Speech to Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs)

Chatham House – The trouble with Uzbekistan


Speech by Craig Murray

British Ambassador to the Republic of Uzbekistan, 2002-04

Chatham House, Monday 8 November 2004

This speech is issued on the understanding that if any extract is used, the speaker and Chatham House should be credited, preferably with the date of the speech.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is most kind of you to come here on an early November evening to hear me talk about a part of the World that, for reasons I will endeavour to explain, merits greater attention than we are apt to give it.

Let me first apologise for the comparative informality of my dress. I had not anticipated being in London just now, and my suits still hang in a wardrobe in Tashkent, vainly awaiting my return. As I expect may become clear as the evening progresses, part of my heart remains there too.

That may sound a touch romantic, but you would need a serious deficit in the soul department not to be touched by the country. It is the land of the Oxus and the Jaxartes, where Alexander the Great was entranced by and married Roxanne and held court for the longest period of stationary rule anywhere in his short life; where the Greek state of Bactria flourished for many centuries after his passing, producing art of rare beauty.

It is the land of Tamburlaine, the wrack of whose mighty monuments still stand and whose tomb is still there, to bring us face to face with the reality of legend. It is the land of the sweet airs and delicious fruits of the Ferghana valley, for which Babur ever pined as he rode off into exile to conquer India and found the Mughal dynasty.

It was also, of course, the very centre of Islamic culture. I had not realised that the scientific advances which I learnt at school were brought by the Moors into Europe, had in fact originated in a great cultural flourishing in Central Asia. The great medic, Avicenna, and the inventor of Algebra and other mathematical advances, both hailed from Uzbekistan, not to mention the astronomy of the Emperor Ulugbek, the elegant remains of whose observatory are for me the most arresting of all the wonders of Samarkand. This same golden period saw great advances in architecture, which spread, throughout the Islamic world. Sadly centuries of earthquake and the almost equally devastating heavy-handed restoration of the Soviet period, disastrously still continued by UNESCO, have left little of the original. But there is still much to thrill the soul.

Samarkand has long held a place in the British poetic imagination that is difficult to explain. A more recent layer of romance was added by the Great Game, of which Bokhara, Khiva and Samarkand are perhaps most redolent to British minds today. To imagine myself in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes, to wander the outside the Ark of Bokhara speculating where lie the decapitated corpses of Stoddart and Connolly, and how to honour them, these were to me great private joys.

The British Embassy itself has its own romance. It was the Kerensky family home, birthplace of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, who led Russia from February to October 1917, in that brief dawn of hope when Russia might have entered mainstream European history and economic development. It was he who proclaimed Russia a Republic in September 1917. I used to hold conversations with Uzbek dissidents in my office and wonder what other whispered words those bricks had heard. Somewhere inside the building Kerensky’s brother Nikolai was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1922.

The Uzbeks today are a hard-working people, greatly hospitable to strangers. Sadly they are living in a period of decline; economic decline, decline in standards of living and population decline. You will find that this short lecture is devoid of statistics; partly this is because I never remember them, and partly because there simply are no reliable statistics on Uzbekistan. Government sees statistics as largely an instrument of propaganda.

Furthermore this remains a command economy driven by production targets. These are virtually always met on paper, which is the important thing. The situation in the real world is quite different.

I may quote from the current US State Department background note on Uzbekistan, from which I will be quoting further during this talk, it states, “The government claims that GDP rose 4.1% in 2003; however the US Government does not think it was greater than 0.3%”. The Uzbek government figure is outrageous; the US government figure is not, but still I believe an overestimate. Based on what we know of industrial production, of the cotton crop and prices and with an estimate of other crops, I would say in 2003 GDP fell by approximately 2 per cent.

Figures are made difficult by the fact that much state production, specifically in the important minerals sector and including gold, is a state secret. I would give my 2 per cent calculation a margin of error of 2.5%. So State Department could be right.

You can extend this dispute over true figures beyond GDP to almost any other economic statistic – inflation, incomes, money supply etc. Uzbekistan is largely a state controlled and non-transparent economy where it is easier to feel than to measure what is happening.

