The Akiner Controversy

by Nathan Hamm on 9/30/2005 · 29 comments

More discussion of Shirin Akiner and her controversial Andijon Report (PDF) can be found at Hulegu’s Campaign and Ben Paarmann’s weblog.

Via the former comes Craig Murray’s letter to SOAS criticizing Dr. Akiner as a “propagandist for the Karimov regime.”

While I think I’ve made it clear that I have serious problems with Akiner’s report, I do not think that the exact form of Murray’s criticism–a letter to her employers–sends the right message about one’s intentions even if they are clarified multiple times in the article. And as to the nature of the criticism, she has said that she didn’t intend the report for publication, suggesting that accusing her of propagandizing on the government’s behalf is a bit much.

But then again, she clearly is more than willing to go to bat for her case, as she does in this interview on Channel 4 news (WMV). My jaw dropped at the end of this interview, but more on that in a moment.

Going back over Akiner’s report, it is clear that while it is informed, it is not particularly scholarly (nor was it apparently intended to be, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that as I wouldn’t term anyone’s reports “scholarly”) and it leaves a lot to be desired. Early on, there’s an odd claim that the insurgents were intending to replicate Akayev’s fall from power–revealing an awfully peculiar interpretation of both events. As far as methodology goes, it isn’t worth rehashing again all the problems with her report.

It is worth pointing out again the rhetoric used though. To those critical of the government, she more or less says that they have a high burden of proof to meet for some of their claims and that there is reason to doubt some of the claims and arguments offered. That’s all well and good. But she flirts with the dubious claims that the media was in on the whole thing and that the US and NGOs helped fund the whole thing while offering as evidence the arguments that it seems possible that this is true and that a lot of people believe these things. (I should point out that almost every Uzbek I discussed the matter with believes the US owes one state of Alaska back to Russia because the lease on it has expired. I suppose I’m a fool for thinking that’s silly.)

Back to the Channel 4 interview now. Akiner appeared willingly it seems. And once someone places his or herself in the public eye, one should be prepared for some criticism. And when someone responds to the assertion that there’s a great degree of difference between the the UK’s democratically elected government and Uzbekistan’s by saying “These things are matters of opinion,”* it’s entirely fair to ask why Uzbekistan’s government deserves such vigorous defense. (Or to ask why one should believe that the Uzbek government’s investigation is fair and accurate.)

I certainly do think it would be to everyone’s benefit to stick to discussing the issues rather than the personalities. Akiner herself, as far as I have seen, has been quite civil–a far cry better than this.

However, Mr. Starr says the Human Rights Watch testimony cannot be accurately evaluated since so much of it came from anonymous sources, apparently afraid to be identified. He says such anonymous denunciations are akin to the old days in Uzbekistan.

“It is anonymous evidence. This is Stalinism,” he said. “Just because it is in the name of human rights does not change its character. They must address this problem. They are hurting the very cause that they represent and which we all support.”

While one is tempted to ask whether or not Akiner’s evidence is Stalinism as well because it doesn’t name eyewitnesses, that’s not the point that necessarily needs to be made here. I think that many people do have a fairly caricatured and uninformed view on Andijon if they have one at all. Not one of the individuals or organizations whose reports I have read would I characterize as such. But in the battle for meaning and understanding of Andijon–something that likely will be a long time coming–it’s worth keeping the focus on the event as much as possible and not getting swept away in attacks on messengers.

*It’s possible that this is a case of poor word choice on her part. What follows that sentence suggests the possibility that she’s referring in general to interpretations of Andijon. However, the exchange came in the context of her argument that the shooting of the Brazilian by London police is comparable to Andijon,** so one should draw one’s own conclusions.

**Since it’s one of my most hated things, let me just mention again that moral equivocation and selective moral relativism are some of the least unbecoming arguments one can make. They are all too often made to shore up morally shaky positions and to deflect criticism of the indefensible by pointing out that no one’s perfect.

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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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katy September 30, 2005 at 3:05 pm

great time to start @ soas.

J. Otto Pohl September 30, 2005 at 3:05 pm

Nathan thanks for this report. I think that you have been very fair in your coverage of this controversy. Other people, however, I think have not been. I am going to stick to my original decision not to comment on the substance of Dr. Akiner’s arguments. I will make one comment, however, based upon my personal experience of having Dr. Akiner as my MA supervisor. What ever the flaws in her report, the idea that she is a tool of the Karimov regime is ludicrous. She has produced a lot of good scholarship and is a great lecturer. SOAS benefits greatly as an academic institution from her presence. That does not mean she is always right. But, the character assassinations are way over the top.

Anodyne September 30, 2005 at 3:09 pm


At the risk of sounding like an apologist for the Uzbek government or a pedantic supporter of Dr. Akiner, I am puzzled by your characterization of the Channel 4 interview. The point she seemed to be making was that independent inquiries are not customary in countries with functioning governments (whether these governments are democratically elected or not). Dr. Akiner’s remark about the Brazilian government not having the right to demand an independent investigation after one of its citizens was killed in London seemed to be an example chosen in context of the “functioning government” criterion and aimed at a British audience to make her point clear.

