From the “Out of Our Element” Department

by Nathan Hamm on 10/16/2004 · 5 comments

The Telegraph asks a question that should have an obvious answer: “Why did our man in Uzbekistan have to go?”


That question alone seems pretty easy. Murray’s style hampered his effectiveness as ambassador. There are ways to stand up for human rights as ambassador to a repressive state other than the ones Murray selected.

The Telegraph though, earns this week’s “We could write something accurate about Central Asia if we did things like research and stuff” award.

No one denies that Uzbekistan has a horrid government. Since the break-up of the USSR, the regime has actually contrived to make Uzbeks poorer and less free.

Poorer? Yes, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the government. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that Uzbekistan’s economic decline was softer due to the preservation of state control over so much of the economy.

Less free? I’m not sure. The government is incredibly powerful still, but I definitely get the sense that it is not as all-present and micro-managing as the Soviet government was. There’s also the strange dynamic at work in which corrupt, inefficient dictatorships have a lot more freedom at street level than they do on paper.

Opposition parties have been proscribed, critical journalists silenced and 7,000 dissidents incarcerated.

That sucks. I don’t see how that’s worse than the Soviet Union though.

Many Soviet-era economic restrictions remain in place, allowing a handful of presidential cronies to enrich themselves through state monopolies.

Actually… Uzbekistan has a much better track record here than most other similar states. Hell, Russia’s a lot worse on this point because it dropped a lot of the economic restrictions (in a very stupid way).

Meanwhile, a travel ban prevents Uzbeks from picking up dangerous foreign ideas.

Asror? Alisher? That travel ban sure was effective at keeping you from travelling overseas, didn’t it?

Since September 11, things have got worse. President Islam Karimov was quick to support the war in Afghanistan, allowing America to rent a military base from him. In return, he has been allowed a much freer hand against his opponents. Anyone who criticises him is labelled an Islamist, thereby ensuring that there will be little international protest if he is mistreated.

Well, a woman who actually knows what she’s talking about sees uneven, but definite improvement. As for the rest of the paragraph, it’s very convenient to try to fit this into a larger story of an uncaring West willing to allow all manners of horror to be rained upon the heads of Muslims, but it just doesn’t jive. There’s little outcry because most people have no idea what and where Uzbekistan is, kind of like how the world ignored Darfur for such a long time.

As for the rest of the piece, I’m noticing two fundamental failures in reporting. First is talking about the intelligence from torture as if Britain is encouraging torture or handing over suspects. The second is the assumption that Murray was removed because he supported human rights reforms in Uzbekistan. Each of these makes the story much easier to report, but they’re wrong. I won’t go into the first point much. You either think accepting intelligence in this way is unpalatably acceptable or not.

The second point though is pretty important. I think it comes with the territory that if you have a bad human rights record, Western ambassadors are going to be something of a headache for you. There is kind of an unspoken agreement that the powers that be will tolerate mild subversion so long as the ambassadors don’t try to publicly humiliate them. Murray violated that agreement and severely hamstrung the entire British embassy.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence October 17, 2004 at 12:37 am

Nathan, Most of the “dissidents” in still in jail are terrorists or terrorists supporters, not Sakharovs and Sharanskys. The word choice shows the source for this article is Craig Murray or his supporters–and the Telegraph didn’t do too much research. The problem is that Murray’s antics were making matters worse, if Uzbekistan got more repressive while he was there, as his supporters claim. So removing Murray should actually help human rights, shouldn’t it?

BTW I think we should invite RUSLAN SHARIPOV to write an article for The Argus about his experiences, how he got released from jail, who is responsible, and what he is going to do now. Let’s post an invitation on our Front Page, I’ll let you write it. If he really is an “independent journalist” he should take us up on our offer. We’ll say 1000 words, say whatever you like so long as it is clean, no dirty words…

Nathan Hamm October 17, 2004 at 1:50 am

I don’t think they really had any sources at all for the op-ed. I think they’re just lazy. It’s a lot easier to crib HRW and Amnesty press releases that you’ve picked up through osmosis (or the paper’s archives) than it is to pick up the phone.

As for the Ruslan deal, I get the sense that my in with him isn’t a huge fan of mine (and the other possibility has ignored me in the past). I’ll see what I can do though.

Laurence October 17, 2004 at 11:16 am

Nathan, the point is we welcome Ruslan Sharipov to say whatever he likes, we are open to him. If he’s looking for an outlet. I haven’t seen his byline anywhere yet, strange for a reporter or any kind of writer. It would be interesting. We can be a “salon de refuses”…

Tim Newman October 18, 2004 at 3:27 am

Meanwhile, a travel ban prevents Uzbeks from picking up dangerous foreign ideas.

Ha ha ha!!! The Telegraph’s journalists have obviously never been to Dubai. Half of the under-30 female Russian population of Tashkent is here.

Perhaps the Telegraph’s journlists did go to Dubai to find this out, but kept it quiet in case their report prompted close scrutiny of their expense receipts.

Alisher October 18, 2004 at 6:54 am

Reading the article, I had the impression that I have read it many times before somewhere else. In fact, I think Nathan is right, when pointing to the importance of research and accurate coverage. Maybe ,the author of the article, just recopied it from other sources he found, changed expressions, added some personal touch, etc. Internet can be great, because it makes you feel you are an exper on Central Asia, without even ever going there..Though, it would be a mistake to claim that everything said in the article is wrong, many things are just exagerated too much. The worst problem with this article, as most people in the West, dont know much about Uzbekistan, they just beleive in the article and form their opinion on it.
As for Ruslan Sharipov, an excellent idea, though it would also be a way to check Uzbek governement’s reaction. If I am not called to the secret service, just because my name is in the same site with a Sharipov article, then things are indeed not so bad as this Telegraph article describes.

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