For some two hours on the evening of September 14th, at the W.P. Carey Forum of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Shirin Akiner faced critics of her controversial report: Violence in Andijan, 13 May 2005: An Independent Assessment. (PDF) Akiner spoke as a scholar sympathetic to Uzbekistan, advocating a controversial policy of support. What follows is a personal account of Akiner’s appearance, in the “Long Telegram” tradition of George Kennan:
The Rome Auditorium was full. There were 96 names on the list of registered guests, plus people in the auditorium who had not registered. Akiner faced the highest-level crowd one might imagine. Among the audience were representatives of non-governmental organizations that had expressed differences with her report, including the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Institute, and Human Rights Watch. There were correspondents from Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and NPR. Two former US ambassadors were in the audience, as well as staffers from the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the GAO, the RAND Corporation, the World Bank, and the National Endowment for Democracy. There were diplomats present from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, as well as Abdurahim Polat of Uzbekistan’s Birlik Party. And there were academics from Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the University of Montana, the University of Mexico, Princeton University, and the University of London.
Before the main event, the audience was treated to a free buffet of sandwiches, vegetables, salads, balkava and brownies. In addition to sodas and water, they were offered free Georgian wine, courtesy of the US-Georgia Business Council. Well-watered and well-fed, the crowd was ready for anything.
Free copies of Akiner’s publication were handed out to anyone who wanted one. As he leafed through the document, the Washington representative of the Uzbek-American Business Council was overheard telling his seatmate: “Who knows what the facts are?”
So when Dr. Akiner made her way down the center aisle, dressed in black, to sit at the onstage table, there was a bit of a buzz in the audience. Would this petite and elegant British scholar be able to hold her own before Washington, DC’s power elite?
The evening’s host, Dr. Fred Starr, introduced Akiner carefully, at first noting that her work on Tajikistan had been criticized by President Rahkmanov. He pointed out that she was “not an old friend, we just met a few minutes ago.” He asked that discussion be limited to the evidence, citing the fact that “there has been no CIA report that I know of.” ( Starr later added that the CIA has not released satellite photos of Andijan’s Bobur Square that could answer many questions. Starr said he knows that photos taken during the violence exist.)
When Starr asked her to speak from the podium, Akiner demurred. She preferred to sit, she said, because she was not tall enough. Sitting made the event seem more solemn, serious, sober. Akiner would not take the protection of the podium, merely a table and a microphone, with nothing to hide behind.
(It seems that she had little to hide. The post-lecture question and answer, while heated, was rather more personal than anything else. For example, Eurasianet’s Justin Burke asked Akiner why she had stopped her car for the night in Namangan on the way to Andijan. She answered that it was raining and she wanted to rest. He followed-up by questioning how Fred Starr and Akiner had “hooked up.” Irena Lasota accused Akiner of having written a “government report” that reminded her of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the Gulag. While John C.K. Daly announced that he had been Akiner’s friend for 30 years so could vouch for her honesty).
Akiner started soberly. She said she knows the Andijan violence is a serious issue, and she is concerned about what happened, how it affected policy, and what consequences were likely to come from it. Because her report had been available for some time, Akiner declared that rather than repeating her findings, she would instead discuss issues surrounding the report, attempting to address the controversy she created.
EVOLUTION OF THE AKINER REPORT
“People believe I went to Andijan at the invitation and urging of the Uzbek government,” Akiner declared.
“Not at all.”
Rather, Akiner said she went to Uzbekistan to deal with the aftermath of the cancellation, due to the Andijan violence, of a NATO conference on religious extremism that she had organized. Once in Tashkent, Akiner said, “I squeezed out time for myself to go to Andijan.”
She said she wanted to see the place for herself, because “the reports seemed confusing and contradictory.” Yet, when she told her friends in Tashkent that she wanted to go to Andijan, they tried to talk her out of it. “They thought it was too dangerous.” When Akiner left anyway, her Tashkent friends tried to look out for her safety, and before leaving she told a young American friend her last wishes.
She noted, “That I was met by a deputy governor is not surprising, my friends called him.” That did not mean she was on an official government tour. “There were no police on the streets of Andijan,” other than traffic police. “We stopped where I wanted to stop, talked to whom I wanted to. I asked Uzbek friends to help me. They were present, but not on top of me.” She added that she felt she had some leeway because she was considered a “sympathetic outsider.” She admitted that she had government cooperation, but distinguished that from sponsorship.
To the rhetorical question, “If no one was allowed into Andijan, how come me?” Akiner answered that although journalists were not permitted to enter, other people were able to visit. These included diplomats, who were told after the first official tour ended that they would be permitted back at their own risk and expense. (Akiner says she didn’t know of any who took up the offer).
Akiner said she was well-known to people in Uzbekistan because she had been going there for a quarter of a century. Some of her former students were now senior people in the government. Because they knew her, they knew she would come to her own conclusions. Therefore, they could not manipulate her. They knew, like Tajikistan’s president Rakhmanov, that “I said what I thought. I speak my mind.” Akiner referred the audience to page 10 of the printed report, for a summary of her stated opinions. She indicated that she didn’t clear them with the Uzbek government.