The reporter was assertive throughout the interview and made many assertions that cannot be demonstrated unequivocally at this point (and, in the case of the timing of US criticism on human rights and base closings, contradicts my own understanding of events). This includes the comment HE made about the moral equivalence of the UK and Uzbek governments at the end of the interview. She appeared to have no time to respond to that comment satisfactorily, and in any case, seemed to be reiterating the functioning government criterion (as opposed to democratically elected criterion) when she said these things are “a matter of opinion.”

No one has ever provided an explanation for why Akiner would willingly shill for the Uzbek government. Certainly it is possible that she is being manipulated. However, I’m getting the sense from reading her reports and listening to comments that she simply has come up with a different view of how to approach the problem of human rights in Uzbekistan. This approach seems to put weight on the idea that Westerners need to better understand the Karimov government’s motives, perceptions, and likely responses to outside governmental and non-governmental pressures than has been the case heretofore. Whether one agrees with this view or not, everything I’ve seen thus far suggests her position is coherent. Frankly, the reporter in the interview came off looking a little clownish to me by comparison.

Nathan September 30, 2005 at 3:33 pm

As to the functioning government point, it’s worth mentioning that no one has said that Uzbekistan doesn’t have a functioning government. Instead, most of those calling for an investigation assert that in the interests of transparency and fully understanding what went on, an impartial investigation is needed. That’s probably impossible to achieve as some simply want to embarrass the government. But at the same time, most observers know that the government’s claims regarding the nature of the threats it faces–and I think I have a fairly good track record of criticizing those who dismiss the reality of those threats–cannot be taken at face value.

In a way, she’s saying that any country with a functioning government must always be taken at its word. I think it’s entirely reasonable to treat more transparent governments with less skepticism than those that keep a tight lid on information.

Her point better explains why the Uzbeks won’t submit to the investigation rather than why they shouldn’t.

Additionally, and I say this because she’s made the point two times now, I feel like she is saying that so long as we have failings in the West, we have no right to criticize the Uzbeks. I think that’s a fairly bankrupt philosophical outlook.

I won’t defend the reporter or the press. There was nothing egregious in the interview as far as I’m concerned. British interviewers tend to come off the same way to me. I just don’t like their style all that much.

And I think there are important points to be made about the failures and shortcomings of the press and NGOs. I’ve made them myself many times, and I’ve been called all kinds of nasty names for my trouble. It comes with the territory.

What I think is different in this case is that Akiner’s only incidentally making those points, and I think that the more casual reader isn’t going to see them at all. I also don’t think that the point is made clear enough that this report is not meant to be the alpha and omega on the matter. She most certainly does not have the intentions or attitude of the prosecutors in Tashkent.

If your characterization of her position in that last paragraph is correct, then I agree with her. Where I depart is that she is putting the burden on the United States and Europe to keep Karimov feeling safe and happy. I think that’s a dangerous policy position to advance. I am not opposed in principle to having warm relations with autocratic regimes. They can lead to roundabout improvements and are sometimes necessary from a security or trade standpoint. But what does worry me is letting said regimes act as though they are indispensable and manipulating Western policies to their ends. With Uzbekistan, there clearly hasn’t been enough giving for their taking, and we need to take back the wheel.

Brian September 30, 2005 at 5:06 pm

So now that the trial is underway and the case that’s being presented is about a rather implausible conspiracy involving the “BBC, RFE/RL, Chechen military instructors, NGOs, training camps in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, and extremists linked to Al-Qaeda aimed to spark a Georgia/Ukraine/Kyrgyz-style revolution in Andijon in order to transform Uzbekistan into an Islamic state that would serve as the launching pad for a drive to establish a worldwide caliphate” does she still stand by her assessment that the Uzbek government is capable of investigating the situation themselves?

Considering that Dr. Akiner considers Islamic militantism more serious of a threat to the region that the authoritarian governments, is she still confident that they can investigate the situation themselves and confront the problem, considerng their absurd story?

Breed September 30, 2005 at 9:08 pm

I don’t know that I used to have any particular opinion of Dr. Starr, but now I do: he’s an imbecile. If presented with Human Rights Watch and the Karimov regime, and asked which of the two more closely resembled Stalinism, I think that most rational humans (especially those who have lived in Uzbekistan) would agree that Karimov wins that contest. Maintaining anonymity in statements to a human rights group because you’re afraid of getting sent to Jaslyk is substantially different from ratting out your friends and neighbors.

[Comment edited. Heavily. Meaning is still intact. -The Management]

Craig Murray October 1, 2005 at 12:11 am

I stick by the term “Karimov propagandist”; Akiner has form long term, however good a social anthropologist she may be.

Karimov’s atrocities did not start with Andijan; they have been going on for years. His economic polcies are incredibly bad, and are driving his own people to despair. I don’t think any of Registan’s contributors would disagree with that.

Let me set this challenge, to all but especially to J Otto Pohl. From Akiner’s large volume of work on Central Asia and her many public appearances, find me three quotes which are critical of the Karimov regime.

J. Otto Pohl October 1, 2005 at 2:00 am

My posts on this matter so far have all avoided commenting on whether Dr. Akiner’s positions on any particular topic are correct or not. They are rather a plea that they be criticized on their merits or lack of merits rather than attacks on her character. I do not recall her saying anything particularly positive about the Karimov regime during 2000 and 2001 when I took her course. But, more importantly I think she has come to her positions independently, not in the service of the Uzbek government. This is my own judgement of her character and thus completely subjective. So I am going to decline Ambassador Murray’s challenge because it does not have anything to do with my point above.

