Today Sanjar Umarov lies, cold, unclothed, drugged and beaten, on the bare floor of a solitary confinement cell in Tashkent.
Last month I had dinner with Sanjar Umarov at Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, just across from the White House. Sanjar leads Uzbekistan’s newest and best publicised opposition grouping, Sunshine Uzbekistan, which had largely taken over the Peasants and Entrepreneurs’ Party, itself a fairly recent addition to the opposition ranks.
There was a great deal of suspicion about Umarov from longer standing opposition figures. Umarov was an oligarch, from one of the leading regime families. He had made money in oil and cotton trading, both sectors which cannot be accessed without an inside political track. He had also been involved in the Uzdunrobita mobile telephone company, in which the major Uzbek partner was Gulnara Karimova, the President’s daughter. In March 2004 Karimova sold her shares in Uzdunrobita to a Russian company for 212 million dollars, a figure which places a much higher than realistic value on the company.
This transaction was an important stage in the peculiar business dealings between Russia and the Karimov family, which culminated in last November’s deal to allocate the bulk of Uzbekistan’s natural gas reserves to Gazprom. This deal was negotiated between Gulnara Karimova and Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek born Russian oligarch who bought a substantial number of shares in Corus, the British steel company. Usmanov is also a Director of Gazprom responsible for their affairs in the former Soviet Union outside Russia.
Gulnara received a large cash payment – $88 million, according to my sources ‘ on completion of the Gazpron deal, with further payments to come as gas is exported. Alisher Usmanov gave Putin a sweetener of 40% of the shares in Mapo Bank, an important Russian business bank with a close relationship to several blue chip western firms operating in Russia. The shares were made over to Piotr Jastrejebski, Putin’s private secretary who was a college friend of Alisher Usmanov and shared a flat with him.
This web is closely associated with Karimov’s succession strategy. He is desperate for Gulnara to succeed him, and the cash and Russian support is building up her power base. Some sort of Alisher Usmanov/Gulnara Karimova alliance is Karimov’s first choice to take over, in six or seven years time. This is the background to the diplomatic revolution of the last six months, with Karimov abandoning the US and turning back to the embrace of Mother Russia.
It is worth recalling that the Karimov regime had been aggressively anti-Russian, in terms of both propaganda, and of practical measures of linguistic discrimination. Approximately two million ethnic Russians have fled Uzbekistan since independence in 1991; about 400,000 are left.
This reorientation towards Russia went along with fierce anti-enterprise measures designed to stifle any entrepreneurial activity not under direct control of the Karimov family. This explained the physical closures of borders and bazaars, the crackdown on crash transactions and the channelling of all commercial activity through the state banks.
These developments not only brought still greater economic hardship to the poor, they created losers among the wealthy elite. Sanjar Umarov is an archetypal example of such ‘New losers’.
Umarov had studied business administration in Tennessee on a US government scholarship. His trading interests had widened from their Uzbek base. He has a home in Memphis, and a green card. His children are US citizens. Among the Uzbek elite, a class had come into existence of people who could do business with the West. Their business was now being cut off by Karimov.
It would be wrong to credit Sanjar Umarov with purely selfish motives. Unlike so many of his countrymen, he has the education and experience to understand that Karimov’s policies are economically disastrous. Over dinner, we shared our frustration over this: Uzbekistan is not a naturally poor country. It is extremely well endowed with gas, gold, uranium, iron, coal and most rare minerals you can think of. It is historically fertile and could be so again once the government-dictated cotton monoculture is abandoned.
Uzbekistan’s plight is inflicted on it by appalling government. Umarov and I both believe it could recover surprisingly quickly once basic economic freedoms are established, of which the first must be to take the land from the state and give it to the peasant farmers. Over dinner we discussed other ideas, such as voucher privatisation schemes to enable the common people to benefit from Uzbekistan’s mineral wealth. I found Umarov attentive, interested and pro-active.
The outlawed Uzbek opposition has been fractured. There are genuine, historical differences between the Erk and Birlik parties, and those differences are vital to a democracy. But, until we achieve democracy, people need to work together against Karimov. The parties had moved to do that, to their great credit, but there was understandable resentment and suspicion from those who had suffered in opposition for years, towards a ‘Johnny Come Lately’ like Sanjar Umarov.
Well, he is certainly suffering now in his Tashkent cell. And, if Karimov is to be overthrown, in practice some reform-minded ‘insiders’ are going to be needed to build the necessary national unity for reconstruction. That has to be faced. There are several prominent Uzbek opposition leaders, and Umarov now joins such figures as Mohammed Salih, Abdurahim Polat and others. One day let us hope the Uzbek people will freely choose between their politicians. For now, personal ambition needs to be subordinated to the need to end Karimov’s reign of terror.
The urgent need now is for all the opposition parties, including the Sunshine Coalition, to agree a platform of basic reform in the economy, the constitution, the police and judiciary, agriculture, education and many other areas. The broad lines of change need to be ready to roll out once Karimov goes. The most useful thing donors and foreign NGOs could do now would be to set up a programme outside Uzbekistan working with all parties to agree a plan of basic reform.
I found Umarov engaging and enthusiastic. I urged him to be cautious about returning to Uzbekistan, and was rather puzzled by his apparent confidence that he could pursue his political aims inside Uzbekistan without personal danger. Plainly he had good contacts with US official circles ‘ since Karimov turned against the US, a pro-Western oligarch is a saleable commodity in Washington.
That Umarov was arrested at the time of the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to Tashkent is a sign of the strength and ugliness of the current Uzbek/Russian relationship. Umarov is being kept in solitary confinement. Nodira Khidatoyova of his party claims to have been told by an inside source that the Prokurator’s office have been instructed to destroy his mind through psychotropic drugs.
That is certainly feasible. There have been many examples of prisoners being forcibly injected, and Elena Urlaeva, another dissident I know, is currently undergoing such ‘treatment’ in a psychiatric institution. Sanjar Umarov’s lawyer seems to provide some evidence for this. He found him naked, in solitary confinement, making repetitive movements and unable to communicate coherently.
The response of the international community to the brutal treatment of an opposition leader has been pathetic, as always with Uzbekistan. The UK, as EU Presidency, issued a pious statement hoping that ‘International norms of treatment would be respected’, when plainly they are not being.
Umarov is now being charged with ’embezzlement’, and the UK hopes these charges will be ‘properly investigated’. How stupidly, utterly, inadequate! There is no ‘proper’ investigation procedure in Uzbekistan, where 99% of those tried are convicted, and dissidents are framed literally every day, usually with narcotics or firearms offences. To pretend there is a shred of legitimacy to this treatment of Sanjar Umarov is a nonsense. Why is an alleged embezzler naked in solitary confinement?
If corruption is the real concern of the Uzbek authorities, Karimov and his daughter would be the first arrested. The international community, and the UK in particular, needs a much tougher response before Umarov dies in jail.