By Mohammad Ziauddin
This article was written in response to Craig Murray’s speech at SOAS on 20 June 2005
The word ‘tidemark’ now makes my skin crawl. I will not be able to go to the seaside again or clean a bathtub without thinking of boiled human flesh. And, indeed, why should I enjoy that privileged immunity? Bohemian Rhapsody spreads its wings from the jukebox of the Friend at Hand off London’s Russell Square where I am sitting trying to make sense of my notes after the short walk from the Khallili Lecture Theater at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Craig Murray’s atypically reserved discussion of the situation in Uzbekistan still rings in my ears. Two pretty girls wearing peasant dresses and ethnic accessories sing along in a careless salute to tragedy. What would they make of boiled human flesh this early in the evening?
No. There is no good way of dealing with the realization that the West has sold its soul to a geriatric gimp with a powerful lust for red corpuscles and a face like a tired bar of soap. I am confronted by the reality of it like a singularly depressing body blow. Perhaps a tune by Bryan Adams would better suit this moment of awful clarity? If you listen hard enough you can hear it singing down the wire from some marble palace in Tashkent:
‘Everysing I do, I do eet for zhou”
Islam Karimov loves to bring it on for the greater good. The President of Uzbekistan is not just another ally in the War-on-Terror. Karimov enjoys, if not a practical monopoly, then certainly a cartel position over the information that drives America’s feverish hunt for Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists.
Like his counterparts in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other morally-dead autocracies, Karimov dresses up his own repression in the ragged flag of the War-on-Terror. There is no opposition, there are no protestors, there are no dissenters, there are only terrorists by the boatload. The intelligence extracted from these hardcore extremists captured by their security services is the stuff the threat matrices and terror alerts that grab our attention on the six o’clock news are made of. Craig Murray was removed by the Foreign Office as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2004 for simply pointing out that this game is a dangerous scam.
When Murray began his job of defending British interests in Uzbekistan in 2002 one of his first experiences of that country was the witnessing of a trial. An old man was denouncing his nephews for their involvement in al-Qaeda. They had traveled to Afghanistan several times for training, he said. They had met personally with Osama bin Laden. Murray, who recalled that he was sitting only a few feet away from the accuser, could see the man shaking as he read aloud from the statement in his hands. Eventually the man paused in his testimony and then said with a passion that none of what he was reading was true, that the Uzbek security services had tortured his children in front of him until he agreed to read their lies.
Some time after this Murray began receiving suspiciously similar intelligence briefings from MI6, via the CIA and ultimately the Uzbeks. Uzbekistan was, apparently, riddled with al-Qaeda terrorists that had traveled to Afghanistan for training and met personally with Osama bin Laden. Murray’s exact response to this escapes me but I recall it was close to ee cummings’ declaration that, ‘There is some shit I will not eat.’
And so began the saga that led to a six-week stay at St. Thomas’s Psychiatric Hospital and Murray’s ejection from polite society. But polite society is overrated. Standing behind the lectern wearing a blue T-shirt and tan Bermuda shorts Murray seemed more like a man itching to buy an ice-cream from the nearest Mr. Whippie than a former ambassador privy to filthy secrets. But it was a hot day and the facts have a loathsome gravity of their own.
There are 10,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan according to Murray’s estimate. Human Rights Watch puts the number between 6,000 and 7,000 but their methodology only counts those jailed on ostensibly political charges and not those put away on bogus murder raps and drug charges. But neither of these figures are particularly difficult targets for a legal system that enjoys a ninety-nine percent conviction rate.
In a bid to promote legal transparency the British Department for International Development installed tamperproof electronic court recording systems in Uzbek courtrooms. The American Bar Association was responsible for the implementation of the program and Murray recalled a conversation that went along the lines of:
Craig Murray: So how many trials have you monitored?
American Bar Association: Four thousand.
CM: How many acquittals have you seen?
CM: Then why are you recording the trials?
ABA: So the information can be used in appeal.
CM: How many appeals have been won?
