How the West empowers Central Asian tyrants

The regime of Islam Karimov, who ruled the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, once had a couple of dissidents boiled alive.  When the grandmother of one of them complained publicly, she was sentenced to six years in prison.

People under his rule could be jailed, tortured or killed for the slightest reason.  Police raped women at will.  His country’s chief export crop, cotton, was picked by forced labor.  Karimov’s family, especially his daughter Gulnara, and his cronies controlled the economy.

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But he was not a primitive tyrant ruling a backward country remote from the centers of civilization.  Rather he and his fellow Central Asian dictators were intimately connected with global finance and politics, and owed their power to those connections..

International banks helped Karimov and his family take their wealth out of the country and hide it.  Russian, American and Chinese governments completed for his favor, and turned a blind eye when his secret services reached out to capture and kill political opponents living abroad.

Corrupt Third World dictators that Western governments support are not mere puppets.  Empowering them means compromising and corrupting institutions that are supposedly based on the rule of law.


I recently read two books about Central Asia – MURDER IN SAMARKAND: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror by Craig Murray (2006) and DICTATORS WITHOUT BORDERS: Power and Money in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathersaw (2017).   I’ll first comment on Murray’s book, then on the other book.

Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian nations were part of the Soviet Union until it broke up.  Their governments were continuations of the former Communist governments.

Craig Murray was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004. His descriptions of life in Uzbekistan reminds me of accounts of the USSR in the 1930s

He was a colorful character—a drinker, a womanizer and a proud Scot who appeared in formal occasions in Highland dress complete with kilt.  But his physical and moral courage were indisputable.

He once found himself with a stalled car on a country road, alone except for his female interpreter, a female staff member and the widow of a murder victim.

A couple of roughnecks approached, and the widow whispered Murray that they were the murderers of her husband.  Murray pushed one of them in the chest, told them he was the British ambassador and to get out of his way.  He did.

He in theory was supposed to advocate for human rights laws that the British government had endorsed, but in reality, his superiors wanted him to go along with U.S. policy, which was to support Karimov as a valued supporter of the U.S. “war on terror” and interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Uzbekistan was part of the Northern Supply Route, by which U.S. forces in Afghanistan are supported by way of Russia and Central Asia, and it allowed a U.S. air based on its territory.

This mean that Murray was expected to overlook at lot, as he told a Guardian reporter at the time:

People come to me very often after being tortured.  Normally this includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids including complete immersion of the body.  This is not uncommon.  Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities.

Source: The Guardian

He once interviewed an old professor about imprisoned Uzbek dissidents.  A short time later, the body of the professor’s 18-year-old grandson, bearing the marks of torture, was dumped on the professor’s doorstep.  That is the “murder in Samarkand” in the title.

The U.S. ambassador strongly opposed Murray’s meddling.  At the time was Uzbekistan was a destination for American “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists.  The CIA set great store by information obtained by torture and so did the British government.

Murray was expected to not only whitewash the Karimov regime’s human rights record, but its dismal economic record, its hostility toward independent and foreign business and the fact that it was a transit point for the Afghan opium trade.

He publicly fought the Foreign and Colonial Office and lost.  A lot of Murder in Samarkand Is taken up with his love life and his defense against charges made against him, but it is also is a good political portrait of Uzbekistan, which unfortunately is still relevant.

In 2005, the year following Murray’s departure, there was a mass protest and massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan.  Troops opened fire on a crowd with AK-47s and machine guns.  An estimated 750 to 1,500 people were killed.  World public opinion was outraged.  The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions.  Karimov broke his ties with the United States and shut down the U.S. air base there.


Unlike Murray, Alexander Cooley of Columbia University and John Heathershaw of the University of Exeter are academics.  Their book, Dictators Without Borders, is based on a fragmentary documentary record, including court trials, articles by investigative journalists and WikiLeaks files on U.S. diplomatic correspondence for the region.  Their book is incomplete, but reliable.

They said the title of their book reflects the fact that the dictators of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan operate without moral or legal limits.  They torture their enemies and declare non-violent protestors to be terrorists.

They extort the private sector (to the extent it is allowed to exist) and they pilfer from the public purse.  The chapter on Uzbekistan, for example, tells how Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova used shell companies to extort money from firms wanting to do business in Uzbekistan.  To keep this article from being too long, I’m going to focus just on Uzbekistan.

Gulnara Karimova is believed to have controlled a Swiss company, Zeromax, which controlled 80 percent of the country’s exports of natural resources to Russia.  Another company she controlled, named Takilant, received bribes from telecommunications companies for permits to enter the Uzbekistan market, typically by agreements in which Takilant agreed to buy shares in the target company which were later sold back at a greatly inflated price.

Cooley and Heathershaw said the title also reflects the fact that the dictators operate beyond their territorial borders.  They keep their money abroad.  Their hidden offshore companies provide insurance against rebellions they always fear may come.

