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The strongmen’s benefactors The Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia

The strongmen’s benefactors

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.

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.

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 Tempttions 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.

BY David Lewis