ABA: None, but’
One might expect their next stop would have been selling the footage to some late night World’s Best Political Show Trials program. There is, after all, an almost limitless supply of footage. People are accused of committing murders that a dozen Uzbeks have already been convicted for. Mass trials throw groups of defendants into buckets of pick and mix crimes, and so on. These are good strategies for a regime with too many dissidents and too little time.
In one case Murray related, a jeweler was identifying the three men who had assaulted him out of a pool of six total defendants. After pointing out the three men with total certainty and some satisfaction he was informed by the judge that he had selected the wrong three men. It was an achievement of such staggering mathematical improbability that just reading about it is liable to bring a person a severe run of bad luck.
But this was of little concern to the judge who ordered the three men he wanted to fit the bill to stand up and then ordered the witness to identify them as his attackers. Craig Murray said that he would have been laughing out loud at the absurdity of the whole thing were the accused not being summarily executed.
‘Uzbekistan is an unreconstructed Soviet State,’ as Murray puts it. And there is much to this statement. Islam Karimov is less post-Soviet President than just the thug who was sitting in the chair when the Soviet Union collapsed. He was appointed Communist Party Secretary of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in 1989 and like all officials who had a bone of power grabbed what he could when everything came apart two years later.
In Karimov’s case this happened to be the Republic of Uzbekistan. To celebrate he gave himself 86 percent of the vote in the 1991 election. He was still celebrating in 1995 when he gave himself 91.9 percent of the vote in an election the United States described as, ‘neither free nor fair and offer[ing] Uzbekistan’s voters no real choice.’
But the times they don’t change much, and America’s feeble tap on the wrist of a problem too distant to care about was never going to have any effect. Karimov is, quite literally, in charge of the entire country.
There is no reason why Uzbekistan is so poor, Murray says. It has the world’s eighth largest natural gas reserves. It is the world’s sixth largest producer of gold, the world’s third largest uranium producer and the world’s second largest producer of cotton.
As Martin Raiser, the Head of the World Bank mission to Uzbekistan has optimistically pointed out, ‘With a large population, cheap and educated labor, significant natural resources and a strategic geographic position, Uzbekistan would be a natural centre of gravity for investments and for production in Central Asia.’ Indeed, it would be, but it is not.
The Uzbek economy is controlled by state monopolies that pay the state farms, mines, mills and factories fixed allocations to cover costs. In the case of Khlopkoprom, the state cotton monopoly, this allocation is just three percent of the world price of cotton at which Khlopkoprom sells the cotton.
Sixty percent of the Uzbek population live on state farms and their salary, according to Murray, is two American Dollars per month. This works out to an annual wage of $24. This figure is almost twenty times less than the World Bank estimate of $420 for annual per capita income.
But the World Bank figure is simply total Uzbek national income averaged over the total number of Uzbeks. It cannot account for the kind of skewed distribution that occurs when state monopolies walk off with 97 percent of revenues and call them profit margin. To put the scale of this theft into perspective, agriculture accounted for 35.2 percent of the $9.9 billion Uzbek gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003.
For the multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the European Reconstruction Bank Uzbekistan’s rosy future hinges on privatization and market liberalization and some vague steps to ‘ensure greater political openness.’ The EBRD, where Martin Raiser was previously Chief Economist, lays down the general direction like a strip of super-generic tarmac:
‘Opening of the economy to effective competition, including through the elimination of discriminatory barriers against foreign trade, improving conditions for entry of domestic businesses and protecting their property rights, acceleration of privatization through the sale of at least a few large enterprises and determined efforts to attract more FDI.’
Murray would not agree with this prescription. For him the cause of Uzbekistan’s arrested development is entirely political and comes in the shape of Islam Karimov. The woefully inefficient and kleptocratic state of the Uzbek economy is not the result of failed attempts to find the best road to the End of History. Instead it is a perfect reflection of Karimov’s rotten and perpetual quest for absolute power and total control.
In this light, Murray argued, the strategies of the multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the EBRD are not only pointless but dangerous. The former ambassador accuses these institutions of failing to confront the Uzbek regime’s serial deception and thus of complicity with Karimov’s brutality.
