Uzbekistan on the Brink?

by Joshua Foust on 8/31/2006 · 23 comments

RFE/RL certainly seems to think so.

Uzbekistan seems to trail not only Kazakhstan — which is now Central Asia’s wealthiest country — but others as well.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Tashkent and a fierce critic of President Karimov’s regime, tells RFE/RL that in the fight against dissent, the Uzbek regime is the most brutal among all Central Asian countries and even harsher than Turkmenistan.

Oh, him. Nathan has made his disdain of the man painfully obvious, and I feel little desire to venture into the reasons Murray is an unreliable source on Uzbekistan. But his presence makes me question everything else in the piece, which is mostly just quoting Murray again and again.

At the moment, Uzbekistan, undoubtedly is heading into further political and economic isolationism,” he said. “And things are simply going to get worse. You can keep people managing to just live at a very low level and you can keep the very wealthy people and President Karimov still managing to steal huge amounts of money from the economy provided that [currently high] gold and cotton prices maintain and the regime keeps its grip on power. But ultimately that’s going to lead to violent upheaval.”

Except that’s the opposite of what’s happening. Similar to the ripple effects of Tiananmen Square, the Andijon massacre, and the many smaller acts of brutality that make up political life in Uzbekistan, demonstrated that any act of defiance will be met with a swift, fatal government response. Uzbekistan’s ever-closer ties with Russia and China through the SCO are good evidence that, rather than becoming increasingly more isolated, the country is actually becoming less so, albeit with the “wrong” countries. Islam Karimov has firmly switched his country’s from a marginally western to a Sino-Russian alignment; this creates trouble for England and the U.S., but not really for anyone else.

Or, look at it on a larger scale: Uzbekistan, as a firmly consolidated authoritarian state, poses little risk of collapse. Karimov maintains such a tight hold on the economy and politics of his country, there is almost no chance of the state failing, save a large-scale catastrophic event (like invasion). Much like Cuba, Burma, or even Iran, Uzbekistan, despite the occasional peep of unrest, is in very little danger of collapsing with its current leadership.

As for the threat of Islamic extremism, well that’s another story. There was a brief spate of it in the mid-90’s, but for years extremist groups haven’t been nearly the issue they have been in neighboring Afghanistan. Part of this is that even political dissent is quashed under the banner of “stamping out extremism,” leaving very little wiggle room for any new religious groups.

While it’s nice to fantasize about the downfall of a dictator, especially one as brutal as Karimov, such fantasizing can be dangerous, especially when it begins to advocate policies with far-reaching implications. During the Andijon crisis, pundits in the west were calling for the overthrow of the Karimov regime, something I believe to be disastrous. Much like the mainstream analysis, RFE/RL is missing the point, which isn’t that Uzbekistan is on the verge of collapse, but that it is not.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Laurence August 31, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Thank you Joshua for your post. I have a question that I can’t answer: Why is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty using Craig Murray as an expert source so much these days? Have they read what he wrote about American ambassador John Herbst? Who does Radio Free Europe think is more reliable–the American ambassador who went on to Ukraine and handled the Orange Revolution– or Craig Murray, bounced in disgrace from the Foreign Office?

Who is in charge of the Central Asia desk at RFE/RL these days–Mohammed Salikh?

Joshua Foust August 31, 2006 at 7:51 pm

I’d like to know the same thing, Laurence. And as for your last question: ouch!

Laurence August 31, 2006 at 8:02 pm

Well Murray, according to his website, has apparently been on some sort of college tour in the USA accusing George Bush of war crimes (there was a Chicago Tribune interview and a reference to a California appearance)–so even Salikh may be sounding more pro-American than the former UK ambassador right now, it’s probably a disservice…

David August 31, 2006 at 10:13 pm

Musaev’s point though, that ‘Karimov’s political regime is a complete failure’ seems difficult to contest. The comparison with Kazakhstan is perhaps unfair given the Kazakhs’ oil reserves, but when you find Uzbeks treating Bishkek as a kind of Paris of the east, you know the country is in deep trouble.

Anthony August 31, 2006 at 11:54 pm

Mr. Frost,
Your insightfull, factual, and unbiased commentary on the situation here in Uzbekistan is a welcomed addition to the Registan.

Kabul resident September 1, 2006 at 2:21 am

I couldn’t agree with you more, Joshua. I’m no expert on Uzbekistan, but I did live and work there for 8 months recently. The comparison to places such as Cuba, Burma, or Iran are apt. Just because a country’s a dictatorship, doesn’t mean it’s automatically on the verge of collapse. And I think, for too long, ICG and others have fundamentally mis-read the impact of Andijon within Uzbekistan, which is that it “worked” as the government wanted to in helping to silence any further dissent. Of course that cannot last forever, but it will last for quite a while. And you’re also right about it not being isolated.


Nick September 1, 2006 at 3:58 am

Hmmm. I think a better interpretation of this RFE/RL piece should be along the lines of ‘trust the tale, not the teller’, because whatever your views of Mr Murray, don’t discount what he has to say just because you don’t like his personal style.

He isn’t an unreliable source on Uzbekistan, but by the nature of things his views are based on his experiences there during 2002-04 and he may now be no better informed on current events there than you, I or anyone else who makes an effort to seek out information about Uzbekistan. Then again, he may have better sources than you or I – I wouldn’t discount it.

As for the Orange Revolution … oh look, here comes Yanukovich to the rescue!

Nathan September 1, 2006 at 3:12 pm

I agree with Nick on Murray. Putting aside his opinions on policy, I think he is a fairly good source for information on Uzbekistan. He certainly is more reliable than many of the others out there claiming to be accurately describing the country.

Joshua Foust September 1, 2006 at 3:36 pm

While true his reputation has no bearing on the veracity of his comments, what he said was still plain wrong. Aside from a single event that resulted in mass death, there is no evidence Uzbekistan is unraveling.

Nathan September 1, 2006 at 4:41 pm

I would love to see what he said without redaction. I think that in a sense he is absolutely correct that if Uzbekistan continues on its current path, violent upheaval is in the cards. From what he said, I don’t think he’s necessarily saying that it is on the horizon. RFE/RL added the word “imminent” on their own. They attributed it to him, but I don’t get that from what they actually quoted.

An interesting contrast to this particular story is this new one. It paints a different — more accurate, I’d say — picture of the political situation in Uzbekistan while still quoting Murray quite a bit. (RFE/RL needs to branch out a bit more in who it’s interviewing as experts for their Uzbekistan stories.)

Craig Murray September 2, 2006 at 1:44 am

I really don’t undersand why Laurence has conceived quite such a violent dislike to me. But if you look at what I actually said, it was precisely that the situation is stable and can last a long time “You CAN keep people managing to live…” I then said that “ultimately” that would lead to violent upheaval – and in this context “ultimately” is pretty well an antonym of “imminently”.

I like John Herbst. I don’t agree with his politics, but he is a very nice man.

The second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, in which the United States made such huge, front page, CNN first headline fuss about democracy and vote rigging, was held on precisely the same day in late December as the Uzbek parliamentary elections. Forget vote rigging – the opposition was not even allowed to take part in the Uzbek elections. Did we hear the same indignation from the US about Uzbekistan that we heard about Ukraine the same day? No – in fact, the US laughably welcomed Uzbekistan’s 100% fake elections as “A step on the road towards democracy”. The double standards are blatant.

If Laurence views dire poverty and appalling repression as stability, fine. Stick with Karimov – otherwise the bogeyman might get you. That is not a popular view among Uzbeks. Which is why they are so keen on interviewing me, and not Laurence.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2006 at 3:32 am

Mr. Murray, no one will argue with either of the two points you just made: the U.S. is very hypocritical on democracy promotion, and Islam Karimov is a very nasty man. However, there are also two huge caveats I can think of off the top of my head:

1) Karimov kicked the U.S. military out of his country after our criticism of the massacre at Andijon, and ever since diplomats and American NGO workers have come under increasing pressure. This would indicate relations between the two governments are less than ideal.

2) You still haven’t offered any evidence that Uzbekistan is unraveling. Karimov’s brutality, and the fact that Uzbekistan is a police state, have no bearing on the stability of the Karimov regime. Historically, countries structured like his, especially when they don’t sit on any geopolitically important resources (and thus offer zero incentive for a foreign power to topple), do not fall until the dictator himself dies or voluntarily gives up power.

Since you seem to be saying the exact same thing in your comment as point 2 here, why does it seem RFE/RL was quoting you as saying Uzbekistan was on the verge of collapse? Did they badly misquote you, or do you have other reasons for believing the country may be less stable than it appears?

Laurence September 2, 2006 at 6:13 am

Re: American ambassador John Herbst:

The passages deleted from the book, Murder in Samarkand, at the request of the FCO, include a reported conversation with John Herbst, Murray’s American counterpart. Herbst and Murray discussed human rights in Uzbekistan and dangers from Islamic militants.