But the dispute over statistics is significant. At numerous meetings I have taken issue with the IMF in particular over their willingness to accept compromise statistics much too close to the Uzbek government’s figures. I think I am right in saying that that in 2003, for example, they accepted a GDP growth figure of 2%. But if the IMF keeps, as they do, year on year publishing a figure that is over-optimistic by three or four per cent, after a very few years the cumulative effect is a figure on GDP per capita for Uzbekistan which is profoundly wrong.

Similarly, a World Bank report on comparative living standards in Uzbekistan between regions and over time was of very limited value because it was based entirely on extensive analysis of Uzbek government provided figures. International institutions have a great deal of difficulty in dealing with a member state that practices a policy of deliberate dishonesty.

The combination of state control and lack of transparency makes possible corruption on a grand scale. I have called the Uzbek government a kleptocracy, and I believe that is the correct term. A look at the massive state mining operation is instructive. Uzbekistan is the World’s seventh largest producer of gold. Gold, uranium and other minerals are produced by the Navoi based state kombinat. The sales of the products of this company have no bearing on its revenues. It receives a budgetary allocation from central government. The gold and uranium produced are sold on the international market; the quantity of output and the revenue from sales are both secret. The revenue goes not to the company but to the Ministry of Finance, into the secret bit of the state budget. I am informed by sources in a position to know, and whom I trust, that ten per cent of the sales revenue is diverted into bank accounts under the personal control of President Karimov. This is the principal source of his own fortune.

The bulk of the nomenklatura are kept happy with wealth from what Uzbekistan calls its “White Gold”, cotton. This is grown by state collective farms and sold to state trading companies through which it comes to the international market. While there is corruption at the trading level in particular, here money is spread to the party cadres through a more institutionalised system of transfer pricing. The collective farm obtains very little indeed, and the managers largely take what it does receive. The state trading companies, for example, were last year paying for cotton at 4% – yes 4% – of the farm gate price in neighbouring Kazakhstan, where production has been privatised.

This of course opens the way for great rewards to the state trading companies, whose headquarters are pictures of opulence compared to the squalor of the farms, and whose staff amongst the most pampered of the elite. This transfer pricing also provides the bulk of revenue to state budgets. This pays for the sheets of blue plate glass that now cloak the exterior of crumbling Soviet offices throughout Tashkent.

Sixty per cant of the population of Uzbekistan is based on the State farms. I visited a farm in Kitab, last year, which had 12,000 hectares and 16,000 employees. They were paid 2,000 sum – that’s two dollars – a month each in salary. They also had a small vegetable patch per family, which they lived on.

I visited that farm because I received an appeal for help from a small farmer. In 1995, when there was a brief start to liberalisation, three brothers had leased eleven hectares from the collective farm. The collective now wanted it back. In consequence one brother had been murdered, another was in jail on a charge of selling his apples privately and not to the collective. The third had come to Tashkent to find me. I went down there and found that the collective had chopped down all the brothers’ apple trees and that their 82 year old mother, who tried to defend the farm, had been knocked to the ground and beaten with sticks. She showed me her terrible bruises.

Let me now say something about private farming. Uzbek government propaganda claims there is a vibrant private farming sector. This is not so. There are no property rights in Uzbekistan. Farmers have been able to lease plots, typically eleven hectares, from the state farms on long leases. But they are told what they must grow, on which bits of their land, down to the last half metre. They are told how much of it they must produce, to whom they must sell it and what price they will get for it. They then face a struggle actually to get paid. I visited a collective of small farmers near Samarkand, with whom DFID had previously done work on marketing, which in the event they were not allowed to put into effect. They had been instructed to grow largely wheat in 2003. They had fulfilled and delivered their quota, but been told they would be paid not in money but in fertiliser.

Furthermore they had to collect the fertiliser from a plant in the Ferghana valley, something they could not possibly afford to do. When I last saw them, the prospects looked bleak for the continuation of this private venture.