Akiner pointed out the first draft of her report had been written “as a private document for NATO headquarters and conferencegoers.” She had not intended it for publication. Only much later, after it had been posted to the internet without her knowledge or authorization, did Akiner agree to permit publication, in order to have a version she could stand behind.
Akiner said that she double-checked reports of casualties, because initial numbers were relatively low, then grew to thousands, eventually as high as 10,000. Akiner says she went to Bobur square, and paced it out in person, to cross check such claims. Her conclusion: “It was impossible to have 4,000 people there.” Other reports were not accurate.
HEALTHY SKEPTICISM REQUIRED
At this point, Akiner made a plea for a level playing field when it came to discussing Andijan. It is good that people were skeptical of her report, and good that people were skeptical of the government of Uzbekistan, Akiner said. In addition, she felt, people should “also be skeptical of all other reports.”
Her rationale was that reports from human rights organizations relied primarily on eyewitness accounts, yet “we know that eyewitness testimony is unreliable.” She said eyewitnesses often report things that did not occur. For example, in the case of the Brazilian shot by British police in the London tube, their eyewitness accounts did not match the scene captured on video cameras. “Those who gave evidence thought it was the truth,” said Akiner, but like testimony in a street accident, conflicting eyewitness testimony cannot all be true. And if eyewitness testimony does not conflict, if it is all the same, it is all the more likely to be suspect.
For that reason, she urged the audience to cross check and ask for corroboration of all reports of the Andijan violence. Akiner pointed to cases in Northern Ireland where “it has been decades before we knew what really happened.”
INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION NOT THE ANSWER
An independent investigation was not in the cards, Akiner said, because Uzbekistan has a functioning government, although authoritarian. It is not a failed state, and that is the only justification for an international investigation. Akiner felt it was legitimate for Uzbekistan to claim national sovereignty and not to cede jurisdiction over the investigation to outsiders.
“Think of your own government,” she said. “Take the case of the young Brazilian. Brazil wanted to conduct its own investigation. The British government was not happy. The public was outraged.” In the end, the Brazilians were not allowed to act independently.
Akiner said she was shocked to hear “outrageous statements” characterizing the violence in Andijan as a “bloodbath” or “massacre” coming immediately from British politicians like Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. She questioned why these terms were deployed at such an early stage. Akiner said she doubted the authenticity Straw’s private sources of information, noting that Western governments do not have even as good sources in Uzbekistan as they possess in Iraq—and that the same government’s conclusions about Iraqi WMD were wrong.
One problem, Akiner noted, was “force of habit.” She had a “gut feeling of neocolonialism.” Beating up on Uzbekistan was a way for British officialdom to say, “We are better than you.” It reflected, in her opinion, an attitude that there were “not many countries we can criticize with impunity anymore, let’s enjoy it.” Critics like Straw hoped that the Andijan incident could be used to “hasten regime change,” and condemnation would show how “utterly unacceptable the regime is.” Perhaps also electoral calculations were involved, that it was in the self-interest of politicians to be seen as champions of human rights.
UNACCOUNTABLE HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS
Akiner directly criticized human rights organizations, characterizing their reactions to her Andijan report as “not only harsh, but malicious.” She accused them of attacking her integrity as well as her work. “How do they have the right to do so?” She noted that she believed there was a representative from the International Crisis Group in the audience, then charged that “a senior member” of the organization had written to her colleagues to request that she be dismissed. In the letter, Akiner claimed that he “actually lied”, “was too lazy to check facts,” or thought “facts not important.” She said she had brought a copy of the letter with her. [NOTE: I have requested an official response from ICG to this allegation. They have not responded.]
Akiner asked: “If they can do that with me, how can we have confidence in what we say about places we don’t know about?” She said her experience made her think human rights organizations resemble “Soviet official hacks in full cry against some dissident…someone who thinks differently. Human rights organizations say, ‘We don’t respect your rights. We are the unique gatekeepers of truth.'”
Akiner elaborated that the personal attacks on her were “curious.” Why would they attempt to kill the messenger, if they had the evidence to support their views? She said she suspected that they were either “unsure of their material,” or there was some other motivation that had not yet been revealed.
Akiner accused the human rights organizations of creating a climate of fear surrounding discussions of Andijan. “Other people are intimidated and have written to me: ‘Don’t use my name,'” because she said they did not want to be attacked the way Akiner has been attacked. She concluded that human rights organizations have become “an unaccountable Fifth Estate” who operate in collusion with the press for the sake of sensational stories, rather than an honest searchers for truth. “‘Maybe we should look cautiously at what happened’ is not a good headline,” Akiner noted, “Ten thousand killed in bloodbath is a good headline.”
CONSEQUENCES OF ANDIJAN
Akiner argued that the Andijan violence was a watershed event that has already yielded dramatic consequences, a number of them unfortunate for both Uzbekistan and the West.