My own opinions on the Karimov regime for what it is worth are not much different from Ambassador Murray’s. My area of expertise is the experience of deported peoples in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. A field removed several decades from the Karimov regime. Hence I have written little on contemporary Uzbekistan. But, I did post a blog entry on 1 September of this year urging an embargo against Uzbek cotton. A movement inspired by Ambassador Murray.I thus disagree with Akiner on the issue of engagement with Tashkent. I do, however, object to painting Dr. Akiner as a shill for that regime.

Craig Murray October 1, 2005 at 2:26 am

I read some of J Otto Pohl’s stuff and I am not in any way accusing him of being a Karimov supporter.

But I do think he is overly nostalgic about his ex-lecturer. Unlike J Otto Pohl, Akiner does focus very much on contemporary Central Asia and its politics. Now even the most balanced view of Karimov is going to include a very great deal on the negative side. What has Akiner ever said, in her large opus of work, on the negative side about Karimov and his regime?

I am contending that she is a Karimov propagandist rather than a genuine detached academic. So that is not just a valid question, it is the key question, and if J Otto wants to defend her, he can’t just pretend it’s irrelevant.

Over to others on Shirin criticising Karimov.

Laurence October 1, 2005 at 4:52 am

It is outrageous that Ambassador Murray, a man with limited knowledge of Central Asia (check his CV) and a failed diplomatic career, is taken seriously in these matters while Dr. Shrin Akiner (who has written numerous books and articles on the region) is attacked.

The ugly personal and ideological nature of the attacks further discredits Dr. Akiner’s critics.

It is not unreasonable to argue that Islamist terror is a greater threat than authoritarianism in Central Asia. Reasonable people should be able to disagree on this question without fear of losing their jobs. It is obvious that terrorism results in restrictions on civil liberties, even in the West. This holds true in England now that London is subject to suicide bombings. In the US, one can sometimes see protesters carryiing Bush=Hitler signs…

Is is Ambassador Murray and his fellow-travellers who are in the wrong, not Dr. Akiner. They use the rhetoric of human rights to attempt to silence or marginalize those with whom they disagree–including the right of free speech.

J. Otto Pohl October 1, 2005 at 7:15 am

Sorry, just a minor correction. I took Dr. Akiner’s course on Central Asia in 2001-2002. I was still in the US in 2000-2001. I arrived in the UK the shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Laurence October 1, 2005 at 7:46 am

Here’s a link to an article about Tajikistan co-authored by Dr. Akiner:

Seems pretty fair-minded to this reader.

brian October 1, 2005 at 8:25 am

I don’t think that’s quite fair, Laurence, to attack Craig Murray based on having “limited knowledge” of Central Asia. Quite honestly I’d say many if not most of the people formulating policy with Central Asia have limited experience with the region before being assigned to it. What you’re saying is that because Dr. Akiner has studied the region so much she’s immune from criticism by anyone who doesn’t have a resume of studying Central Asia as long as her’s.

Dr. Akiner may have a wealth of knowledge about the rich tapestry of history and culture of the region, but as far as contemporary knowledge of the political and economic situation and how that affects the relationship between the people and the government… well I’d daresay that she knows little more than the average Peace Corps volunteer who’s paid attention to things.

Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that Islamic militancy is not a threat to the region, certainly not Craig Murray. But in my eyes, where Dr. Akiner loses her credibility, is how she defends a regime that may not only be fueling the fire, but is INCOMPETENT to stop it! This absolutely silly trial shows that even if you agree with Tashkent’s methods, you should criticize their poor implementation.

While I’m reluctant to say that Dr. Akiner is a stooge of the Uzbek government (which seems rather unlikely), she is sympathetic enough to go on Uzbek state TV at a time when media NGOs were being shut down and present a one-sided account of the Andijan incident without shame.

Anodyne October 1, 2005 at 12:34 pm


Much of what you wrote in the original post and in your reply to me is devoted to inferring Dr. Akiner’s motives, defending your own motives and objectivity, performing moral calculus, and offering prescriptions. Several characterizations of her statements that you make in my view overreach and distort her positions, suggesting the possibility that you are hearing what you want to hear, e.g.,

“However, the exchange came in the context of her argument that the shooting of the Brazilian by London police is comparable to Andijon”

This comparison was never made or implied in the interview. There were at least 3 other instances in which you inferred something that struck me as overreach, which I will spare you. Some of your statements also seem more concerned with the general form of arguments rather than their substance, and other statements do not speak directly to what happened in the interview, which anyone is capable of viewing and assessing on their own.

I get the sense that you may be fighting with someone who essentially shares your goals but has come to believe that a different strategy for attaining them should be considered, and this troubles you because you think her views undermine the strategy that you prefer. If I’m wrong about that characterization, I apologize.

There is one statement that you made in your original post that I think is worth emphasizing. You said:

…”it’s entirely fair to ask why Uzbekistan’s government deserves such vigorous defense.”

