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    Central Asia
     Jan 24, 2009

The strongmen's benefactors

The Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia by David Lewis

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of Central Asia has been ruled by a set of brutal feudal patriarchs reminiscent of the despotic Khans of Medieval times. These resilient authoritarians run countries like personal fiefdoms, inscribing "first family" control over the media, political parties and businesses, and unleashing repressive security apparatuses on impoverished people. Cults of personality, megalomania and exacting restrictions on citizens' freedoms mark these regimes as particularly egregious dictatorships that have few parallels in the world.

In this new book, based on thousands of interviews in the region between 2001 and 2005, British scholar David Lewis explains the international and domestic factors that allow Central Asian tyrants to successfully hold sway. His account of autocratic survival abetted by foreign patrons uncovers complex political realities of a scantly understood part of Asia and exposes the double standards and myths of Western "democracy promotion".

Lewis commences his story with Uzbekistan, where the former communist strongman Islam Karimov has reigned with an iron fist for the past 18 years. The US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 reduced the threat of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and brought hundreds of millions of dollars in multilateral aid to Karimov in exchange for the Khanabad air base. Western diplomats began a charade of portraying the sadistic Uzbek president as a Southeast Asian-style "authoritarian modernizer" with whom one "could do business with". (p 18)

Washington equated Uzbekistan's independence from Russian control with "freedom" and showered praise on Karimov's republic of torture. In sharp contrast to their saboteur-like roles in Georgia and Ukraine, US "democratization non-governmental organizations (NGO)" like Freedom House cooperated as closely as possible with Karimov's government while it blatantly rigged the 2004 parliamentary elections. Lewis terms the entire exercise "a game of rhetoric and reality that continued for four years" during which Karimov's emboldened police state grew harsher. (p 17)

In May 2005, pent-up frustrations over unemployment, injustice and limits on border trade with Kyrgyzstan erupted into mass revolt in the eastern town of Andijan. Karimov's army opened indiscriminate fire, killing as many as 750 demonstrators in a bloodbath. Washington bought Karimov's line that it was a defensive action against Islamist terrorists and immediately expressed concern about the escape of these "terrorists" from an Andijan jail.

The tight relationship between the US and Uzbekistan worsened in the later part of 2005, but it had more to do with Karimov's gravitation into the Russian sphere rather than exposure of the reality about the Andijan massacre. Even after the Americans lost their military base, they wanted to keep their options open and avoided pushing for international sanctions of Karimov's murderous regime.

The European Union went to the extent of relaxing its sanctions in 2007 at the urging of Germany, which was eager to retain its Termez military base on Uzbek soil. Lewis summarizes the American failure in Uzbekistan as a casualty of "simplistic military-led geopolitics that undermined promoting democracy and economic reform". (p 73)

The author then moves to Turkmenistan, where another communist-era narcissist, Saparmurat Niyazov, eliminated all rivals with clinical ruthlessness and anointed himself president for life. To produce a politically compliant and educationally backward population, Niyazov deliberately restructured the national education system by cramming the syllabus with self-glorifying propaganda, thereby deskilling the country's youth. Narrow Turkmen nationalism was promoted endlessly to the detriment of Russian and Uzbek minorities, as part of an "official policy of racial purity and ethnic cleansing". (p 97)

Niyazov's foreign policy of "neutrality" was a guise for rejecting Turkmenistan's obligations under international law. Russian ambassadors were obsequious to him on account of the enormous natural gas reserves that Turkmenistan exported to their country.

In the 1990s, international interest in Turkmenistan was limited to getting a slice of its vast energy reserves. After the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001, Niyazov reaped the benefits of doubled American aid in return for allowing transit facilities for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Afghanistan. Lewis terms American policy as "softer on human rights in Turkmenistan than towards any comparable dictatorship around the world". (p 108) The European Union also pandered to Niyazov's bizarre fancies and doubled aid to his criminal regime for 2004-2009 so European companies could win contracts in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov's death in December 2006 transferred power to a cabal of his loyalists, who continued to court Western and Russian interests by dangling gas pipeline deals. As in Uzbekistan, international greed put paid to meaningful domestic political change.

Lewis devotes the next chapter to Kyrgyzstan, where Askar Akaev - head of the local communist party during the Soviet Union era - took power after independence in 1991. Unlike Karimov and Niyazov, Akaev was relatively liberal and allowed party politics to exist in Kyrgyzstan. By the year 2000, significant political opposition to him had built up as he tried to gather more powers to the presidency.

The nepotism and corruption of the presidential family alienated many Kyrgyz elites and laid the foundation for a major crisis in 2005, when the results of parliamentary elections were disputed. Opposition loyalists occupied government buildings in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad as Akaev lost his nerve. A mob took over the presidential palace in Bishkek unopposed and Akaev fled to Russia. He had granted the US military the Manas air base in 2001, unsettling Russia and China, but he had grown closer to Moscow by the time of his overthrow.

