Letter from Uz

By John Mcleod | March 24, 2003

TASHKENT – It’s fascinating these days flicking back and forth from BBC to DeutscheWelle: a polite interview with Richard Perle vs, say, a child psychologist explaining how traumatic it is for children to see war, with touching scenes of German children worrying about children in Baghdad; words of wisdom from the BBC ‘specialist’ on Iraq, blood dripping from his fangs, vs a profile of a professional peace organizer in Stuttgardt. I decided some time ago that I couldn’t stomach CNN, so I didn’t even notice that they’ve been kicked out of Iraq for being a mouthpiece for the US administration. Uzbek TV scarcely mentions the war, and then only in glowing terms that would make Fox itself blush. Thank God for the German mouthpiece, however full of marbles!

Great minds think alike …

A light bulb flashed upstairs when I read online that Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who has close ties with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, will head the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, and Marc Grossman, US under-secretary of state said that one of the first decisions of a new Iraqi government would be to recognize the state of Israel.

The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Eureka! That is precisely what the US has accomplished here in Uzbekistan, the US’s new “strategic ally” in Central Asia, as Uz’s President Karimov loves to qualify it. Israel is one of its closest (though increasingly discreet – I wonder why?) allies. (A touching detail – Uz and Israel are the only countries that support the US embargo on Cuba each year at the UN.) Americans with even a whiff of ‘businessman’ about them automatically get 3-year visas here. Exchange programs for Uz teens to live with American families, missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers – all help to spread a homey gloss over it all: a kind of ‘home away from home’.

All this was accomplished without a shot being fired. Keeping that in mind (it’s no small difference) Uz is the future for a free Iraq, I realized with a shudder.

Uzbekistan, nominally a Muslim country, is run by ex-Communist Party functionary President Islam Karimov, much as it was run in Soviet days, only minus the progressive foreign policy and solid if skin-of-the-teeth social welfare policies that gave the Soviet Union its raison d’etre, and which everyone here remembers with great nostalgia. As in the gloomiest of the Soviet days, the media is tightly controlled and any whiff of opposition is ruthlessly stamped out. As in Soviet days, even moderately devout Muslims are persecuted, though in much greater numbers now (according to Human Rights Watch 5000+ are in jail). Of course, there is much more corruption now and many, many more police. American ‘goods’ and pop culture are everywhere, and most people live in what can only be called poverty. But they are hard-working and there are lots and lots of goodies in the raw material field to export. A tasty little morsel, Uzbeckistan.

As for Uz-Israeli relations, they are so on the up-and-up, UzAir announced plans to start a direct flight Tashkent-Haifa (can you think of a more obscure air route?). Israeli products, from Dead Sea beauty lotions to cheese (?) are prominently on display. Who says Israel doesn’t have Muslim friends?

One of the main reasons for this lovefest from the Uzbek side is that many Bukharan Jews emigrated to Israel and America and now encourage and facilitate close business ties with Uzbekistan. Rumour has it that one of the main Uzbek mafia groups is based in Israel. Who said the Jewish diaspora is passe? Come to think of it, maybe the ‘K’ could give Bush, Sharon, et al some good advice as they formulate their plans for Iraq (have you ever seen a more grise eminence than Sharon?) on how to keep the lid on an oppressed Muslim nation.

The US Embassy makes token efforts from time to time about democracy and freedom of speech, etc., but, hey, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Meanwhile, these days, the ‘K’ is making good use of Bush’s preoccupation with more obstreperous Muslims in the ‘I’ country to clamp down on an already brain-dead media here. The Uz assistant foreign minister gathered newspaper editors together recently to make sure they were solidly behind the official pro-war line, which he announced when his friend the Slovak prez Schuster visited last week. (It must be nice to have so many good friends.) No cozying up to Russia on this one.

Of course NO ONE actually supports the war here except the ‘K’, but of course that’s all that matters in a US-client ‘new democracy’. Take note, Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, oh yes, and Iraqis.

… and fools seldom differ

I’ve just thought of a good advertising copy to attract US citizens to Uz (tourism is a tad sluggish these days) – "Come and see your future! We have perfected your democracy, which your Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries and businessmen have kindly helped us install. It’s called fascism. One leader – one vote! Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the ‘K’ and his friends."

Who says Uz is underdeveloped? The US is the underdeveloped one on the political front! But then, once its economy is militarized to death, political progress will no doubt soon follow. The present rush to stifle all civil liberties is already making up for lost time.

To get serious for a moment, this whole scenario is very frightening. Uz is the ‘powerhouse’ of Central Asia (read classroom bully). Of course all the world’s bullies will be delighted to footnote the Bush doctrine in future when they decide to preempt supposed terrorists across their borders, and the ‘K’ will be no exception. There have been dozens of deaths and injuries from Uz landmines on the border with Kyrgyzstan, ‘planted’ to deter ‘terrorists’ without even informing Kyrgyzstan, not to mention the stand-offs on the Kazakh and Turkmen borders. Visions of a greater Turkestan anyone? Or will Uz slip back into its role as world backwater, just another tin-pot dictatorship, although a very conveniently placed one geopolitically – ‘our bastard’, as an earlier American president put it with respect to a wretched Central American country in the grips of a similar dictator?

Back to surreality, on the art scene, at the Museum of Modern Art, the present exhibition is ‘Rodeo’: a celebration of the American ritual torture and killing of cattle, complete with video performances and a creche with straw and cowboy hats (I’m NOT making this up). Meanwhile, the ‘K’ keeps building pyramids, which for some reason require high walls or spiked fences, immediately start falling apart, and worst of all, occupy former laid-back overgrown Soviet parks and dilapidated buildings, all the wonderful things that gave that certain frisson to Soviet reality.

That’s all for now. As you can see, all is well in this best of all possible worlds. Now back to the future.

1164 w. March 24, 2003


Posted in:

More from John Mcleod: