In the middle of October, Craig Murray, our man in Uzbekistan, delivered a speech which broke with all the established principles of Foreign Office diplomacy. ‘This country,’ the brave and honest ambassador told an audience in Tashkent, ‘has made very disappointing progress in moving away from the dictatorship of the Soviet period … The major political parties are banned; Parliament is not subject to democratic election and checks and balances on the authority of the electorate are lacking. There is worse: we believe there to be between seven and 10,000 people in detention who 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.’
The state-censored Uzbek media didn’t report his accurate description of life in the dictatorship. Such news is unfit to use. I would guess that until 11 September few outsiders would have cared about Murray’s denunciation of the near 100 per cent conviction rate of the state’s prosecutors and the gangsterism of its post-communist elite. (I would also guess that until 11 September few outsiders would have been able to find Uzbekistan on a map.)
The ‘war’ on terrorism changed all that. I was in Washington in January and saw how events in Uzbekistan pushed delighted conservatives to declare themselves masters of an ‘Empire’. Until then, ‘the American Empire’ was an insult. The Right didn’t accept the Republic could have become any such thing. After Osama bin Laden unwittingly turned America from a superpower into a hyper-power, the men around Bush no longer could or wanted to deny that an empire was what they had. It was the opening of US bases in Uzbekistan which forced them to talk plainly. Here were American troops in a former Soviet Republic in the centre of central Asia and no one – not Russia, not China – could do anything about it. The world was their playground.
Uzbekistan represented a new peak for American imperialism but was also a test of what type of empire the American empire would be. On the level of realpolitik, the thugs in charge of Uzbekistan suited the West well. The President, Islam Karimov, was a Soviet apparatchik who found Muslim fundamentalism a useful justification for repression. Since 1997, his government has pursued a campaign against Muslims who worship outside the state-controlled religion. Some were insurgents dedicated to the most frightening versions of theocracy. But not all.
Alerts from Human Rights Watch give a flavour of how the war against terrorism became a war against democracy. Elena Urlaeva didn’t look like a potential suicide bomber. She was a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, who protested outside the Ministry of Justice in Tashkent. She was shipped, Brezhnev style, to a mental hospital and stultified with drugs. Meanwhile, independent doctors have put their careers and more at risk by examining the bodies of prisoners who die in custody. One, the corpse of Muzafar Avazov, had no fingernails and ‘bore burns that could only be caused by immersing him in boiling water’. Neither of the above stories is exceptional.
For most of the time Karimov seems as much mad as vicious. In October, for instance, all the billiard halls in Uzbekistan were closed. The national team was banned from travelling to tournaments and the Uzbek Billiard Federation was abolished. No law was passed against billiards. One day Uzbeks could play billiards and the next they couldn’t. The Associated Press said that the word on the streets of Tashkent had it that some bureaucrat’s son had lost big at the table.
What isn’t banned is glowing accounts of approval for the regime from the West. The state media use them to reinforce Karimov’s power and dispirit his opponents. And it is Britain which is providing the greatest comfort, despite the best efforts of our ambassador.
In May the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will hold its annual meeting in Tashkent. Clare Short will be in the chair. The charter of the bank, whose capital is provided by European tax payers, stands out from those of other international financial institutions because it instructs the staff to do more good than harm. The bank can only help ‘countries committed to and applying the principles of multi-party democracy, pluralism and market economics’.
The bank will be able to insist on privatisations. The Uzbek elite will go along with market economics as long as it gets its cut. But Uzbekistan won’t accept multi-party democracy without a fight, and the bank’s amoral directors aren’t prepared to start one. What the Economist calls the European Bank for Repression and Dictatorship is as uncomfortable with human freedom as its Uzbek friends. Human Rights Watch and civil-liberties groups from Albania to Tajikistan have begged it to apply pressure. The timid protesters don’t want Europe to cancel the propaganda triumph the conference will bring and stop supplying public money to a government which is little more than a crime gang. They merely want the bank to demand that favours should be conditional on Uzbekistan releasing political prisoners and freeing the press.
Jean Lemierre, the president of the bank, who, by his own charter’s standards, should be looking for other work, has refused. A few days ago he was in Uzbekistan and was quoted by the country’s lackey media as promising a ‘foreign capital inflow to the region’. Short, to her credit, has condemned the huge corruption in Uzbekistan, but has refused to impose conditions in return for aid.
We are 15 months into the ‘war’ and still have no answer to the question: Will the American Empire and its European clients be agents of national liberation or the perpetuators of a status quo which creates mass murderers?
At the moment the European Bank and Clare Short’s Department for International Development are doing precisely what bin Laden would want them to do. Or as Craig Murray said in words which apply as well to Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as Uzbekistan: ‘Giving people freedom doesn’t mean that anarchy and instability will follow. Indeed, it is repression which risks causing resentment, alienation and social tension.’