1. TROUBLE FOR NGOs
The Uzbek clampdown on NGO’s should not have come as a shock following Andijan, Akiner said. Uzbeks were surprised, and not happy, that supposedly non-governmental organizations met with embassies, “especially the US Embassy,” on an almost daily basis. She drew a parallel to the Thatcher government’s unhappiness with British mine union leader Arthur Scargill’s visit to the Soviet Embassy during the miner’s strike. She said such involvement with diplomats raised justifiable suspicions. Akiner added that she believed the protection of NGOs by governments outside Uzbekistan actually cut them off from the people and kept them apart from society, so that NGO effectiveness was reduced to the extent that suspicions of surreptitious foreign involvement surrounded their work.
2. MARGINALIZATION OF THE INTELLIGENSIA
Akiner says the Uzbek intelligensia are angry with her, because they think her report was written to support the Karimov government. She believes that they don’t care about the reality of the situation, but would rather “use any stick to beat Karimov,” including the Andijan violence. She thinks this is a mistake that sidelines the intelligensia in Uzbekistan, reducing their possible role.
3. JUSTICE DENIED
While admitting there are real problems of corruption and economic distress, Akiner believes the main problem facing Uzbek society is that there had been more access to justice in the Soviet period than is available today. Akiner believes the collapse of the USSR was “a major revolution” with long-term effects, and that regime change “won’t fix the problems.” The problem of access to justice needs to be resolved first, and the lack of a workable system of justice is a cause of much social discontent.
4. RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
One reason regime change is a bad option for Uzbekistan at this point is a real danger from “religious extremists,” whom Akiner defines as those with the idea of creating an Islamic state. She says such people can already be found “in the Uzbek government.” Akiner warned that if such a state were created by violence, “it would destabilize the region.”
Akiner said she realizes that, “many people in the West say it [religious extremism] is a figment of the imagination, there is no such thing.” She disagrees, saying that it is a real danger. She noted that almost no one in the US paid attention to warnings from Karimov or Nazarbaev before 9/11, however, after 9/11 and Afghanistan those warning proved to have been prescient. Nevertheless, Great Britain permitted Hizb-ut-Tahrir to operate until July 7th, 2005. Only after the London bombings was a ban proposed. Akiner concluded the lesson from this experience is that “we take these things seriously only when they touch us. We don’t take them seriously in the region, when they affect only the region.”
5. RISING ANTI-WESTERN FEELING
Akiner believes the Andijan fallout has led to a rise in anti-Western feeling in Uzbekistan, even among the intelligensia who accept support from the West. She said Uzbeks believe the West is duplicitous. She told the audience that after Andijan, “there was a feeling in Tashkent that they would be bombed, as the West bombed Afghanistan, Iraq, and threatened Iran. I don’t think the politicians here thought about it.”
The result of Western hostility has been a change in public attitudes towards Iran. Even though they don’t admire the Islamic state per se, “now Iran is seen as a hero nation, because they stood up to the West and did not let themselves be pushed around.” This attitude, plus the tragic experience of the Tajik civil war, has affected the Uzbek view of what is happening, moving opinion in an anti-Western direction.
6. REGIONAL REPERCUSSIONS
Andijan’s violence has had its effect on Uzbekistan’s neighbors, according to Akiner. She said that Bakiev and Kulov signed their truce in Krygyzstan on the 14th of May because “they perceived a threat of insurgency.” The initial reaction that they were dangerous insurgents only changed after Western pressure was brought to bear. On the other hand, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan continue to give cautious support to Karimov.
Akiner said that attendance at a Navruz-themed party at the Uzbek embassy in London gives a good indication of the real views of Uzbekistan’s neighbors. Despite the international condemnation of Karimov’s actions on May 13th, all the Central Asian ambassadors came to the Uzbek embassy on May 17th—and stayed for over an hour. “In London, this was an unheard-of statement of solidarity.” Akiner said it reflected their feelings that “We are Central Asians and need to protect our interests.”
DO WE NEED A NEW COLD WAR?
Akiner concluded by asking some tough questions, in an attempt to put the Andijan events and world reaction into a policy context. She argued the answers might shape the future course of events in Central Asia, and perhaps beyond.
“Where are we going? What are we trying to achieve? A new Cold War? Containment of Iran? Then we want to be sure we are doing it the right way.”
Akiner said that she was disturbed by the tone of a recent event at Chatham House in London, where during a discussion of a the possibility of a new Iron Curtain, it was “very much us versus them.” Them included Russia, China, Iran, North Korea…and Uzbekistan.
“Do we need Uzbekistan as an enemy? Is Uzbekistan a cat to be kicked?” Akiner asked.
Human rights organizations were contributing to a dangerous hardening of positions, Akiner continued. “Are they trying to bring about improvements? Or, are they taking a stand to congratulate themselves? It reminds me of Soviet-era slogans like ‘Be on your toes against the enemy’—enemy Uzbekistan…you say Uzbekistan, automatic image—massacre. Think about it, take it further. We cannot afford to stray into a situation that makes the world a more dangerous place.”
Akiner’s warning seemed to be against further isolation or demonization of Uzbekistan. Her analysis suggests that such a policy risks turning into a slippery slope towards conflict between the West and a Russo-Chinese alliance. It appeared that Akiner does not believe that such a war in Central Asia is one the United States and Europe could win.