If you replace the word “fair” with “useful” and toss out the word “vigorous” in this phrase, I think you are onto something that is important to explore. Dr. Akiner appears to be practicing what she is preaching in the positions she is taking. It may be useful for anyone who knows her to ask her to respond to that question in detail, or at least expand on the views she has already expressed in her report on Andijon. We may just come to understand something more subtle about where she stands and why that we are currently missing because bits and pieces of what she says are somehow colliding with our personal narratives.


When you say “capable of investigating the situation themselves” I hear “willing to do it the way you would prefer”. My reading of Dr. Akiner is that she sees an issue of sovereignty here that is not only a matter of upholding an abstract principle for its own sake, but is in fact a necessity for achieving a broader objective. Whether you agree or disagree with this position is up to you. However, at this point it seems like your dissatisfaction with her and the many refutations of her report it has spawned preceded a diligent effort to understand her positions. This is not to say you might not still disagree with her even after you’ve have more information. Then again, you may discover you are not all that far apart.


You said:

“It is not unreasonable to argue that Islamist terror is a greater threat than authoritarianism in Central Asia.”

I haven’t read anything by Dr. Akiner that makes this comparison in any absolute sense. At this juncture I am not even convinced that she is thinking about how to approach the Karimov regime in terms of such a stark tradeoff, other than insofar as it produces a dialectical opening for further debate.

Ambassador Murray,

With respect, if Dr. Akiner has a different view from yours of how the west should engage the Karimov regime, one that she believes will stop the steady deterioration of bilateral relations with the US, then it is not surprising or damning that she has refrained from making negative or positive public statements about the regime.

Does anyone here have the ability to contact Dr. Akiner and get more information about her positions and overall philosophy?

Craig Murray October 1, 2005 at 1:06 pm

You seem to have blocked my response to Laurence – oh well, it’s your website.

How about this more anodyne observation. Yes, she has published a great deal on Central Asia. Erich von Daniken published a great deal on religion.

The article on Tajikistan is a very superficial sketch of events; Laurence may think I know little of Central Asia, but I could write a more detailed account off the top of my head. The role of Uzbekistan in stoking the conflict (which anyone who has lived in the Ferghana Valley knows about) is ignored.

I agree she has published a lot. I take it as self-evident that there is a great deal to criticise about the Karimov regime, even if you believe it has compensating virtues. Where in Akiner’s work can you find that balancing criticism? And if it is absent, does that not lead one to suppose there is an extraordinary degree of partiality at work here? To me, her Andijan report seems not an aberration but part of a long term pattern of parroting the Uzbek government line. I have met her several times, and never seen her do anything else in my personal observation. If I am wrong, produce just three quotes which prove it, and I will apologise.

Nathan October 1, 2005 at 1:43 pm


Well, I’ll start on the Brazilian shooting case because I think it’s important. At least part of why I term it a comparison is because I believe that is that is implied through the use of that particular rhetorical device. And she’s used it twice that I know of now.

Mentioning the shooting of the Brazilian by London police alongside the Andijon massacre serves to illustrate her point that because we shouldn’t expect the UK to submit to an outside investigation we shouldn’t expect Uzbekistan to do the same in the case of Andijon. While it doesn’t necessarily mean the author of the statement is implying a moral equivalence between the two acts, there is the implied point that because the UK fails to achieve perfection, it lacks the moral grounding to demand of Uzbekistan the right for an outside body to investigate Andijon.

Am I reading into her statement? You bet I am. I don’t think that I do so without good reason though. While I won’t claim to be intimately familiar with Dr. Akiner’s politics, I feel I am sufficiently familiar with the rhetorical device she employs to make the assumption that she means to deliver two messages.

Additionally, she most certainly does posit a moral equivalence between the governments of the UK and Uzbekistan. I don’t base this entirely on her “these things are a matter of opinion” remark, though I think it does bolster my case. Instead, I base this argument on her belief that Uzbekistan’s government is sufficiently trustworthy, transparent, and impartian to carry out an investigation of Andijon and her belief that all states, so long as they function, are morally/amorally/just plain equal.

Akiner and I most likely do share many goals in regards to Uzbekistan and almost certainly many opinions on the shortcomings and inadequacy of press and NGO reporting on Uzbekistan. Where I think we most likely part is in our views on the trustworthiness of the Uzbek government and where burdens lie for good relations in dealings between Uzbekistan and the West.

But by that, I don’t mean to imply that she thinks the Uzbek government. Far from it. I don’t know exactly what her position is, but I know from experience that one must walk a careful path when in the business of criticizing the critics of Karimov’s government. In this particular case, I think she has reserved almost all of her skepticism for those critics, and that is a very hard thing to understand given the strangeness of the official story on Andijon. We don’t know how much she agrees or disagrees with that story let alone if she has an opinion. We do know that she took awfully seriously the charge that the US financed Andijon on very flimsy evidence. And to zoom out, we know that her report is largely based on witness testimony and that her doubts of the human rights ngo reports are based on the fact that they rely on witness testimony. And if we want to deload my question, it would be very useful to know why evidentiary standards for her case in (at least partial) defense of the Uzbek government are different.