Murray recalled a conversation with the Uzbek Finance Minister during which the minister told him that the growth rates in every sector of the economy exceeded 10 percent. He concluded with great pride that national economic growth bowled along at an annual rate of 6 percent. The acceptance of such totally bogus Uzbek growth figures by the banks, Murray says, has deflected criticism from Karimov and reduced pressure for change.
This claim prompted a choking guffaw from a well-manicured boy in the second row. By the end of Murray’s talk this cheap snicker had evolved into a full-blown conniption fit that threatened to consume the kid’s very existence:
‘Who are you to say the banks are wrong, they have the statistics and all you are saying is that you’re always right and they’re always wrong. I mean, how can the banks be wrong, they’re the banks and they know how to measure growth, you don’t know how to measure growth”
His petulant whine climbed to such a pitch I was struck by the distinct possibility that a swarm of over-indulged mosquitoes had temporarily come together in human form.
‘I mean, you throw out these figures, percent this, percent that, but you don’t know, you don’t know, how do you know? Did you go out and measure these figures, did you? No, I don’t think you did. I think the banks and the development people know more than you.’
Which is an interesting assertion that demands closer inspection. A UNDP website for Uzbek statistics claims that the private sector grew by 14 percent in 2004 alone to a 35.6 percent share of the economy. Murray had claimed that privatization efforts are a third-rate whitewash. State farms, for example, are ‘privatized’ by leasing part of the farm to a subdivision of the same state farm.
The few farmers who ostensibly do own their own land are told what they must grow, what price they must sell the state at, and what price they must buy their inputs at. This is not exactly free enterprise. Other smallholding farmers without legal title to marginal land halfway up a mountain have been designated the vanguard of the new privatized economy. There are stories of artisans with 12,000 employees. These captains of industry can evidently not get enough of all that cheaper than dirt-cheap labor.
The fact of the matter is that despite a presidential decree to privatize the economy and the na’ve optimism of the banks almost all land is still owned by the state. A fact borne out quite simply by a US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service report on Uzbekistan agricultural production which says exactly that. Owned by the state.
According to the UNDP source the Uzbek economy grew at 7.7 percent in 2004, a slight increase from previous years. An economy that grows at 7 percent a year will double its money in ten years. But despite this stupendously impressive growth figure Uzbek GDP is falling as are salaries and living conditions. But the banks statistics seem to exist independently from any kind of objective reality.
The World Bank, IMF and EBRD figures are more conservative, reporting growth rates between 3.2 and 4.4 percent. Yet the question remains, if the economy is growing why is the country going backwards? The World Bank economic indicators for Uzbekistan put this issue in its squarest terms. The Bank reported that between 1993 and 2003 the economy grew at 3.2 percent. For the same period the Bank states that GDP fell from $13.1 billion to $9.9 billion. This combination is impossible.
But who needs rising salaries when the state will take care of its citizens? Unemployment in Uzbekistan stands at one half of one percent. This is, of course, the official statistic. Murray estimated that the real figure is closer to 30 percent. In some places such as Andijan, he says, it may be as high as 60 percent.
Ah, Andijan, the name that should have the same resonance for the futility of the War-on-Terror that Guernica has for the vicious bankruptcy of fascism. Precipitated by the trial of 23 local businessmen on terrorism charges, the Andijan Massacre of May 2005 occurred against a background of increasing national unrest with the political and economic situation.
Between May 10 and 12 more than 4,000 protestors in their best clothes lined the streets outside the courthouse to say enough to injustice and enough to repression. For a totalitarian state this gathering was more than unprecedented. It encapsulates Nelson Algren’s sense of bewilderment as to why it is always the weakest in society who seem to have the greatest faith in humanity while it is the powerful who best know fear and possession.
Four hundred to six hundred people were killed by the army between May 13 and 16 after they swept through the town to restore order. Rebels had overrun a garrison and prison and had taken over the regional administration building. The Bush Administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about ‘terrorists’ on the loose.
The situation could have neither persisted nor spread, not in a country where Karimov has total and almost personal control over the media. His daughter owns the country’s one cable television company, which she turned off during the massacre. Murray said that he had called friends in Tashkent when the killings where being reported on British news and they had no idea it was happening.
