The Mail on Sunday – Surely Blair can’t go on backing this monster who boils his enemies alive: Today the World looks on in horror as scores, perhaps hundreds, of pro-democracy demonstrators in Andizhan pay with their lives the price of Western support for the evil Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov. George Bush and Tony Blair are culpable in these deaths. They have supported Karimov and obstructed the growth of democratic opposition in the country.
The Uzbek regime has attempted to portray the dissidents as Islamic militants. The White House has been keen to parrot this, saying the demonstrators include ‘Islamic terrorists’. This is how they justify continued support to their favourite dictator, and a regime which has literally been known to boil opponents alive. But the charge is simply a lie. Those demonstrating are not Islamic militants. They simply want freedom, democracy and above all a chance to make a living away from the continued Soviet economic system of Uzbekistan.
I know this because I know them. A year ago I travelled to Andizhan as British Ambassador, to attend a meeting of an organisation called the ‘Democratic Forum’. This was an attempt to set up an umbrella grouping of supporters of democratic change, with the aim of contesting parliamentary elections held in Uzbekistan last December. At least two of the people at that meeting were among the 23 ‘Islamic militants’ whose imprisonment sparked the current uprising. In fact they were businessmen who wanted capitalism and democracy to come to Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek government tried hard to stop me getting to Andizhan that day. We were stopped at repeated police road blocks, one of which I physically overturned to get past, to the consternation of the Uzbek security services, who couldn’t shoot Her Majesty’s Ambassador.
We had been followed for miles by a car containing four leather jacketed men. When we stopped for tea they stopped too and sat at the next table. At the last police check point they overtook us. As we entered Andizhan City they emerged at speed from a side street and tried to ram us. Only the brilliance of our Embassy driver, Sasha, saved us from this unfortunate ‘Accident’.
I kept up relationships with the Andizhan opposition after my visit. They came to my office several times. Andizhan had been a comparatively wealthy town and its middle class had been particularly hit by government anti-enterprise measures taken from November 2002. Alarmed that slight economic liberalisation was leading to the start of an independently minded middle class, the Uzbek government had clamped down on the private sector. Borders were physically closed to private trade, and in the Ferghana Valley near Andizhan cross-border bridges were dynamited. Bazaars were closed by the security forces. Laws were passed ending cash trading and forcing all business transactions to go through state-owned and controlled banks. The economic effects were catastrophic, especially in a dynamic trading town like Andizhan.
There was no outlet for the resulting discontent. There is absolutely no media freedom in Uzbekistan. The Democratic Forum got nowhere. The opposition were banned from the parliamentary elections, which were farcically contested between five government ‘parties’ all supporting the President. We are Back in the USSR.
Yet President Karimov, the great oppressor of liberty and capitalism, has the strong support of George Bush. He is a welcome guest for tea in the White House. Donald Rumsveld, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell have all been to Tashkent and lavished praise upon their host. Tony Blair and Jack Straw were all too willing to sack me for speaking out against Karimov’s habit of arresting, very often torturing and sometimes killing political opponents.