British American Tobacco is the largest foreign investor in Uzbekistan. They deserve congratulation on their efforts to improve the lot of the farmers who supplied them and to encourage real private enterprise. But they face continual difficulties. They were allowed to pay only 40 per cent of the price of the tobacco to the farmers; sixty per cent had to go to the local authority and the collective farm in theory in return for services to the farmer, in fact largely for peculation. They were trying hard to increase the farmers’ share to 50%.

Following the measures to restrict economic activity still further last year, they were not allowed to pay the farmers in cash, only be bank transfer. This caused great difficulty for the farmers; with physical access to banks a real obstacle. But even worse, as indeed faced by all Uzbek bank customers on a regular basis, they found they could not get their money from the bank.

Banking in Uzbekistan is a state monopoly. The banking system is used to control the money supply by simply refusing, on a regular basis, to allow people to draw out any cash. This hits foreign companies. Cash shortages have several times this year caused a reverse black market – you have to pay a premium in dollars to get sum.

Officially this is to control inflation, but in fact it is part of a series of draconian measures to exert full control over the economy by the ruling elite, operating sometimes through the state, sometimes as state-enforced commercial monopolists.

This started with the closure of bazaars in November 2002, and their subsequent re-opening on a much smaller scale. The informal trading structures, which were endemic to Uzbekistan for centuries, were wiped out with remarkable thoroughness, and tens of thousands thrown out of employment from the trading sector. At the same time the land borders were effectively sealed to trade. This physical blocking of trade remains in force, with in the Ferghana Valley several bridges destroyed to prevent cross-border movement.

In addition to this extraordinary physical isolationism, tariffs were increased and non-tariff barriers introduced in terms of certification and safety procedures and Uzbek language labelling, inter alia. Next there were measures making most cash transactions illegal necessitating commerce to operate through a State banking structure which itself became deliberately obstructive.

The result of this is economic disaster. What private sector activity there was has withered, living standards are in steep decline. Against the background of these restrictions on economic activity, the introduction of sum convertibility became meaningless. There is much anecdotal evidence of living standards in terms, for example, of ownership of household goods.

In this climate it is not perhaps strange that foreign direct investment in Uzbekistan is virtually insignificant. There has been a small amount of recent activity in the gold sector, but it has been announced no further foreign investment will be sought there. There has been some promise of Russian investment in the energy sector.

But the climate for foreign investors is dreadful. In effect there is no respect by the government of Uzbekistan of private property rights or the sanctity of contract. The civil, just as the criminal, courts entirely lack independence and follow government instruction. I know of one British company which one morning found that its 60 per cent share in a joint enterprise with an Uzbek state entity, had been reduced to 30 per cent by a court case they had not been told was happening. Jahn International, a Danish investor, had approximately $1 million simply removed from its bank account as “excess profits”. Another British businessman this year had his assets awarded to an Uzbek former partner, with the Uzbek court refusing to acknowledge British legalised documents showing the partner had sold out and been fully paid up.

The anti-trade measures, the lack of redress, and the petty and continual interference of corrupt officials thriving on massive over-regulation, make Uzbekistan a very poor investment prospect.

So the population of Uzbekistan are poor, and getting poorer. There is, as you might imagine, widespread disillusionment with the government. But just as economically the reinforced Soviet system crushes the hopes of the aspiring, so the political system crushes all who oppose.

There is no democracy in Uzbekistan. President Karimov’s term in office has been repeatedly extended by rigged elections and referenda. This December will see parliamentary elections, but all five so-called political parties are Karimov supporting. The genuine democratic opposition, Erk, Birlik, the Free Farmers etc – none of these were allowed to contest.

But on an everyday basis, there is also no way to protest. There is no freedom of the media, no freedom of religion, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly. A regime so harsh to the many, so luxurious for the few, rules only by the harshest of repression. There are not only exit visas, but still the propusk system of internal movement control. Almost all of those born on state farms are condemned to be, in effect, serf labour for life.

Bill Rammell at the FCO instituted a freedom of expression panel. The FCO and NGO’s together meet quarterly to choose ten imprisoned writers worldwide whose cause the FCO will take up. The first two meetings alone chose three Uzbeks. Not a word of dissent appears in the Uzbek media – indeed not one word of my speeches ever did.

