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(DV) Jones: Freedom's Shining Hour?







Unrest in Central Asia: Freedom's Shining Hour?
by Simon Jones
April 12, 2005

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March 24 saw the storming of Bishkek's “Winter Palace” inaugurating what oppositionists there have called the “tulip” revolution. This is a nod to Georgia's rose and Ukraine's orange revolutions, which saw the ouster of admittedly corrupt authoritarian regimes (Kuchma's chosen successor Yanukovitch and Georgia's Shevardnadze). But just as Georgia quickly reverted to authoritarianism and there is little evidence that Ukrainian corruption and stagnation are easing (there is a Russian arrest warrant for its new PM for -- guess what? -- corruption), Kyrgyzstan's moment of glory consisted more of shadowy mafia figures and their paid goons attacking the President's home and instigating the looting of a chain of stores owned by Akayev's son. Hardly the stuff of legend.

While the ouster of a corrupt leader is usually a positive development, such logic is not always valid, at least in this part of the world. The most prominent opposition consists of 1) an ex-Prime minister (Bakiev) who, while associated with southern clans, was dismissed for ordering police to shoot at southern protesters in Aksy in 2002, killing 6, and 2) an ex-Interior minister (Kulov) who is associated with northern clans and was released during the recent “events” from prison where he was serving a lengthy term for -- guess what? -- corruption.

The opposition derives its energy from 1) the self-serving US-government sponsored democracy-support “NGOs” that have proliferated since the Reagan era to facilitate US penetration of small, poor countries in the ongoing march of US empire, and 2) the shady mafia figures mentioned above, there being little evidence of either a democrat or honest entrepreneurial spirit anywhere this side of the Tien Shan mountains. Oh, and just for the record, the ouster of Akayev follows hot on the heels of his refusal to allow AWACs to be stationed at the US base in Kyrgyzstan. (The US loudly denied that there was any such request.)

Post-Reagan Democracy Promotion

Successive Democratic and Republican administrations have been busy as bees promoting democracy throughout Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some newspeak from director for Europe and Eurasia programs at the National Endowment for Democracy Nadia Diuk: “When a society is moving towards a point of protest, it takes years of preparation to acquire the information, to develop networks of informal associations and civil society organizations. It is not just the result of one group to bring the people to the streets.”

Ms. Diuk oversaw slightly more than $600,000 of grants to projects in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2004, including the establishment of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). Other projects include training for human rights programs, legal aid, and a project to publish a Kyrgyz guide to press freedoms. A nice touch: during the tulip revolution, trade unions chiefs were summoned away from an ACILS seminar to decide whether they would support the new government. Guess what? The union leaders decided they would! And in a note to its Washington headquarters, the ACILS head, who (no doubt in the interests of transparency and freedom) asked that her name not be published, concluded, “The revolution seems to be over, the opposition has taken control.”

The endowment's sister organization, the International Republican Institute, spent another $400,000 in the last year and a half specifically for training political parties in Kyrgyzstan. Newspapers and Web sites funded by the billionaire George Soros ran stories on the corruption of President Akayev that sparked much of the popular resentment against him. All told, the State Department spent $12.2 million for “democracy promotion” projects in the country, $600,000 more than it did on security aid. Until recently a similar tale can be told of the other Central Asian countries, though Kyrgyzstan has definitely been the teacher's pet. The American University of Kyrgyzstan, plus these NGO seminars, training programs, junkets to Washington, Muskie scholarships to study international relations a la American, etc. have provided an excellent opportunity for US officials to identify budding republicrats for the next generation of leaders (today's oppositionists) or merely the sons and daughters of entrenched leaders, or -- heck, why not? -- BOTH.

“The United States has consistently invested in democratization and human rights in Central Asia,” a Central Asia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Andrew Apostolou, said in an interview. “Few other governments have pushed these issues.” I wonder why? Maybe these slacker governments prefer not to stir troubled waters and stick their noses where they don't belong.

Real Diplomacy

This network of NGOs is in fact the political base for expanding US influence, and has very little to do with “democratization” and “human rights.” Central Asian society is based on clan relations, fractured but not yet moribund Soviet connections, and Islam, though the latter is probably more repressed now than in Soviet days. The American model of freethinking individual consumers governed by market forces and ballot boxes just doesn't make the grade here (if in fact it does anywhere). The political and human rights NGOs hold their endless seminars and conferences, provide sinecures for up-and-coming US quislings, and are nice diversions for adventure-seeking US college graduates.