And yet the stand in Andijan prevented those 23 businessmen being milled and processed into highly consumable reports on the vaguely definite Plans of Osama bin Laden. Something that would have led the War on Terror into even weirder territory.
That trial that never was is, in itself, fascinating and speaks volumes for the gross failure of the international financial institutions to have any impact on Uzbekistan beyond giving the Karimov a helping hand.
The dictator’s loathing of free enterprise and the independent power base this can give to any emerging middle class is revealed by his targeting of businessmen. His position and power would be severely threatened by this development, a possibility a beast with as much blood on his hands as Karimov should rightly fear.
Yet the banks insist that economics and politics are distinct spheres and that privatization and market liberalization is not connected in any way with power. Karimov is expected to pursue economic reform because in their minds presidents are supposed to have the interest of the people at heart. The aim of the weak package of political reforms suggested by the banks is merely the enhancement of economic reform rather than any independent political goal.
The reality that the economy is a product of the power structure, as are all economies, is beyond their technocratic ken. Karimov cannot and will not make serious changes unless he one day wakes up with a severe death wish. So the banks push economic reform, Karimov blows smoke in their faces, the banks walk away in a happy liberalized daze. But this is fast becoming a hopeless Hegelian digression and Andijan is still calling’
Murray, quoting from a Human Rights Watch account of the massacre, said that the wounded were left in the street and denied medical attention. Anyone who went to help them was shot. Anyone who moved was shot. When the soldiers eventually walked down the street they shot everyone who was still alive.
There are also at least two large groups of wounded from the massacre that have simply disappeared, Murray said. Three doctors were also killed when an ambulance was shot up by soldiers.
It is barely on the far edge of reality, Murray said, that Karimov did not order the lethal break up of the demonstration on May 13. But he added that it is wholly inconceivable that in a totalitarian state as efficient as Uzbekistan that Karimov did not order the continuation of violence over the following days.
After the massacre Scott McClellan, the fat and smug White House Press Secretary, called for calm and restraint on both sides. Less than a week before Bush had been in nearby Georgia praising its people’s establishment of democracy. And a few months prior to that he had been championing Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution and another victory of democracy over tyranny.
But Bush offered no support to the democratic rebels in Andijan. It is unclear whether the situation in Uzbekistan stuck in his craw or whether his mind was simply incapable of registering his own grotesque hypocrisy. The protestors were misbehaving, Bush said, and had to follow The Due Course of Law. Yes, follow the law that leads straight to the gallows via a 99 percent conviction rate. It is a fair bet, though, that Karimov improved his average after Andijan.
But what does Karimov care about any of this? After September 11 he signed up for a bumper order of Alliance: the new White House fragrance for the murderous dictator who has everything but the love of his own people.
Uzbekistan’s jails are deep, dark holes for all those terror suspects we would rather not dirty our hands with. When Murray first brought up his reservations over the quality of the intelligence being produced by the Uzbek security services and used in our War on Terror he was summoned back to London for a pep talk by Michael Wood, the Foreign Office legal adviser.
Wood told him that by his reading of the Convention on Human Rights it was not illegal for Britain to use intelligence extracted through torture if Britain had no knowledge of that torture and no part in that same torture. That rationalization will be cold comfort to Mrs. Avazov.
Her son’s body was delivered to her in a sealed coffin by the Security Services after he had been pulled in for a chat. The goons delivering the casket muttered about falling down the stairs or running with scissors before driving away in their truck. Mrs. Avazov secretly opened the coffin ‘ a crime punishable by hard-labor ‘ to discover how her son had been killed. She took photographs and sent them to Craig Murray who was by that time developing a troublesome reputation as a champion of human rights.
Murray didn’t know what to make of the photographs so he sent them on to a pathologist in Glasgow. The pathologist’s report concluded that all Mr. Avazov’s fingernails had been ripped out. That he had been heavily beaten with special attention given to his head. And finally that he had been boiled to death.