Strangely the US Ambassador’s comments were often carried at some length. In Uzbek schools and Universities, pages are still torn from textbooks before they are issued. The Open Society Institute funded a library at the University of Tashkent, from which all the books on Central Asia were mysteriously “stolen” in the night. The OSI itself was, of course, kicked out of Tashkent earlier this year, while strict restrictions were placed on remaining international NGOs.

I am not going today to produce an exhaustive list of human rights offences. I do not think the appalling human rights record of the Uzbek government is in dispute. There remain many thousands of political and religious prisoners, and torture and brutality remain the instruments by which the regime maintains its fierce grip. I came. personally, very close to incidents and victims. When I had dinner with Professor Mirsaidov and other leading dissidents in Samarkand at the end of March 2002, some four hours after I left the house his grandson’s body was dumped on the doorstep.

The lad was eighteen. His knees and elbows had been smashed by blows with a hammer, or perhaps a spade or rifle butt. One hand had been immersed in boiling liquid until the flesh was peeling away from the bone. He had been killed with a blow that caved in the back of his skull.

The professor was sure that he had been killed as a warning to the dissidents for meeting me. I was unsure until a fellow Ambassador with excellent contacts with the Uzbek intelligence services told me it had indeed been a political warning, and had been ordered by the regional hokkim. That gentleman is now Prime Minister of Uzbekistan.

It was in my first few days in Uzbekistan that I was confronted with the pictures of Avazov, with Azimov boiled to death in Jaslyk prison. The University of Glasgow pathology department studied the detailed photos and concluded that this was immersion in, not spattering with, boiling liquid. There was a clear tidemark. The fingernails had also been pulled.

So how should the West react to this regime? There is no doubt that Uzbekistan occupies a vital geo-strategic position. Immediately north of Afghanistan, it borders every Central Asian state. It has almost half the population of Central Asia and the Region’s largest and most effective military forces. It is less than two hours by military jet to Russia, Iran and China, among others.

Uzbekistan is a member of “The coalition of the willing”. It provides the United States with an airbase, garrisoned by thousands of US troops and airmen, which is useful, if no longer central, to operations in Afghanistan. But it is absolutely essential as the easternmost of the ring of so-called lily pads, US airbases surrounding the “Wider Middle East”. It is also a projection of US military force into the centre of a region which will become increasing essential in the next fifty years in satisfying Western demand for oil and gas. In the eyes of a Pentagon hawk, there is every reason to cosy up to Karimov.

There should be no doubt just how cosy this relationship is. Let me quote more from the current State Department briefing paper:

“US/Uzbek relations have flourished in recent years and were given an additional boost by the March 2002 meeting between President Bush and President Karimov in Washington, DC… High-level visits to Uzbekistan have increased since September 11 2001 ‘including that of the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and numerous congressional delegations?.”

“The US has consulted closely with Uzbekistan on regional security issues, and Uzbekistan has been a close ally of the United States at the United Nations… on foreign policy and security issues ranging from Iraq to Cuba, from nuclear proliferation to drugs trafficking… Uzbekistan is a strong supporter of US military reactions in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the global war on terror?” “The United States, in turn, values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region”.

To be fair, the document goes on to list areas where improvement in human rights is needed, but that has not prevented the US from lubricating the relationship with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, including military and political aid, and all the political support they can give Karimov by joint photo calls and glad-handing.

Nowhere will you find a public mention of human rights by that stream of high level US visitors to Uzbekistan, and I don’t believe they were that firm in private either.

We have I think to look behind the language. How can it advance the war on terror to back a totalitarian dictator who terrorises and impoverishes his own people? If Karimov is part of the “Coalition of the willing”, is on “our” side in the war on terror, then that war cannot be the straightforward clash between good and evil which the politicians are selling.

It is, in fact, about something else. It is about the advancement of American military power in areas central to the control of oil and gas, US oil and gas interests are served by backing an unpleasant dictator in Tashkent, willing to give them a dominant position in Central Asia, just as they are served by toppling one in Baghdad.