As for the other point on burdens. I don’t think there’s any responsibility on the part of the West to worry about hurt feelings on Uzbekistan’s part. This isn’t something she dealt with in the interview, but in DC when she asked whether or not we wanted some kind of cold war. Those questions could be asked of the Uzbeks too. In fact, because I think we in the West do occupy a morally higher position and because Uzbekistan has more to gain from good relations with us, the majority of the burden is on their government to maintain a good relationship. We have been more than willing to accept foot dragging, and Akiner seems to think we should keep giving chances.

As for the particular points, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to argue them. I’m not privy to any special information worth mentioning, and I don’t have strong doubts about the factual claims Akiner makes. It’s just when she adds her own analysis or characterizations that my eyebrows raise.

I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say that some bad dudes did some atrocious things on May 13. I don’t think there’s been anyone who has tried to hide that, but I get the impression that some NGO and press critics think there have been efforts to.

I don’t think it’s controversial to point out the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I also think it’s entirely fair to point out that human rights NGOs and the press are given to over-the-top sensationalism especially in the immediate aftermath of events.

What I do think is controversial as far as the facts go is make some of the claims she’s made–particularly assessments of motives, but I could come up with a long list if I looked through the report again–on the basis of such and incomplete and small body of evidence.

brian October 1, 2005 at 3:12 pm

Just a quick note:
We’re spending an awful lot of engery talking about whether Uzbekistan should or shouldn’t submit to an international investigation and and if it’s right or proper to even suggest such. But this is just one small aspect of what has happened since May.

And now that I think about it, I really don’t care that much!

I care about the facts of Andijan and why it happened, not what’s proper international protocol. I simply want to know what happened! If I TRUSTED the Uzbek authorities to find out and report the facts then I’d be happy! But I really don’t trust them at all. Do you???

I trust the British authorities (and the press) to investigate what happened in the shooting of the Brazilian! (Whoa, there’s the difference between the two situations!)

To me it boils down to the fact that I would trust an international investigation to find the truth – and I don’t trust the Uzbeks to do it themselves. Forget about all this fluff about sovereignty and process, it’s clouding the real issue: getting to find out the real facts of what happened in Andijan. And the facts don’t change whether international etiquete has been followed or not.

Anodyne October 1, 2005 at 3:15 pm


I appreciate you willingness to discuss these issues and the forum that you have provided for all of us.

I may be the least informed person about Central Asia engaged in this discussion, but I would suggest that this places the burden on everyone else to make a compelling, well-sourced argument for their critique of Dr. Akiner. My preference would be that such an argument would be based on a demonstration of a reasonable understanding of her overall positions and philosophy for engaging the Karimov regime. I can’t say that I possess such an understanding at this point, and so far no one has demonstrated to my satisfaction that they do either. What I’ve heard is a series of suppositions, inferences about her beliefs and motives that do not follow from what I’ve read and seen, countless interjections of opinions and judgments that digress from the merits of what she has offered explicitly or what we might want her to clarify, and a mind numbing succession of irrelevant (at least to me) criteria offered for why she should be chastised for her “misguided if not inherently immoral” actions. If you are concerned about people falling victim to wicked rhetorical devices, then you might as well throw in a warning about how appeals to a moral high ground and claims of hypocrisy are used to fill the vacuum of what is unknown and to persuade us to close our minds prematurely.

As a specific example of where you lost me again, consider this statement:

“Instead, I base this argument on her belief that Uzbekistan’s government is sufficiently trustworthy, transparent, and impartial to carry out an investigation of Andijon …”

Sometimes you say you don’t know what she believes and other times you are sure of what she believes because [fill in the blank]. In this case, I haven’t seen any statement from her that indicated she believed that the Uzbek government would be trustworthy, transparent or impartial. Moreover, my impression is that she subordinates her preferences about how the investigation ought to be carried out to a more a more general principle involving sovereignty and international law (a tradeoff which you might from a worm’s eye view deem immoral in the case of Andijon).

You finished the above quote with the statement:

“… and her belief that all states, so long as they function, are morally/amorally/just plain equal.”

Again, I don’t know what she believes or what moral calculus she has applied in arriving at those beliefs and I would submit that no one here does either. It was my impression from the Channel 4 interview that she was making an argument about the unreasonableness of the expectation that a functioning government should involuntarily submit to an outside and independent investigation of an event on own its territory. If that interpretation is correct, it would seem that this is a legal/legal custom argument, which I doubt anyone here would argue is completely baseless on moral grounds.

Seriously folks, how hard would it be to assemble a few questions, present them to Dr. Akiner and ask her to respond?

Nathan October 1, 2005 at 3:48 pm

I agree with Brian quite a bit. There’s something of a sideshow aspect to all this. So, I’ll be brief.

In this case, I haven’t seen any statement from her that indicated she believed that the Uzbek government would be trustworthy, transparent or impartial.

I’m basing that on her opposition to an outside investigation on the grounds that Uzbekistan has a functioning government. To elaborate, she said during the interview “I do believe that they [the Uzbek government] are capable of carrying out a full and proper investigation.” If we want to really play around with words, we could say that she is only talking about the potentiality of a “full and proper investigation” and we could play around with what exactly “full and proper” means.

I don’t think I’m stretching much to say that her statement implies that she feels the Uzbek prosecutor’s office to be a trustworthy and impartial body on Andijon.

