By David Stern writing in Eurasianet
Three months after British Ambassador Craig Murray delivered a speech in Uzbekistan, diplomats and analysts are still debating how Murray has changed the tone of relations between Britain and this former Soviet republic. Murray caused a sensation for doing one small thing that very few people seem to have done here: he told the truth.
Uzbekistan, which sits north of Afghanistan, became a critical ally to the United States and United Kingdom in the autumn 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. Despite this elevation in status, though, the country has made only marginal improvements in its record of repressing dissidents. At the opening of the Uzbekistan offices of Freedom House on October 17, Ambassador Murray ? with top Uzbek officials and diplomats present ? delivered the diplomatic equivalent of a salvo. Ambassador Murray said: “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy. The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking.”
The shock value of these statements ? as well as others discussing widespread torture in Uzbekistan and the government’s refusal to convert its currency or foster cross-border trade ? cannot be overstated. In one fell swoop the British diplomat stripped away the euphemisms that characterize much of the West’s relationship with Uzbekistan. He continued: “There is worse: we believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. In many cases they have been falsely convicted of crimes with which there appears to be no credible evidence they had any connection.”
Analysts point out that what the ambassador said was in essence nothing new. His count of political prisoners was higher than other published estimates: Human Rights Watch announced in a January 14 report that “conservative” guesses peg the number of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan at between 6,500 and 7,000. But many Western officials have criticized President Islam Karimov for the abuses Murray discussed, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly pressed Karimov to commit to democratic reforms before finalizing a bilateral treaty. Most of Murray’s statements are common currency among foreign diplomats and businessmen in the privacy of their homes and workplaces. Yet his speech stood so far apart from official parlance that it struck some listeners as provocative. “You could have cut the tension in the room with a blunt knife,” said one of those present at the Freedom House opening.
In the months since Murray’s speech, Karimov’s government has tried sporadically to improve its image. Authorities released activist Yuldash Rasulov of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan on January 3 as part of an amnesty declared in December. He had gone to jail on what western advocates called trumped-up charges, and Human Rights Watch applauded his release. Many suspected political prisoners remain behind bars, though, and a United Nations rapporteur announced in December that he had seen “systematic” use of torture while touring Uzbekistan’s prisons. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] In a January 14 report that broadly criticized the Bush Administration for downplaying human rights concerns as it prosecutes a war on terrorists, Human Rights Watch credited the administration for promoting reform in Uzbekistan.
Murray’s strident words, then, had an easy time finding sympathetic ears. More broadly, however, Murray’s choice split the foreign community into two camps. Some diplomats and analysts saw his speech as a result of fatigue, brought on after years of wielding more carrot than stick in the hope that Tashkent would respond to positive reinforcement. This approach has yielded very little progress, they say, since Uzbekistan’s human rights environment has basically stagnated. Other experts believe Murray’s gambit was naive and counterproductive. In this way, the British diplomat also revealed the sharp division that exists within Western governments and organizations over how best to deal with Karimov’s repressive regime during the murky next phase of antiterrorist operations. The main question in this debate is whether criticism of abhorrent policies in Uzbekistan spur the government to reform or instead cause it to circle its wagons and become more defensive.
Observers say that a number of European governments are prone to take a softer tone than the United States, which tends to conduct hard talk in private discussions. Murray’s remarks raise questions about Britain’s and Europe’s role as a counterweight to the United States’ approach. The Human Rights Watch report, which accused the European Union of “undue deference to Washington,” highlight the sensitivity of Murray’s statements.
The irony of Murray’s speech, some say, is that it caused friction between the US and British embassies ? the two foreign representations that are most concerned with democracy and human rights in Uzbekistan. US Ambassador John Herbst was present at the Freedom House function and had delivered, according to observers, a typical American take on human rights in Uzbekistan ? that problems exist but progress has been made. After this predictable address, Murray delivered his broadside. “The British ambassador’s speech was an embarrassment for the United States. It showed up the crack in the shield and many thought that he upstaged [Herbst],” said someone who was present.
In the end, Murray’s decisions about protocol may give his critics some high ground. Some say that no matter what he said, Murray should not have spoken out so early in his tenure, just months after he had arrived in Tashkent. They say that such a speech should have waited until the newly appointed diplomat had time to raise the issues with Uzbeks themselves. This would not have necessarily brought about a change, but it would have given the British ambassador a better defense when others challenged his approach. Murray in effect hamstrung himself, say experts, compromising the rest of his work in the country.
Even if that analysis proves accurate, though, the stridency in Murray’s words has emboldened some other critics of Karimov. “To me the fundamental question is not why did he say this, but why the other ambassadors didn’t?” said one Western observer.