A review of Murder in Samarkand by Iain Elliot in Times Literary Supplement
Craig Murray, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004, has written a riveting account of that period which both amuses and horrifies. It is not difficult to understand why the Foreign Office wished to sack him. His unsuitability did not really stem from the fact that the FCO mandarins are still disproportionately drawn from the Eton and Oxbridge intake, while Murray was educated in a state school and at Dundee University. Nor was it because he preferred to wear his own suit ‘ or indeed his kilt ‘ rather than hire morning dress at the taxpayers’ expense for the routine ambassadorial call on Buckingham Palace. There are Scots in all sorts of high posts, and as for petty matters such as dress codes, the FCO is much less hidebound than it once was.
Of course Murray’s lifestyle was scarcely conventional. He confesses to enjoying years of ‘wonderful, madcap booze-fuelled evenings out, full of wit and wrongdoing, and a string of mistresses’. But when his long-suffering wife Fiona, the mother of his two children, demands that he give up his ‘floozy’ Nadira (an Uzbek girl half his age whom he met in a Tashkent nightclub, and who takes her Walkman to dinner parties), he finally recognizes her unhappiness, but fails to abandon Nadira. When appointing a new secretary he shortlists a dozen candidates but admits: ‘The moment the first candidate walked in the door, she had the job. She had the most extraordinary classical beauty, a perfect face framed by long blond hair’. But the beautiful Kristina lets him down, mangling the guest list for an important Embassy dinner, and making nonsense of a diplomatic note she translates by omitting a crucial ‘not’.
Yet Murray is not the only ambassador to have strayed from his marriage vows. More seriously for the FCO, he seems to have been too outspoken and honest, about his own shortcomings as well as those of the government to which he was accredited, to do his job properly ‘ even if it is not strictly true that the first qualification for a diplomat is to be able to lie for his country. In Tamerlane’s Children, a perceptive book about contemporary Uzbekistan, the journalist Robert Rand prints a conversation with Murray, asking him at one point, ‘How do you cure Uzbekistan?’. Murray replies, ‘I think you’ve got to just get rid of the present leadership entirely. Lock, stock, and barrel’.
This may well have been the case, but it is certainly a rash remark to make to a journalist, certain to cause offence to the host regime and capable of being exploited by the Soviet-style regime should its officials wish to allege links with violent forces of opposition. Although Islamic extremists were officially blamed for bombings in Tashkent, some observers believe that these were actually carried out by government security agents, to justify measures against the religious revival and to further Uzbekistan’s membership of the coalition against terror. President Islam Karimov was First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party until the collapse of the USSR, when, Murray argues, he opted for national independence to maintain the Soviet system rather than to destroy it. Since then he has stayed in power, helped by a clan system, brutal police repression, and elections condemned by the world’s monitoring bodies as neither free nor fair.
Soon after he arrived in Tashkent, Murray attended the trial of dissidents on what were clearly trumped-up charges, backed by confessions extracted by torture. He resolved not ‘to go along with political lies or leave the truth unspoken’, but to give active support to those speaking out in defence of human rights. In this respect he differed from his fellow European ambassadors and the United States’ ambassador, John Herbst, who played a more passive role. Murray spoke publicly in condemnation of Karimov’s political and economic record, and sent frank telegrams back to London, distributing them more widely than the FCO Eastern Department considered advisable. On one occasion, when he pushed through police barriers to attend a meeting of opposition parties in Kokhand his car narrowly avoided being rammed by security police. He took Simon Butt,the visiting head of the Eastern Department, to meet dissidents in Samarkand. The next morning their host, a Professor Mirsaidov, found the body of his eighteen-year-old grandson, Avazov, dumped in the street outside his home.
Murray was given photographs, taken by the boy’s mother, of the corpse of Avazov, a member of an Islamic liberation party who had been imprisoned in the Jaslyk gulag. Pathologists at Glasgow University examined the photos and concluded that Avazov had been severely beaten before being killed by immersion in boiling liquid. According to Human Rights Watch and other respected international bodies, some 7,000 Uzbeks are held prisoner for political and religious beliefs. Nor is Karimov’s record better in other areas. The media are tightly controlled, and official statistics totally unreliable. Yet international bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank were prepared to support the regime on the basis of these flawed figures, despite evidence of corruption and embezzlement by the Karimov family and other ruling clans and the direct experience of Western firms defrauded by the authorities. The population of some 26 million is enslaved by the cotton monoculture (with its miserable wages and a workforce of children and students taken from their studies to help with the harvest), while the irresponsible use of irrigation canals and chemicals have caused the ecological disaster of the dying Aral Sea. Only the clan leaders have drawn any profit.