a sudden need to flee the country.

After its 1991 independence from the USSR, the 1990s saw corruption charge after corruption charge in the upper reaches of Kyrgyzstan‘s government – initially all former Communist Party members frequently elected either unopposed or with suspiciously high (95%) majorities. 1995 surprisingly saw relatively free elections, but by the following year an unconstitutional referendum granted the presidency more power – including the right to dissolve the now largely independent parliament.

In 2000, the OSCE ruled the country’s parliamentary elections invalid thanks to dodgy lawsuits against opposition candidates, surprisingly small candidate lists, and the influence of the state-controlled media. The presidential elections later that year were likewise condemned, as were the parliamentary elections held earlier this year. Fraud allegations finally got the people annoyed enough to do something, and in March this year an uprising (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) forced President Akayev to flee. Having got rid of the man who’d been in charge since independence, the country is currently unstable and its future uncertain. The international community appears to be doing little to help out.

Following Tajikistan‘s 1991 independence, a vicious tribal civil war that ran until 1997 saw the vast majority of the new country’s (largely Russian) middle classes flee. The 1999 elections were decried as unfair and fraud-ridden – President Rahmonov, who had gained power in 1992, took 97% of the vote. He has, despite this apparent popularity, survived two failed coups and an assassination attempt. In 2003 he passed an amendment again denounced by opposition groups as fraudulent allowing him to serve two more 7 year terms. The country, meanwhile, remains one of the poorest in the world.

Turkmenistan has a good claim to having one of the most mental rulers since George III – who at the same time is one of the most authoritarian since Stalin. Former Communist Saparmurat Niyazov has been in power since 1985. In 1993, having survived the downfall of the USSR, he declared himself “Turkmenbashi”, or “Leader of all ethnic Turkmen”, and had himself declared “President for Life” in December 1999.

He has renamed towns, shools, an airport and even a metorite after himself and members of his family, all as part of a personality cult he claims is designed to create national unity which goes along with the typical trappings of dictatorships like portraits and statues in every town and his face on all the banknotes (not to mention bottles of vodka and the logo of the national television station), with the 15 meter tall gold-plated rotating statue on top of the country’s largest building being a particular highlight – but then it just gets weirder.

In 2002 he renamed bread – yes, the stuff you eat – “Gurbansoltan Edzhe” after his dead mother, to whose memory he is currently constructing a $100 million mosque in his former home village. He has also renamed the month of April after her, while he’s named January after himself and the other months after various other “national heroes” and days of the week after other family members. He also introduced a new alphabet and has penned a new “history” of the country which has become compulsary reading in all schools – although in 2004 he ordered the closure of all rural libraries because his people “do not read”, which seems somewhat contradictory to say the least. In August 2004 he also ordered the construction of an ice palace – in the middle of the desert in the middle of summer.

A few other bits of presidential nuttiness: television presenters are banned from wearing make-up as Niyazov had difficulty telling male and female newsreaders apart; he’s banned ballet and opera, describing them as “unnecessary”; public smoking was banned in 1997 when Niyazov quit; lip syncing when performing songs is also illegal; in 2001 young men were forbidden to grow long hair or beards or get gold teeth; just last month he banned recorded music on television, in public places, and at weddings in order to protect “true culture, including the musical and singing traditions of the Turkmen people”.

It’s not all amusing insanity, however. Only two religions are allowed – the Russian Orthadox Church and Islam (but only of the Sunni variety, and all mosques have to be government approved). Non-Turkmen cultural organizations are banned. 2002 saw huge numbers of “suspected conspirators” and members of their families arrested in the wake of an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov – something for which no real evidence has been produced other than the government’s word. 2004 saw leaflets begin to appear in the capital calling for Niyazov’s overthrow – he responded by firing his Interior Minister and head of the police academy live on televison. The same year he fired 15,000 medical workers and closed all hospitals outside the capital city because, as he said earlier this year, “Why should we waste good medical specialists on the villages when they should be working in the capital?” (a way forward for the NHS, perhaps?)

The people live in poverty, the ruler in luxury – an age-old story. Turkmenistan, however, like Uzbekistan has huge cotton fields – it is the world’s 10th largest producer. It also has the world’s 5th largest reserves of natural gas and sizable oil fields. And as such, Niyazov seems largely to be tolerated by the international community – Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien even holding a personal meeting with Niyazov last year to discuss oil contracts.

And now to Uzbekistan. To kick off, here’s Craig Murray’s original article calling for sanctions on the Uzbek cotton industry, and his follow-up explaining why.

The main problem once again is the leadership. President Karimov, an ex-Communist in power since 1989 (see a pattern?) is a nasty authoritarian bastard, and the country since unification – despite being nominally a democracy – has seen little in the way of democratic processes. Karimov has had his term in office (he was elected President, following his earlier party appointment, with 86% of the vote in 1991) extended twice already in referendums the results of which international observers refused to observe, let alone recognise, as fraud was a foregone conclusion. In 2000’s presidential elections the sole opposition candidate, Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, admitted that he had only entered the race to make it appear to be a democratic contest and that he had actually cast his own vote for Karimov.

