Indulging the Autocracies of the FSU

by Joshua Foust on 12/14/2010 · 6 comments

Here at, we’ve almost made it a sport to poke fun—sometimes gently, sometimes not—at the ridiculous antics of the family members of the Former Soviet Union states. It should come as no surprise that many of the dynasties currently choking Central Asia are, in fact, rotten to the core… though, as Steve LeVine points out, the Wikileaks cables give us some depressingly precise details:

The cable, sent January 27 by Charge Donald Lu, is an impressive profile of Aliyeva. One section relates a story regarding her “substantial cosmetic surgery.” During a 2008 visit to Baku by Lynne Cheney, the wife of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the youthful-looking Aliyeva and her two daughters mingled with White House, U.S. embassy and security staff while they awaited the arrival of the Cheney vehicle. “Which one of those is the mother?” a puzzled U.S. Secret Service agent asked of his colleagues, referring to the three Aliyeva women. No one could figure it out on sight, before one finally decided, “Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.” On the other hand, Lu found a downside to the facelift: “On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.”

Oh, snaps. Steve goes on to detail some digs taken by Tashkent-based diplomats at our favorite social punching bag, Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov. It’s all pretty standard stuff—outrageous acts of vanity, hints and the occasional outright example of shocking thuggery propping it up, floating on a veritable sea of corrupt-to-the-core business deals enriching single families at the expense of their entire countries.

It’s easy to go overboard with this stuff. Yes, these are bad people—not just the worst sort of tacky post-Soviet new money but capricious, petty, and even violent criminals in many cases. But there’s no need to exaggerate, which is all too easy to do if you’re not careful. For example, Der Spiegel ran a story similar to Steve’s, claiming to detail shocking examples of American-coddled excesses in places like Kazakhstan. The problem, as Christian Bleuer notes, is that big chunks of it are, in essence, faked.

Let’s not forget the U.S. isn’t the only country actively trying to secure its access and influence in the region. The Wikileaks cables also detail French companies (abetted by French diplomats) indulging the excesses of Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for example (whose excesses are, sadly, not so different from his predecessor’s). So America, while possibly the most visible, is not the only Western country feeding into the familial excesses of Central Asia.

So yes, let us wring our hands that foreign policy involves dealing with bad people; but please—maintain a little perspective too.

(Before you even start: this does not prove the “value” of Wikileaks. None of this is new, at all, for long-time watchers. All Wikileaks provides is a convenient hook for talking about it again. Nothing more, nothing less.)

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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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carl December 15, 2010 at 12:10 am

Your parenthetical at the end made me laugh. “Don’t you even start…”

KZBlog December 15, 2010 at 1:04 am

The one positive thing I would say about these gossipy leaks is that it might help to make them realize that this sort of thing is not actually normal at all. I do suspect that when members of the ruling elite hire pop stars to sing at their birthdays, give solid gold statues as presents, and otherwise throw their money around, that they think that Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy all do the same thing. Possibly the opening of their secrets will lead them to realize that in fact political leaders and their family are not expected to flaunt it at every turn.

It might also lend some legitimacy to what people knew all along. Unfortunately one never knows what is rumor here and what is fact. But now we have people who have been in the presence of public officials while they were drunk or while they discussed corruption and taking bribes. Down the road it might contribute to people wanting actual democracy and transparency in their governments.

Turgai December 15, 2010 at 5:10 am

“let us wring our hands that foreign policy involves dealing with bad people; but please—maintain a little perspective too.”

Well, why should this be any different today that with the Mobutus, Somozas and Pahlavis back in the seventies? The question remains: is one ready to deal with the consequences?

upyernoz December 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm

just to respond to the bottom parenthetical, i don’t think there’s any real question that there is some value to wikileaks. leaked cables do add to the public’s understanding, which is valuable. that doesn’t mean the leaks are good, or that the negatives (e.g. the damage it will do to the U.S.’s ability to conduct diplomacy) don’t outweigh that value.

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Brian December 28, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Along the same lines as indulging the Aliyev’s is indulging the Kyrgyz government in order to keep the base at Manas.

One thing I stumbled over in a Wikileaks cable is something I hadn’t heard before:

“The Tajik government presses us for greater benefits in return for support on Afghanistan. The Tajiks think Uzbekistan is keeping all NDN-related business for itself; they want more traffic to transit Tajikistan, more infrastructure to support that traffic, and the United States to purchase Tajik goods for forces in Afghanistan. We currently purchase small amounts of Tajik bottled water for ISAF. They have indicated they would be happy for the U.S. establish an air base in Tajikistan. They see U.S. involvement in the region as a bulwark against Afghan instability, and as a cash cow they want a piece of.”

This is the first time I’ve heard about the Tajiks openly welcoming the Americans on their soil.

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