For example, a “human rights activist” was recently arrested there -- he was called a human rights activist because he headed one of the NGOs. And he was arrested for provoking the violent unrest. Also, he had close ties with the US ambassador Stephen Young. Make sense?

What this rather rank mixture portends is continued low-level unrest and the possibility that a similar breakdown of order could erupt at the slightest provocation (earthquake, flood, expose of further corruption, reaction to police thuggery, clan rivalries, etc). It might seem to be the writing on the wall for similar (far worse) dictators in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. And then there's Tajikistan, only recently the victim of a vicious clan and religious-based civil war, now experiencing an uneasy truce. Thank you, from Ronnie right down to Dubya, for helping to usher in yet another failed state. Go team, go!

View from Uzbekistan

The latest bit of news here is that when Saakashvili's folks were strutting around Bishkek, Shevardnadze made a clandestine trip to Uz and told Karimov not to trust the USA AT ALL. As if Karimov needed any advice -- he closed the Soros Fund over a year ago, Internews 6 months later, and accreditation for foreigners must go through the Ministry of “justice” and requires one to swear not to be involved in politics. The 63 (yes!) Peace Corps volunteers who came in January still have no visas. Human Rights Watch (the best of the lot by a long way) has been given notice and the Republican Institute's activities suspended. Let's see how long the National Democratic Institute of International Affairs lasts. And who knows what other “NGOs” there are that need DIScreditation.

A local Uzbek with his head on his shoulders explained that the US has two plans underway here: either to keep puppet leaders in place, but if that doesn't work, to allow the whole region to descend into civil war (religious, clan...) which will be a serious drain on Russia (unrest + increased drug smuggling) and a way to destabilize Xinjiang, seeing as China is the growing power. Despite the US bases here, Central Asia is really not that important strategically. Not good news for poor Uz!

Progressives' Pact with the Devil

Still, many liberals argue that “revolutions” such as those in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and now Kyrgyzstan, though sponsored by the nasty US empire, still deserve the support of progressives as long as they bring with them more openness, more press freedom, and depose authoritarian leaders such as Milosevic and even Hussein (though even the Christopher Hitchenses have bitten the bullet on THAT one by now).

I find this hard to stomach, considering that the REAL US diplomacy is not the storybook promotion of democracy, but the penetration of other countries by the CIA and the promotion of US corporate interests around the world, which involves quite a different strategy, one of overthrowing democratic governments (Guatemala, Iran, Greece, Chile, Nicaragua -- the list is endless). Genuine democracy is inimical to corporations and by extension the CIA. There is no evidence internationally that I know of, aside from the post-war restoration of Germany and Japan, to suggest that US diplomacy has ever resulted in the flowering of genuine democracy (South Korea achieved some semblance of democracy very much on its own and more despite the US).

Freedom's Shining Hour

The human rights-/democracy-promotion politics in Central Asia reached its glorious apogee with the ambassadorship of Craig Murray in Uzbekistan. A young idealist, Murray caused a sensation with a scathing attack on Uzbekistan and its leader at the opening of America's Freedom House two years ago, and was finally removed from his post after more than one scandal, the last one being his denunciation of the British Foreign Office's use of information obtained under torture by Uzbek authorities. Murray has written a tell-all book about his adventures (you can read a chapter at and is now running against Foreign Minister Jack Straw in the upcoming British elections. A noble Don Quixote, without a doubt, but considering Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, this looks more like a valiant effort at pissing into the wind. (I'm hoping against hope you win, Craig.)

Russian political commentator Boris Kagarlitsky contrasts Putin's apparently bungling-and-rigid vs. Bush's slick go-with-the-flow (and try to direct it) strategies. They both want the status quo but for different reasons. Russia fears any changes will probably be for the worse, as my Uzbek sage's scenario above suggests. For Bush, the status quo is just peachy keen, but if the natives are unhappy, we can always rustle up a substitute. Whatever. The World Bank/IMF will prevail no matter who sits in whatever tin pot parliaments around the world.

One thing is sure: NEITHER Big Brother's help will ensure human rights or democracy. Kagarlitsky's hope is that people will wake up to the cynical manipulation of the US and realize their only hope for any kind of human rights is to try to rebuild a Eurasian socialist union, to do away with local greedy dictators and promote some modicum of social justice. And on that basis, hope to achieve some real human rights and democracy. Also pissing into the wind? I'm hoping against hope...

Simon Jones is a North American freelance journalist living in Uzbekistan.

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* Tashkent Through Gold-Tinted Lenses

* We are All Jews Now