This is nothing to do with the advancement of democracy. If it were, why has the US government put so much effort into shielding the Uzbek government from criticism in international for a such as the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva?

We also need to be sceptical about some of the language on threat. One area of cooperation mentioned was narcotic trafficking. There has been a massive increase in opium and heroin smuggling from Afghanistan in the past three years. A large amount of that drug follows the natural trade route through Uzbekistan and up the river valleys to Russia and eventually the Baltic. (Incidentally, I have been much plagued by Customs and Excise analysts who argue that, because much more is seized in Tajikistan, much more must be going that way. If you think about it, that’s a reason for a drug smuggler to avoid Tajikistan).

There is a tremendous taboo surrounding international efforts to counter drug trafficking in Central Asia. No progress is possible until the real problem is acknowledged, so I will break the taboo. The real problem is participation, at very senior levels indeed, of regime members in the trade. It is not just a question of minor corruption by customs officers.

At Termez on the Uzbek/Afghan border the EU, the UK and the US have all put money into customs training and state of the art search areas and equipment, including gizmos that can x-ray whole containers. But while the border is hard to cross, and UN emergency relief supplies are routinely held up for days or weeks, fleets of cars with black windows and of trucks are waved through, shuttling between the Uzbek regime and General Dostum.

Customs never stop the vehicles that have the heroin. We should face the fact. So what of Karimov’s claim to be holding out against terrorism? There has been little or no historical tradition of militant Islam in Uzbekistan. The extremism of teaching by the new mosques and schools introduced in the early 1990s from Saudi Arabia is, from my talks with people directly involved, much exaggerated. No doubt there was a threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a would-be insurgency in the margins of the Tajik civil war and thereafter supporting the Taliban. But they had no history of terrorist style operations. Certainly in Tashkent it is accepted by virtually everyone that the 1999 bombings were the work of the regime or of warring factions within it. Following the decimation and dispersal of the IMU in Uzbekistan, the remnants appear to have reorganised in a more classical terrorist structure.

However it appears that the March bombings in Tashkent were not co-ordinated or even expected by the surviving IMU leadership. They seem to have been the work of predominantly young Uzbeks with a desperate hatred of the regime. There is however compelling evidence that the groups which carried out these terrible acts had been heavily penetrated by the Uzbek security services, to the extent that it is hard to believe they could not have been pre-empted and their may be reason to suspect an agent-provocateur operation. The July bombings at the Israeli and US Embassies perhaps are more classical terrorist attacks with input from an external leadership. In particular, because there is no news on the subject on the Uzbek state media, awareness of the Palestine issue in Uzbekistan even among activists is almost non-existent.

But the key point must be that the despair caused by the deepening poverty and lack of religious and political freedoms, worsened by the lack of any democratic means to express that despair, is what creates the violence.

If the US believes that backing Karimov is producing stability in the region, which is a remarkably short-term view. Uzbeks know they are miserable and getting poorer, and their government is deeply repressive and, increasingly, hated. They are being offered no liberal, democratic alternative. Indeed Karimov’s propaganda tells them that the system they have now is freedom and democracy, and they don’t think much of it.

The only opposition to Karimov they often encounter is the underground Mosque movement or Hizb-ut-Tehrir. And terrible torture and persecution increasingly radicalise these groups. The system is building up towards inevitable violent confrontation. That could be five or seven years away, but I have no doubt that as things stand at present we are heading for a catastrophic model of regime change. And thanks to US support for Karimov, the result is likely to be anti-Western. The targeting of the US and Israeli Embassies in Uzbekistan shows that we are creating a whole new race of people who hate the West.

Young Uzbeks are attracted to radical Islam because we are giving them no viable alternative to Karimov. Supporting Karimov is creating, not combating, Islamic fundamentalism. I strongly commend to you this Human Rights Watch publication, Creating Enemies of the State, which documents the brutalising of a society.

What can we do? Stop digging. The policy of engagement is plainly not producing results and we should treat the Karimov regimes as pariahs. There is measurably less freedom, and measurably more brutality, under Karimov than under Lukashenko or Mugabe, and we should be looking to sanctions on members of the regime and their ill-gotten assets.