And just to add a little more color, she said during the interview that she “was very struck by the fact that there was no attempt to listen to the government version [of events].” At first gloss, that appears to be a plea to tell both sides of the story, but given the particulars of the government version and her report, it’s not too much to assume she takes it as a plausible, equally valid competing theory. I’m tempted to make illustrative comparisons, but they’d be quite unfair.

Anodyne October 1, 2005 at 4:32 pm


You got that quote exactly right. Her statement certainly raises the question in my mind of whether she is taking sides with the Uzbek government or just reinforcing the idea that the Uzbek government is taking affront to the accusation that they are incapable of carrying out a “full and proper” investigation, or perhaps there is another possibility that I lack the imagination see. Like you, I also don’t know what a full and proper means in this case.

As to her statement about a lack of government representation in the report, well, the simple fact is that there was none. She seemed to be implying that a report such as that one can only alienate. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she believed that including a government statement would not only reduce hostility toward the press, but it would also serve the purpose of getting people on record so that their statements can be judged later (i.e., there are good reasons that don’t favor the Uzbek government for getting their side of the story). Again, anyone who listens to the interview can make what they will of it, including the other points she raises in the interview that you considered too generous to the government.

I can’t see how we would be worse off by knowing more about what she thinks and why she is acting in the manner she is. I would like to know her response to the question you raised in your original post. I would also like to know her response to the questions:

1. What priority do you place on preventing the next Andijon?

2. What do you think is the best path for the West to follow to achieve that objective?

3. What do you think is the best path for the West to follow to get a satisfactory accounting of the events in Andijon?

And those are just for starters.

Thanks again, for the soap box.

Anodyne October 1, 2005 at 5:02 pm


I meant to say you didn’t get that quote exactly right. Her exact quote was … “and they [the Uzbek government] do believe they are capable of carrying out a full and proper investigation.”

One relevant distinction here is that it is possible for the Uzbek government to investigate the incident, determine what happened, and still put on show trials.

Nathan October 1, 2005 at 5:34 pm

You’re right, I did get that wrong.

But I only slightly alter my point. It’s a point of narrow and academic interest to explain why the Uzbek government doesn’t want an outside investigation. Sure, we all know they are confident in their abilities. One wonders why she thinks an outside investigation isn’t necessary.

There are plenty of reasons to. I’m not that big on putting a lot of energy into it, but the impression I get from her in this interview and the DC appearance is “They have a government, therefore it’s not necessary.”

Anodyne October 1, 2005 at 6:39 pm


You’ve been more than accommodating. Lest we start to lose the forest for the trees, I’ll put this down for now with a couple of observations.

You say it’s a point of narrow and academic interest to explain why the Uzbek government doesn’t want an outside investigation. I haven’t quite reached that conclusion in this case. In particular I would like to know why Dr. Akiner has left the safety and comfort of a purely academic posture to put forward her views in the venues she has chosen. More important, after having poured over the available record I am more, not less, interested in hearing those views.

I’m also willing to go out on a limb and suggest that instead of supposing that “… she thinks an outside investigation isn’t necessary,” that you might consider the possibility that she thinks that pushing for an outside investigation may be less productive than other alternatives and that some of these alternatives may be slowly slipping away.

Nathan October 1, 2005 at 8:33 pm

Well, just so we’re clear, the only time she’s left the safety of academia that I’m aware is in going on Channel 4. The Silk Road publication and the talk in DC can both safely be called academic settings.

And, if we’re going to pick nits about meaning, I wouldn’t necessarily read in that she has a policy proposal in mind. All that we can say with certainty is that she has ideas about Andijon as detailed in her report and that she thinks the west is the subject and Uzbekistan the object in the falling out between the two.

I’m sorry, but in all but the most lawyerly of approaches, I don’t think I’m being at all uncharitable with my characterizations of her arguments based on her report, the interview, and Laurence’s account of her talk in DC.

Judging from the last of those, the alternative that she may be putting forth is in my most charitable retelling for the West to make sure it placates Uzbekistan enough so that it doesn’t fall in with Russia and China throwing the West into a new cold war in the region. There are some shaky geopolitical assumptions about the relative importance of Uzbekistan, and a very questionable principle of foreign policy that requires a lot of explaining to justify in this case. (Namely, why placating an uncooperative dictatorship that turns antagonistic to get its way is good policy in the case of Uzbekistan.)

And really, she doesn’t put it forth in any coherent way, again making me feel as if there’s no reason for the audience to be eternally understanding as to think there’s a well-formed idea that we just aren’t trying hard enough to get (and packed into the context of an interpretation of the events of a few days). If so, I leave it to her to explain what it is. In its absence, and in the context of the discussion we’re having, I find it not at all unreasonable to assume she in fact does think what a reasonable listener would assume to be her own feelings in regards to the competence and fairness of the Uzbek government are in fact her own.

Of course, this would all be much easier where it Fred Starr we’re talking about.

brian October 1, 2005 at 11:10 pm

I agree with Nathan, she hasn’t really put forth her reasonings behind her stance. They way I understand, we’re debating which one of these is more true:

A) She thinks that the Uzbek authorities are capable of investigating and reporting the situation properly themselves, and therefore an international investigation is not needed.
B) She doesn’t necessarily have confidence in the Uzbek government, but it’s not proper to subject a sovereign state to an international investigation anyway.