There is no independent judiciary, Karimov has sole right to appoint regional governors, and the parliament holds little or no power. There is little real opposition – the few other parties allowed to operate have yet to propose any real alternatives to government policy, and any groups that do are prevented from registering; likewise “independent” Uzbek media outlets all toe the party line on the rare occasions they mention anything political, while the majority are government controlled.

But it’s worse than just another dictatorship dressed up as democracy. Craig Murray has attempted to highlight reports of the regime boiling its opponents to death, while the UN has criticised the Uzbek “justice” system for using “institutionalized, systematic, and rampant” torture.

But hey, the country’s got natural gas and Karimov’s been fighting Islamic extremists, so he’s been a close ally in The War Against Terror, and his various abuses ignored. He’s even provided inspiration for Tony Blair, as Karimov banned Hizb ut-Tahrir years ago – more than 5,000 members (around 500 times the estimated membership in the UK) are currently under arrest.

It’s little wonder that there were protests in May this year – met with a hail of bullets which killed an indeterminate number (estimates range from nine to nearly a thousand – and the real figure is almost certainly in the hundreds). There are also reports of soldiers finishing off wounded protestors and (in another precursor to current Blair government policy) elsewhere the death of a suspected suicide bomber who turned out to be entirely innocent.

The Uzbek military and police have been trained in “crowd control” and counter-terrorism, as well as supplied with arms by, erm… Britain. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?

As of yet, no state has taken any action other than to “express concerns” about what may well have been the worst massacre of protestors since Tiannanmen Square. As The Economist states,

“Uzbekistan is a part of the widest of Europe’s concentric circles. It is a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and it has a partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA) with the EU. So there is some justification in allowing Europe, with its famous common foreign and security policy, to take the lead.”

Today, Karimov’s Independence Day speech lauds the “freedom and liberty” of his people, the “luxurious buildings and comfortable residential areas, quality roads and communications” – all, unsurprisingly, severe exaggerations, although many supposedly civilised nations have secured lucrative contracts in Uzbekistan, like Japanese company Mitsui, which just two days ago gained a US$24.5 million telecommunications contract with Karimov’s murderous regime.

Karimov’s speech also warns that in “these unsafe times” his people cannot risk adopting “views as if someone else from outside shall come and protect us and ease our difficulties”. Having ordered the removal of US troops from the country, Karimov seems to be drifting away from the “Coalition Of the Willing”. He may also make lip-service to “broad reforms”, “liberalisation” and promise to “gradually finish introducing democratic principles in our society, bringing the state administration and court-legal system in line with latest requirements, aimed at establishing the civil society, ensuring freedom of press and speech, and above all, our positive works, aimed at upholding human rights and interests” – but this is a man now getting ever closer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a man now a master of doublespeak who has constantly promised democratisation, liberalisation and greater freedom of speech during his time in office while simultaneously locking up his opponents and stifling any opposition.

Karimov’s calls for more independence can, on his past record and combined with his constant warnings of the “evil” his country faces, only be interpreted in one way – international and independent condemnation will be ignored, non-Uzbek organisations will be afforded even less influence in the way he runs his country, and his clampdowns on opposition groups in the name of The War Against Terror will only get worse.

As Karimov has now begun to distance himself from the US and his other former western allies, now is the time for them to act. The time is ripe for real action to promote democracy and freedom in Uzbekistan. Sanctions may not have worked with Iraq, but Craig Murray makes a good case for them being able to have some impact in Uzbekistan. And something, in any case, needs to be done. As with so many dodgy regimes in the world – many of which, as the above overview should demonstrate, are concentrated in this region – the hypocricy of action against the vicious governments formerly in power in Afghanistan and Iraq while doing nothing against similarly nasty totalitarian rulers in other parts of the world does little more than undermine efforts to show the US-led actions as being humanitarian in aim.

In Uzbekistan in particular, Karimov’s secular government is currently ACTUALLY engaged in the kind of war against Islam which Britain and America are so often accused of waging. It is peasant farmers and muslims who are most suffering from his rule, so it is they who would – eventually – most benefit by action being taken by the international community to remove him.

Ignore the humanitarian arguments for starting efforts to remove Karimov – the PR benefits of freeing muslims from oppression in a region where that religion largely dominates would, in the current climate, be incalculable. It is time for someone to step up to lead the way and, as it gets back up and running after its summer break, the European Union could be the best organisation so to do.

Eject Uzbekistan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, impose sanctions on Uzbek products, and start mobilising support for broader UN sanctions and genuine condemnation from Karimov’s erstwhile British and American buddies. At the same time, give genuine support to the democracy movement in Kyrgyzstan following the revolution there earlier this year, and there could finally – a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union – be a genuine chance to shift the entire region towards a more free, more democratic life.

The “domino effect” was always mentioned about communism during the Cold War, but never really proved to be the case – in Central Asia it could genuinely work with democracy. After so many decades under authoritarian rule, these people are surely by now owed some measure of freedom. But they will need outside help to achieve it.

It’s time to start putting pressure on our political masters, folks.

  1. Pingback: Ben Paarmann