Rather than military aid to Karimov, we should put major resources into assisting the democratic forces in Uzbekistan, notably the parties that have combined to form the Democratic Forum. We should at least fund a newspaper for the expression of a wide range of Uzbek views. We could also put substantive resources into much greater transmission into Uzbekistan by broadcast media.

Finally, we should break off our relationships with the Uzbek intelligence services. I have no doubt that we are receiving information that has been obtained under torture. Where you are receiving such information systematically, under an established procedure, I also believe that you are acting illegally. This is complicity under Article IV of the UN Convention against torture.

It has been argued that it would be irresponsible to ignore useful intelligence in the War Against Terror. I have two responses – firstly I deny this material is useful. It is provided by the Uzbek regime with the object of exaggerating their role in the War on Terror, the strength of the IMU and the linkage of the threat against them to Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden.

I was genuinely surprised when I first learnt that this information was taken seriously and regarded as valuable by the British intelligence services. I still find that strange, and fear that it shows a preference for highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat – a tendency which the Butler report shows was much in evidence in our acceptance of a lot of nonsense on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

But what worries me most – what absolutely terrifies me – is the thought that such poor intelligence material, endorsed by someone in the last gasps of agony, given credence by some gung-ho Whitehall Warrior – can be used to keep some poor soul locked up in Belmarsh Prison. Without trial or charge, without any idea what he is accused of, day on day, week upon week, year by weary year.

And what I was seeing was only about Uzbekistan. There is great international concern at the use of torture worldwide in the War on Terror, not just in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay but including the transport of detainees worldwide by the US authorities, delivered to governments which torture, in plain contravention of Article V of the UN Convention.

Many of my colleagues in other countries must also be seeing intelligence obtained under torture.

The US State Department briefing says that torture is used as “A routine investigative technique” by the Uzbek security services. Theo van Boven, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, found it to be “Widespread and systemic”. Nobody in the British government has attempted to argue to me that the information we receive from the Uzbek sources was not obtained under torture. Rather they argue that we did not encourage or instigate the torture, so are not complicit.

That might be a valid argument – and I repeat might – if we stumbled on the material in the street, or got handed some as a one off. But it is not sustainable where we regularly receive such material through an established system. That must make us complicit.

The difficulty is, that to refuse the Uzbek and other torture material would be to create an exception to the UK/US intelligence sharing agreement, which we are anxious to keep whole.

During all of this, I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure it is not a nightmare. Is the British government really insisting on its right to receive material obtained under torture? Similarly, in the Katherine Gunn case, were we really going along with US plans to bug Security Council members inside the United Nations?

I associate support for human rights, and opposition to torture, with fundamental British values. Surely we have to stand up to the US and say that under George Bush the CIA is involved in things we cannot go along with.

Just as we cannot go along with US policy in Central Asia. This is a throwback to the US policy of support for dictators in Central America in the 1970s. The situation is redolent with ironies. In supporting Karimov, George Bush is helping prop up the remnants of Soviet totalitarianism.

I have talked of how Uzbek state farm labourers are bonded to their farms effectively as serfs. I should add that for months at harvest time workers in all sectors are conscripted into the cotton fields. Schools and educational institutions are closed down. Children from eight years old are dragooned into the fields, working 16 hour days, sometimes sleeping in the open, working sometimes in freezing conditions. Is it not an irony that a US administration of the party of Abraham Lincoln is supporting a regime founded on cotton slavery?

Every crunch of bone at the smash of a limb, every female scream of terror, every second of dreadful, of unimaginable anguish in the torture chambers of the US-backed Karimov regime, just as every block in Sharon’s wall, just as every bomb that falls tonight on a home

in Fallujah, will fuel the fires of hatred across the Islamic world. And while no act of random terrorist violence is ever justified, is in truth evil, we must nonetheless say that myopic US foreign policy under President Bush reinforces hatred across the Muslim World.

That was certainly my daily perception in Tashkent, and my aim there was to distance the UK and articulate a distinctive British policy based on support for human rights and the rule of international law.

It was worth a try.