Neither one I agree with. If it’s A) then I frankly think she’s a fool, despite her academic credentials, based on my firsthand experience with the Uzbek justice system. If it’s B) then she’s taking the stance of saying that following proper procedures is more important than discovering the truth. Like Nathan said, this is a lawyerly way of approaching things. And unless she thinks that pushing an international investigation will turn Uzbekistan towards a worse policy (something Nathan pointed out that she hasn’t coherently stated) she’s essentially behaving like a defense attorney for the Uzbek government – an approach that many people find hard to understand. If B) is true, then to Dr. Akiner the ends don’t justify the means. But to me, it seems like a copout – trying to hide the facts behind rules and protocol and etiquitte that prevent any discovery of the actual truth.

squid123 October 2, 2005 at 11:37 am

If Akiner’s report was a big conspiracy intended to distract attention on blogs from a dictatorship that carried out a massacre to an insignificant academic polemic, then she has succeeded masterfully.

Denzil Uz October 5, 2005 at 8:56 am

Now it is went as a real McCartism – placed Murrey’s letter in Russian with Dr.Akiner’s photo. It’s not “academic polemic” anymore – it is the direct attack on academic..

Brian October 7, 2005 at 5:12 pm

Shirin Akiner and Fred Starr claim that they are seeing the big picture that everyone is missing but when analysts lose sight of the people who actually live under the governments they study, they lose all sense of reason, compassion and understanding. While Akiner makes pro forma mutterings that a tragedy occurred at Andijan, she clearly has no sympathy for any of the people who died, any of those who were on trial or any of those who suffer under economic and political policies of the Karimov government. She seems more upset about the cancellation of an entirely pointless NATO gabfest in some five star hotel in Tashkent than she does about the killing of unarmed women and children. Instead of real concern and understanding, we get her rhetorical posturing and research that would be dismissed as unworthy of a high school student. She claims to be independent and yet she comes up with views that are so close to those of the Uzbek government that Uzbek embassies are now sending around copies of her interview with the Washington Times. At some stage in the future, we will know what happened at Andijan and when we do, everyone should remember how wrong Akiner and Starr were and how they sided with one of the most despicable regimes on the planet.

A few points:

