President Karimov is a ruthless tyrant, says Daniel Hannan, but he supports the war on terror and is backed by the West. He shouldn’t be
A strange little row has been bubbling away over the past two months concerning our ambassador to Tashkent. You may have seen the odd headline about it in the inside pages of the broadsheets but, unless you have a particular interest in diplomatic affairs, I suspect your eye will quickly have skipped on to the next story. Why, after all, should we be especially interested in Uzbekistan? A tremendously important region for Britain during the Great Game, of course, but hardly of vital strategic interest today.
Yet the curious recall of Craig Murray ought to interest us for two reasons: first, it tells us a great deal about how the Foreign Office operates; and second, it raises serious questions about our conduct of the war on terror.
Before we come to that, though, I ought to declare an interest. I have been associated with Uzbekistan for several years through the European Parliament. (Under the rules, each MEP is automatically put on a foreign delegation. Goody-goody federalists get America or, if they prefer, the Caribbean; I got Uzbekistan.) It is a mesmerising country. Simply reciting the names of its cities — Khiva, Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand — makes me feel as though I am reading Omar Khayyam. But it is run by a gang of former communists who treat it more or less as their private property.
Since the break-up of the USSR, Uzbekistan has actually become poorer and less free. Opposition parties have been proscribed, critical journalists silenced and some 7,000 dissidents incarcerated. Despite the overthrow of communism, many Soviet-era regulations remain, including a ban on the private ownership of land. Whereas Uzbeks used at least to be able to move within the USSR, they are now effectively prevented from travelling beyond their borders.
The regime has become especially repressive since 11 September 2001. President Islam Karimov was quick to support the war on terror, granting the US a base from which to conduct operations in Afghanistan. In return, he has been allowed a much freer hand against his opponents. Anyone who criticises the regime is now labelled an Islamist, ensuring that there will be little international protest if he is mistreated.
When Craig Murray arrived in Tashkent, he did not like what he found. There are limits to what an ambassador may do, of course, but, within the parameters of diplomatic protocol, he did his best to push for liberalisation. Sensibly, he focused on economic reform, calculating that if private property and free contract were established, democracy would follow. Human-rights activists in Uzbekistan were delighted, believing that their association with the British embassy would bring them a measure of protection. The apparat, conversely, was horrified.
Murray is one of the few British ambassadors to whom I have warmed. Many of our diplomats compare poorly with their EU counterparts, often giving the impression that they are carrying out their contracts to the letter, like the bolshiest kind of public-sector worker. But here was a man who was passionately interested in his host country and in Britain’s influence there. I was just beginning to revise my opinion of the FCO when it recalled him.
Why it did so is still not clear. In late August, Murray was ordered to London, presented with accusations about his private life, and instructed to resign or face disciplinary procedures. He rejected the allegations and flew back to Tashkent, only to find himself barred from his office. He then returned to Britain. The Uzbeks claimed that he had been sacked, while the Foreign Office insisted that he was undergoing medical treatment (it would not say what kind). At this stage, a minor squall began to blow up: articles appeared in newspapers, questions were asked in Parliament. Then, last week, Murray was mysteriously reinstated.
While it is obviously impossible to know whether there was any substance in the complaints against him, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Murray would have been fired but for the fuss kicked up on his behalf by a handful of politicians and journalists. Which raises the scary question: how many other able diplomats have been quietly dropped simply because they did not fit in with the FCO’s steady-as-she-goes, Europhile, anti-democratic assumptions?
For it is beginning to look as though Murray’s real crime was to criticise a regime which the Western allies want on their side. Since the Afghan campaign, the US state department has indulged Karimov in an old-fashioned, Cold War sort of way: ‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.’ In such a climate, it is inconvenient to be told that Karimov is doing some of the things that are now cited as reasons for having deposed Saddam. Poor Murray is in the position of someone trying to publicise the Katyn massacre in 1943: it does not fit the narrative, so no one wants to hear.
Yet we should remember the whole purpose of the war on terror. The idea, as I understood it, was that it was no longer enough simply to round up the bombers one by one. Rather, we had to drain the swamps in which they hatched by spreading freedom through the Islamic world. Indeed, Tony Blair retrospectively justifies the Iraq war almost wholly on the grounds that it toppled a nasty tyrant.
Yet in Uzbekistan we are propping up precisely such a regime. In an eerie repetition of what we did in Iraq during the 1980s, we are supporting a brutal dictator simply because he has had the wit to call himself an opponent of Islamism.
The worst of it is that by doing so we are helping to create the very thing we fear: Islamic fundamentalism. Islam has never been strong in Central Asia. Even before the Russians came, alcohol was widely drunk, prayer observed fitfully. Now, after 70 years of state atheism, the old faith has all but disappeared. A visitor sees neither beards nor headscarves, and hears no calls to prayer.
Yet official persecution could give the fundamentalists their first opening in the region. Ordinary Uzbeks, constantly told that all opponents of the regime are Islamic radicals, are understandably wondering whether there might not be something in this ideology.
President Karimov’s contention that he is besieged by Muslim extremists will eventually prove self-fulfilling. The few secular dissidents in Uzbekistan are confined to the Russian-speaking cities, and in any case seem more interested in picking up awards from Western human-rights groups than in building a popular opposition movement. The Islamists, by contrast, are prepared to share the privations of the masses and to risk torture and death.
They could easily be defeated, of course: economic reforms, private property and free elections would see to that. Instead, we are leaving them as the only genuine alternative to a hated regime. We made the same mistake in Iran, and seem bent on repeating it in Saudi Arabia. Will we never learn?
Daniel Hannan is Conservative MEP for South-east England.