Lewis denies the importance of Western NGOs in fueling this "Tulip" revolution, but there is enough evidence to show that Washington and Moscow cultivated different opposition figures in the run-up to the elections and had a definite hand in Akaev's overthrow. In any case, Kurmanbak Bakiev's successor regime resumed authoritarian politics and criminalized the state even more than under Akaev. To claim that the revolution was an instance of democratization would be a mockery of the term.

Lewis identifies the absence of "a concept of nation" as a crucial weakness in Central Asian state-building. Alternative sub-state (tribal and clan) and super-state (Islamic) identities were stronger than nationalism in the region, making it easier for despots to develop personalized neo-feudal regimes. Tajikistan is the best example of a feudal state under President Emomalii Rahmon, who has governed like a king with a court of fawning aristocrats. Rahmon survived a violent civil war in the early 1990s and went on to eliminate political opposition with the cunning of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, Rahmon's star shone as Western powers realized that the closest access to invade Afghanistan was through the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. International recognition and support gave him "a new sense of confidence" (p 172) to embark on a fresh round of political purges of old allies and enemies.

Western-funded counter-narcotics projects enriched the very forces in the Tajik feudal pyramid that they were intended to stop. Lewis maintains that international assistance led to a "stable paralysis" in Dushanbe which made Rahmon difficult to unseat for fear that the whole state structure would collapse if he fell.

Constant exaggerations by regional governments of the "Islamic threat" and misuse of counter-terrorism for clamping down on legitimate opposition have thrown a blanket over the reality of radical Islam in Central Asia. Lewis pierces through it and argues that Saudi and Pakistani-inspired Wahhabi groups do operate in the region. Factions of the IMU are allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and have been involved in planning terrorist actions on a global scale.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir is far more popular than the IMU as it has eschewed violence as a political tactic. Its goal of reviving the utopian Islamic caliphate has won it a wide following among lower middle class youths in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Though not a pacifist organization, Hizb's alleged involvement in the Tashkent bombings of 2004 is not certain because of the complicity of state agent provocateurs in the attacks. Apart from IMU and the Hizb, Pakistan's missionary movement - Tablighi Jamaat - is also recruiting heavily among prison inmates and former criminals in Kyrgyzstan. The author remarks that Western governments lack independent intelligence to distinguish Islamist terrorists from peaceful political opposition, leaving them captive to the disinformation of the region's tyrants.

Lewis ends the book with the "complex diplomatic triangle" among Russia, China and the US that hampers democracy in the region. Central Asian dictators are adept at playing one power off against another as a way to dodge popular will for political change.

To Russian officials, the Western military presence in the region is an eyesore and a humiliation. The breakthrough for Moscow came after the Color Revolutions, when beleaguered regional regimes returned to the Russian embrace as the saviour of last resort. Like Washington, Moscow opportunistically spreads its eggs in many baskets and "frequently discusses alternative pro-Russian leaders [in the region] for the future". (p 217) As an energy superpower, Russia uses gas production and electricity generation to integrate the Central Asian states into its fold.

Despite increased trade and commercial interactions in recent years, regional fear of China "lurks not far below the surface". (p 218) Beijing's aggressive stance on boundary disputes with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has won it few friends in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Beijing's brainchild to unify the region under its leadership, has rolled back American strategic encroachment but not diminished "suspicions of Chinese ambitions". (p 222) Like the US, China lacks insights into the nuances of domestic politics in the region and has made blunders by backing failing dictators. Yet, Lewis foresees that Chinese economic penetration of the region might eventually leave Russia and the West behind.

Russian-inspired mistrust of the US was ever-present in Central Asia but it was compounded by the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, which "geopoliticized" values like democracy and human rights. Lewis quotes Uzbek democrats wondering "why the US was so supportive of their oppressors when it was so critical towards governments in, say, Belarus and Ukraine". (p 228) Washington was never interested in answering the real problems of ordinary Central Asians and added one more sordid chapter to its record of abetting tyranny.

The US could never compete with Russia in economic terms by bringing significant commercial investments to the region. The huge shift of American resources from Central Asia to the Middle East for the Iraq war left Washington in retreat mode in the region, a withdrawal that will be hard to reverse in the context of the current search for alternative supply routes to Afghanistan. Lewis concludes that "Central Asia underscores the limits of American empire rather than its global reach". (p 230)

One need go no further than this book to appreciate the link between neo-imperialism and ruination of people's lives. The West's machinations in the region were the worst of all as they paralleled sloganeering and posturing about promoting "democracy" and "freedom". Russia and China had their share of blame, but they at least had no pretensions of being on civilizing missions. Washington and Brussels loudly proclaimed liberal intent but caused greater damage than Moscow or Beijing by propping up Central Asia's savage strongmen.

The Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia by David Lewis. Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. ISBN: 9780231700252. Price: US$ 29.50, 243 pages.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in New York.

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