The pathologist could tell that the body had been immersed in boiling liquid and not merely splashed with it because there was a visible tidemark across the top of the chest. So there you have it’
Where does take us? Uzbeks hate Karimov. But because of his monumental repression the only kind of opposition groups that the disaffected are likely to encounter will be radical Islamic ones. As what could pass for a moderate opposition fails to have any impact on the suffering of the people it will lose support as extreme options become more appealing. The notion that there could be pro-Western opposition, Murray says, does not exist.
The former ambassador lamented that he could not hold it against any Uzbek who took up arms. The situation which is forced upon them by Karimov with the material support of the United States and Britain is impossible and inhuman.
But what is the value of intelligence tortured out of farm-boys and small-businessmen? How can the testimony of an old man ruthlessly compelled to denounce his own nephews be useful in the fight against al Qaeda? And where are the thousands of al-Qaeda-in-Europe that Karimov’s security apparatus assures us will begin destroying our civilization at any moment? It is all utterly fraudulent yet the CIA and MI6 describe the material as prime grade stuff and it forms the rotten heart of the War on Terror.
If this mind-bendingly stupid system of ‘intelligence’ gathering were terminated right now our intelligence would be no worse and certainly a damn sight more accurate. The massive downside is, of course, that we would all feel incomplete without the terror alerts and pundits yammering about Imminent Destruction and Total Enemies. So this perverse situation of unreality persists, twisting and simplifying the real nature of the threat. And not just in Uzbekistan but also in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and all tin-pot, third-rate US-allied regimes where suspects have been extraordinarily rendered.
But of course US policy in Uzbekistan isn’t just about the War-on-Terror. Murray had started his talk by reading a letter written by Ken Lay, the former CEO of the former energy trading company Enron, to George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas. Enron, headquartered in Texas, had just opened an office in Tashkent and was looking for George to strike up some good relations between Uzbekistan and Texas for the corporate good.
Enron had made a business out of screwing people before its spectacular implosion in 2002. The company single-handedly caused the California blackouts of 2000 by switching off power stations. It then turned round and claimed the market was too heavily regulated, that the red tape protecting consumers was hopelessly inefficient and had to go.
Never let it be said that there are problem’s like that in Karimov’s Uzbekistan. Long story short the dictator is Bush’s kind-a-guy. He knows how to get things done.
Murray quipped that the letter shows just what Bush’s priorities are when he thinks of Uzbekistan. US policy toward the country makes no sense in terms of justice but it does make perfect sense in terms the region’s oil, he says. And it is far easier to deal with a savage and irredeemable dictator than to take a chance on a real democracy.
For good measure the United States has also acquired a massive airbase in Uzbekistan. It is one of the many ‘Lilly-pads’ that sit in a menacing ring around the broader oil-rich Middle East and can be rapidly expanded to project massive force onto any joker. But though ‘American’ oil is safe these policies make a blaring mockery of even a half-hearted attempt to define what the US is hamfistedly doing in the Middle East as spreading freedom.
As I left the auditorium with these thoughts reeling through my mind the kid’s sawing whine started up behind me. Out of sight but in my mind like a splinter, I imagined that if I turned around I would see a morbidly obese two-dimensional eight year old with a red jacket and a baby-blue beanie hat.
‘How does he know Saudi Arabia and Egypt torture people?’ He demanded from his unfortunate friend. ‘I’ll tell you, he doesn’t. He’s saying knows everything. But has he been tortured there? I don’t think so, so how can he tell me that they torture people. He doesn’t know anything”
Just like Eric Cartman. That same victimized ego propped up on the scaffold of its own delusional self-concept. ‘I’m not fat, I’m big-boned.’ Indeed. He followed some distance behind me sounding ever more like something nasty and electric. As he whirred his solipsistic retreat into denial I was reminded of something that the Saudi dissident author Abdelrahman Munif had said when asked why he had given the name Cities of Salt to his novel about oil exploration in the kingdom.
‘Cities of Salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence,’ he had said. ‘When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust’ It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman.’
That is wisdom for Bush and Blair just as surely as it spells Karimov’s ultimate end.