The Professor of Repression

From Harpers Magazine

S. Frederick Starr, Uzbekistan’s friend in Washington (May 24, 2006).

A year ago this month, security forces in Uzbekistan killed hundreds of protesters in the town of Andijan. Human rights groups and journalists reported that the crowd was overwhelmingly unarmed and had come out to protest corruption and poor economic conditions. ‘The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre,’ Human Rights Watch said in a study of the events at Andijan.

The regime of Islam Karimov sought to justify the carnage by saying that the demonstration was organized by Islamic militants seeking to overthrow the government (an argument the Uzbek government knows is music to the ears of the Bush Administration). Last week the Karimov regime sought to prove its case by staging the U.S. debut of a short video on the Andijan crackdown. The event was sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Central Asia Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, and co-hosted by CACI director Professor S. Frederick Starr. An account at said that Starr ‘sought to undermine the credibility of several independent news accounts . . . alleging journalists deliberately falsified their stories. ‘I think they were lying . . . of course they had an anti-government agenda,” he said.

It was all in a day’s work for Starr, who is perhaps the Karimov regime’s most outspoken advocate in Washington’a regime that once tortured a political prisoner to death with methods that included the use of boiling water and then arrested his elderly mother when she complained. He also speaks fondly of several other despotic governments in central Asia, a region he views almost exclusively through the prism of American geopolitical interests and with little interest in issues like human rights and corruption.

Starr, an advisor on Soviet Affairs to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is described by those who know him as charming, erudite, and brilliant. His 1983 book, Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, is widely considered to be one of the most intellectually scintillating feats of Cold War scholarship. Starr is a past director of Sidanko, a Russian energy corporation, and Rector Pro Tem at the University of Central Asia.

Starr has led CACI since it was founded in 1996, and he has actively sought friendly relationships with Central Asian governments and leaders. He even wrote the preface to the 1998 English-language version of Karimov’s page-turner, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century. Starr wrote that Uzbekistan had ‘made impressive strides’ since gaining independence in 1991, including putting ‘in place the main elements of a more consultative and responsive government,’ and went on to approvingly cite Karimov’s assertion that ‘social harmony and stability are the essential conditions for reform and not merely its consequences.’ Translation: ‘Until the population stops complaining about my leadership, reform is impossible and political repression required.’

CACI has also worked closely with the Bush administration. Starr is especially tight with vice president Dick Cheney’s office and is friendly with ex-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, now head of the World Bank; Wolfowitz is also the former dean of John Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, where CACI is housed. The Pentagon has long sought to justify its ties to Central Asian regimes and Starr has been happy to deliver the requisite intellectual underpinnings. At the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he helped author a 2001 study, Strategic Assessment of Central Asia, which was produced by CACI and the Atlantic Council. ‘The U.S. government uses his institute as a bridge to deepening relationships with governments in the region,’ said a person familiar with CACI and who asked to speak off the record.

CACI works closely with the local Uzbek embassy and Starr sometimes appears on Capital Hill, where he offers testimony that invariably supports the regime. At one congressional hearing in 2004 he said that Uzbekistan was making important strides on democracy and attacked human rights groups, suggesting that they were exaggerating problems under Karimov.

Starr also is frequently cited in the press, where his close ties to the government go unnoted and he is identified merely as an independent academic expert. In a 2004 story in the Washington Times, he decried Congress’s refusal to certify that Uzbekistan was making progress on human rights, which had led to a partial aid cutoff. “This is a shortsighted, poorly informed and self-defeating decision that contradicts the view of some of the best experts in the State Department itself and of independent experts as well,” he told the newspaper. ‘The decertification is a body blow to many known reformers in the Uzbek government.’

On May 16, 2005, just days after the Andijan massacre, Starr was already peddling the Karimov regime’s line in an interview on NPR. He generally blamed problems in the country on Islamic militants, described the country as a ‘linchpin of the region,’ and said a revolution there “could be a disaster.” The United States, said Starr, has ‘a very serious interest there, not jut a security one but a large regional one because it borders all the countries in the region.’

Starr doesn’t just do Uzbekistan. He served as an election observer to Kazakhstan’s 2004 parliamentary vote, a trip sponsored by a group called the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC). Starr and an ‘independent’ observer team that included ITIC’s president, Daniel Witt, said that while much of the Western media ‘judged the election a failure,’ it had concluded that the balloting marked ‘a real and even notable step forward.’

Starr and Witt were back to ‘monitor’ the following year’s presidential vote in Kazakhstan and they again disagreed with the majority of observers who denounced the election as badly flawed. ‘While there were shortcomings compared to international standards, it was a genuine competition and represented an important step forward, not only for Kazakhstan but the entire region,’ they wrote. As with the 2004 ITIC report, the Kazakh embassy in Washington posted the assessment on its web site.

So what exactly is the ITIC? According to the group’s web site, it is a non-profit organization ‘that is helping to lower barriers to tax, trade and investment in transition economies by facilitating the exchange of information and know-how between Western executives and government officials in these countries.’ Witt emphasized in an email to me that ITIC receives no funding from the Kazakh government. That’s correct’but he does get cash from a host of companies and organizations with interests in Kazakhstan, including the American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan, ChevronTexaco, China National Petroleum Corporation, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association, Marathon Oil Corporation, and Occidental Petroleum.

I emailed back to ask Witt if such funding undermined ITIC’s claim of independence. ‘ITIC does NOT do election related work,’ he replied. ‘These two election related missions were more my personal desire to further promote economic reforms and show the positive correlation with political reforms. Thus, there was NO influence on the above mission reports and related op-ed/articles from any of our sponsors or board members.’

Right. I’m sure Witt would deem as impartial an election observer team sent to Cuba by a group that was funded by companies with billions invested on the island. His assertion that ITIC does no election work seems equally bizarre, especially as a statement by his team of observers was put out on ITIC letterhead and both reports are on the group’s web site.

Starr has also lent a helping hand to the regime in Azerbaijan. In October of 2002, Ilham Aliyev ‘ who has since succeeded his father as president but was then First Vice-President of the state oil company, a member of parliament, Vice-Chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, and head of the national Olympic Committee’visited Washington for meetings with Bush administration officials and with ‘prominent policy thinkers,’ according to a statement from the Azeri government, which listed Starr in the latter category.

During that visit, Aliyev also spoke at Johns Hopkins, an event sponsored by Starr’s CACI and Harvard University’s Caspian Studies Program, the latter which has converted itself into the Azeri government’s unofficial press agency. The Caspian Studies Program was launched in 1999 with a $1 million grant from the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce’whose past and present advisors and directors include Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, and Brent Scowcroft’and a consortium of companies led by ExxonMobil and Chevron. Its inaugural program was a panel discussion featuring Ilham Aliyev.

Unlike Harvard, Starr apparently doesn’t charge for his services. He told me that CACI receives no funding from Central Asian governments or oil companies other than $25,000 annually from Chevron during the Institute’s first few years of existence, which Starr said was cut off because the company disagreed with certain positions taken by CACI. Given Starr’s record, that’s true ingratitude.