Networks of brokers and financiers help them to conceal their business dealings and the origins of their personal fortunes.   They help the dictators and their cronies buy real estate in London and hire lobbyists in Washington.

Gulnara Karimova lived the life of a rich celebrity abroad, attending Harvard University, representing Uzbekistan at the United Nations, and having careers as a fashion designer and as the head of a charitable foundation.  Cooley and Heathershaw wrote that she was the most hated person in Uzbekistan.

In 2013, however, she was stripped of her diplomatic immunity and, in 2014, convicted of economic crimes and sentenced to five years of “restricted liberty.”  Cooley and Heathershaw think she got on the wrong side of Rustom Inoyatov, the head of the country’s powerful National Security Service (SNB).

The authors also told how Central Asian dictators abuse diplomatic relations, diplomatic immunity and extradition treaties as a means of extending their power into other nations.  Just like the rulers of the old Soviet Union, they also arrange assassinations and kidnappings of enemies in exile.  They listed the fate of 16 Uzbek exiles from 2011 to 2014 – four assassinated, four kidnapped and brought home, two died in custody and six mysteriously disappeared.

Islam Karimov died in 2016.  His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has released some political prisoners, eased up on  press censorship and replaced the head of the SNB.   How real is this change?  Time will tell.

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Central Asia is still important to the United States as a supply route to its forces in Afghanistan.  It also is important to China as a crossroads for its “New Silk Roads” reaching into Russia, Europe and the Middle East.

In 2007, Russia consented to the U.S. setting up its Northern Distribution Network, with supplies transported from Baltic ports across Russia and Central Asia.  This was shut down in 2015, after U.S.-Russian relations cooled, but there is an alternate route going from the Black Sea across Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

If Central Asia rulers were more enlightened, they could leverage U.S. aid to create transportation infrastructure for the region.  But in practice, the governments are more interested in graft than in maintaining the structures.

The same is true of the Chinese investments in railroads, oil and gas pipelines and roads.  China’s economic and geopolitical strategy is based on the economic development of the interior of Eurasia, as a source of raw materials and as a route to markets in Europe.  This could be a great opportunity for Central Asians, but Cooley and Heathershaw doubt the dictators will take advantage of it.

This gives reason for hope that Western governments and financial institutions can someday disentangle themselves from Third World dictators and practice the human rights principles that they preach.

They close their book with a list of proposed reforms, most of which involve transparency.

One proposal is a call to make public the true owners of anonymous corporations, and another to make known the true buyers of luxury real estate in Western countries, to make it harder for dictators and grafters to hide their money.

Another proposal is to pressure universities and think tanks to make known their sources of international funding.  They said research institutions have often ignored or whitewashed abuses by regimes that have given them donations.

The U.S. Corrupt Practices Act and similar laws in other Western countries require banks and investors to do due diligence to make sure they aren’t supporting criminal or corrupt activities.  Cooley and Heathershaw said the due diligence studies should be made public, and anti-corruption laws really enforced.

The encouraging thing about Murder in Samarkand and Dictators Without Borders was the number of people in the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries who care about truth and the rule of law, including some in government.  Courts did attempt to do justice.  Investigators and journalists did do their jobs.  Things aren’t hopeless.


Murder in Samarkand radio play.  A 30-minute drama based on Murray’s book.

The envoy who said too much by Nick Paton Walsh for The Guardian.

Review: Murder in Samarkand by David Leigh for The Guardian.

International of Torture: The Documents the Crown Would Like to Censor by Craig Murray for Voltaire Network.  These are documents that Murray says he was forbidden to quote in his book, allegedly for copyright reasons.

Dictators without borders by John Heathershaw and Alexander Cooley for openDemocracy (2014).  A preview of their 2017 book.

Uzbekistan: 10 years after the Andijan massacre by Mansur Mirovalev for Al Jazeera.

10 years after Andijan massacre, Uzbek refugees remain silenced by fear by Dean Cox for EurasiaNet and The Guardian.

Book Review: Dictators Without Borders by Anton Moisenko for the London School of Economics Review of Books.

Book Review: Challenging myths about Central Asia by Lisa Kaaki for Arab News.

Uzbekistan: Events of 2017 by Human Rights Watch.

As Authoritarianism Spreads, Uzbekistan Goes the Other Way by Andrew Higgins for the New York Times.

Where Is Googoosha, the Missing Uzbek First Daughter? by Rod Nordland for the New York Times.

Craig Murray web log.

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2 Responses to “How the West empowers Central Asian tyrants”

  1. Fred Says:

    Too bad I have to like a post instead of assigning it a weeping face. Which president said of a dictator, “He may be an SOB but he is our SOB”?


    • philebersole Says:

      The SOB quote is something that President Roosevelt supposedly said about Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, or maybe Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Fulgencio Batista of Cuba.


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