* As has already been mentioned here, she could only have had the most perfunctory interviews in Andijan. Police and professional human rights investigators will tell you that it takes hours at minimum to win someone’s trust and to get them to discuss traumatic events. No useful information could be gained in a fifteen minute meeting while government officials are present.
* She was accompanied by a deputy hokim and an official from Tashkent with close ties to the SNB.
* She spent less than 24 hours in Andijan and did not visit critical sites such as those areas where mass graves are believed to have been dug.
* She never interviewed any of the refugees, even though she could have crossed into Kyrgyzstan and spoken to them. She could visit them now in Romania if she is so concerned about the truth. Refugee testimony has often been dismissed as unreliable but refugees from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Cambodia all proved to be very accurate in their descriptions of massacres and other terrible abuses.
* She dismisses eyewitness testimony except when it is from people that she interviewed, even though the conditions under which she did those interviews make them completely worthless. Why are her eyewitnesses reliable but others, interviewed in private by professionals, not reliable? Why is it Stalinist for Human Rights Watch to keep people anonymous but laudable when Akiner does it? She claims one has to check eye witness testimony but how did she check her statements? Far from being Stalinist, it would be grotesquely irresponsible for anyone to name a witness in the current climate of repression in Uzbekistan.
* She claims there was no economic motive for the protests but she provides no evidence of this. Anyone who has been to the Ferghana Valley in the past five years could tell you of intense economic strains and discontent. She also wrote in a Swisspeace FAST update just before the massacre that: “The main source of economic discontent within the country appears to be economic hardship rather than political repression. If the government is not able to improve the economic climate the situation could deteriorate quite rapidly.” So what does she really think? There were apparently economic strains that could lead to violence in April but not in May when the massacre took place?
* Her death toll suspiciously matches that of the Uzbek government but is based on no evidence whatsoever. Where do her figures come from?
* She offers no evidence of outside involvement but keeps on reiterating claims, most recently in an interview with the Washington Times, that Chechens and others were involved. All other eyewitnesses say otherwise and yet she still trots out these ideas. What is her evidence?
* She claims NGOs and human rights groups are trying to silence her. Well, they’re doing a very poor job — she’s had a report published by a prestigious US university, she spoken in DC and New York to large audiences, she’s been interviewed by the Washington Times and appeared on Channel Four News. She’s written up a report for NATO and the British Foreign Office. Hardly seems like someone silenced but it is always satisfying to pose as the martyred figure at risk of being crushed by powerful forces. These “gatekeepers of the truth” seem to have slipped up if they were really trying to silence her. She also works for an NGO — Swisspeace. So it seems that NGOs are evil and dangerous unless they are paying her.
* On one hand she wants to be the martyred outsider being silenced by powerful forces but then she claims credibility for her report by reminding us at great length in the report of all her establishment qualifications — how she is a professor at SOAS and has spoken at heavyweight events around the world etc. You can’t both be the poor powerless voice in the wilderness and the grand establishment thinker invited into the corridors of power.
* She criticises human rights groups for their research but she never actually says what they have done wrong. Her research is perfunctory, biased, based on unreliable interviews, sloppily backed up, rhetorically slippery and dismissive of all views but her own. What exactly are the faults in the reports by human rights groups? She never says.
* She claims that HR groups know what happened there but all the reports from Amnesty, ICG and HRW actually say that most issues are unclear and that a full investigation is needed. Only Akiner actually claims to know exactly what went on in Andijan. Again rhetorical posturing rather than real analysis.
* There has been no new “colonial” reaction to Uzbekistan. Why is a concern about human rights a “colonial” reaction? Colonial governments never cared about human rights. In fact EU and US responses have been minimal despite what she says.
* Her claim about Bobor Square are just wrong. It is not the size she claims. Eyewitnesses say many of the killings went on outside the square anyway so its size is somewhat irrelevant. It is reminiscent of the Chinese government position that no killings took place in Tiananmen Square — technically true as most of the shootings were on Chang An Avenue leading off the square but profoundly dishonest.
* Likewise her claims in her report about Uzbek burial rituals are just wrong. Uzbeks don’t hold funerals without a body. The bodies were probably buried in mass graves and people were too frightened to hold any rituals. The lack of rituals does not prove that there was no massacre.
* Akiner’s comments on Uzbek NGOs are hard to reconcile with any belief in democracy. Why shouldn’t Uzbek NGOs meet with officials from the US embassy? Who is she to determine to whom Uzbeks speak? Does she really support such drastic limits on freedom of speech and assembly? Does she support those same limits in her home country and if not, why not? Does she think Uzbeks are lesser people who deserve fewer rights than the British? Why should Uzbeks not be as free to meet with US officials in Tashkent as she is free to meet with Uzbek officials in London? Her comments on Arthur Scargill are nonsense — the British government may not have liked him meeting with Soviet officials but they didn’t throw him in jail and torture him for it. Nor did they outlaw unions, gun down demonstrators and wipe out civil society. Again the slippery rhetoric but no real facts
* Her claim that international investigations only take place when a country has collapse is absurd. There was an international investigation into events in the Bosnia/Serbia and Rwanda resulting in trials. There is an international investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Hariri. All these countries have functioning governments. Her claim reveals her ignorance of international affairs and international law.
* Her comparison of the killing of the Brazilian in the subway in London with the Andijan massacre is ridiculous and even offensive. The Brazilian man was killed in what was a terrible mistake in the days after suicide bombings in the London Underground. The case was immediately investigated by an independent commission. There was no effort at a cover-up, nor was the media prevented from reporting on the case. Witnesses were not jailed or tortured. The British government gave information to Brazilian officials and allowed the Brazilian man’s family to visit the site of the killing. They offered compensation to his family. The British courts can be used as an avenue for redress by the man’s family as can the European Court of Human Rights. This is clearly different in every possible way from the Uzbek government’s actions in Andijan and its response to the aftermath.
* It is clear that Akiner gets her understanding of the views of other Central Asian countries from attending Uzbek embassy receptions in London. If she spent any time actually asking people in the neighbouring countries she would find out that they think Karimov is a murderous thug who is threatening the stability of the whole region with his ignorant and brutal policies. The Kyrgyz government is particularly unhappy with the unfounded accusations that the events in Andijan were somehow orchestrated in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajik government is furious about Uzbekistan’s behaviour and the Kazkh government is quite keen to make sure nobody associates them with what is going on in Uzbekistan. Anyway, diplomats often go to parties at other embassies — and as Craig Murray can tell you it mostly means nothing. It certainly should not be used as the basis for any geopolitical analysis.
* Why does she never criticise the Uzbek government? Why is everything the fault of the West? After 9/11, the US went to Karimov with offers of money and support as long as he would take steps to improve the economy and open up politics a crack. He just bit the hand that wanted to feed him and crushed the economy so that a handful of his cronies could benefit. He’s done nothing to meet anyone halfway on any issues. Why should the West be beholden to some tinpot dictator who rebuffs their every advance? Karimov will never reform. Time to stop pretending he will.
* Why is Laurence Jarvik so impressed by Akiner’s elegance and petiteness? What has this got to do with anything? Are her views defined by her accent? Do her clothes add credibility to her views? She’s a small elegant academic with a clipped British accent so she can’t possibly be ignorant, morally bankrupt and politically biased — it that it? Why is it that in all Jarvik’s accounts, people he disagrees with are mocked — for example the German journalist who unlike Akiner actually witnessed events at Andijan who Jarvik snears at — while Akiner gets such adoring, breathless coverage?
* Jarvik clearly has some strong views on NGOs. Judging from his publications (which make it clear he is in no position to comment on anything about Central Asia from a position of knowledge or experience and is certainly in no position to criticise Craig Murray for lacking experience of the region) he has spent his career tackling such great evils of our time as Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre. Now he is taking the good fight to those awful NGOs in Uzbekistan setting up Water Management Associations for farmers and helping rural women market their embroidery. Good for you, Laurence, these terrible people need to be brought to account for their crimes against humanity. Laurence, given the fact that Andrea Berg had to correct your report you might consider listening to what people actually say rather than imposing your own ignorance on everything.

Alexander Morrison October 24, 2005 at 5:29 pm

Spot on Brian – there’s nothing more to say really……

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