Murray said: “NGOs (non-governmental organisations) estimate there are some 7,000 prisoners of conscience,” to which Herbst replied: “Yes, but most of those are Muslims,” to which Murray responded “I’m sorry?” Herbst corrected himself, saying: “I mean Muslim extremists. Most of those prisoners are Muslim extremists.”

Murray said he had not included the comments in the book because they were probably a slip of the tongue — albeit, he added, probably “a Freudian slip”, reflecting the American view that the Uzbek regime was justified in locking up suspected militants.

In the same talk, Herbst mused to Murray that if fundamentalists came to power there would be an end to “watching the pretty Uzbek girls go by in T-shirts and skirts”.

Laurence September 2, 2006 at 6:15 am

More on Herbst (both quotes from Murray’s website):

The irony of Murray’s speech, some say, is that it caused friction between the US and British embassies √ the two foreign representations that are most concerned with democracy and human rights in Uzbekistan. US Ambassador John Herbst was present at the Freedom House function and had delivered, according to observers, a typical American take on human rights in Uzbekistan– that problems exist but progress has been made. After this predictable address, Murray delivered his broadside. “The British ambassador’s speech was an embarrassment for the United States. It showed up the crack in the shield and many thought that he upstaged [Herbst],” said someone who was present.

Laurence September 2, 2006 at 6:23 am

Finally, this item from Nick Paton Walsh’s 2005 Guardian story posted on Muslim Uzbekistan (

A local analyst said that Mr Murray and the then US ambassador, John Herbst, were immediately at each others’ throats. “Craig believed that the way to deal with Islamic extremism is to engage with it, and encourage the moderates,” the analyst said. “I think it is fair to think that while Herbst did not agree with torturing extremists, he was not that against their being locked up. When the two first met, I remember Craig saying to me: ‘I think that man hates me’.”

Craig Murray September 2, 2006 at 6:45 am

Those passages document the political differences of approach between John Herbst and me. They are in no way nasty about Herbst. I don’t get Laurence’s point, unless it is a belief that nobody should be allowed to disagree with the US Ambassador.

Let me be plain. I am not in the least anti-American. I am anti-Bush (just like most Americans now). I would very much welcome American influence and investment in Central Asia. But the last period of Uzbek/US cooperation was perverted by the false prospectus of the War on Terror, and a collusion in treating Karimov as someone who was a bastion against Islamic extremism, when what he was mostly fighting against was democracy.

Joshua, there has been a welcome change to a more realistic US view of Karimov since he served notice to quit on the US base. But to portray that as a reaction to US criticism of the Andijan massacre is ridiculously simplistic. In fact US reaction to Andijan was late and weak. The renversement of Uzbek diplomatic alignment had much deeper underlying causes in machinations by Gazprom and Putin, and Karimov’s rejection of the capitalist model as promoting independence of thought (which is why capitalism is a good thing!)

Dictators do sometimes get overthrown – think Ceaucescu. Sometimes they hang on for life. I don’t think Karimov will manage to hang on for life. But I am not holding my breath.

I did not say that I thought his fall was imminent, and to be fair to RFE/Radio Liberty, I don’t think if you read closely they do say I said that. The quotes they give in inverted commas are exactly what I did say. So they have not misquoted me.

Craig Murray September 2, 2006 at 6:47 am

Incidentally, I just read Tamerlane’s Children by Robert Rand, which is wonderful.

Laurence September 2, 2006 at 11:38 am

From RFE/RL’s transcript: “Murray says a popular upheaval is imminent.”

Nathan September 2, 2006 at 12:09 pm

I don’t take as gospel truth journalistic characterizations of others’ statements. What they actually quoted does not, to me anyway, necessarily imply a timeframe.

Laurence September 2, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Nathan, you are are a generous soul: your philosophy accepts everything that is–and its opposite.

God bless you. The world is a better place for your open-mindness!

Amicus Judicae September 12, 2006 at 12:17 pm

Craig Murray re-surfaced on 3 September with a piece in the prestigious Sunday Outlook Section of the Washington Post: “Her Majesty’s Man in Tashkent.”

Craig is shining his moral compass again which I guess can’t hurt sales for his new book. In the WashPost article he notes that he was cleared of all charges levelled against him due to “…a lack of evidence.”

As someone who lived in Tashkent during Craig’s stint as party animal-cum-ambassador, “…a lack of evidence” must mean that the investigators looked in the wrong place.


Josh September 12, 2006 at 12:20 pm

I saw that, but didn’t really want to comment on it, as it was mostly vanity. But good call nevertheless.

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