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A Letter from Uzbekistan

by SIMON JONES

 

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

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, is scheduled to 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 its President Karimov loves to qualify it. Israel is one of its closest (though increasingly discreet — I wonder why?) allies. (A touching detail — Uzbekistan 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. Exchange programs for Uzbek 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’.

And all this without a shot being fired. Keeping that in mind (no small difference), Uzbekistan is the future for a free Iraq, I suddenly 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 stagnation 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. And American ‘goods’ and pop culture everywhere. Most people now 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 for the US. A nice legacy from the moribund Soviet Union.

As for Uzbek–Israeli relations, they are so on the up–and–up, UzAir announced plans to start a direct flight Tashkent–Tel Aviv (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 love fest 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 etal 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 more 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 Uzbek 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, Syrians, oh yes, and Iraqis.… and fools seldom differ.

I’ve just thought of a good advertising copy to attract US citizens to Uzbekistan (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 neofascism. One leader — one vote! Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the K and his friends!”

Who says Uzbekistan 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. Uzbekistan 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 Uzbek landmines on the as yet undelimited borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, ‘planted’ by Uzbekistan to deter ‘terrorists’ without even informing its neighbors. Visions of a greater Turkestan anyone? Or will Uzbekistan slip quietly back into its role as world backwater, just another tin–pot US–sponsored dictatorship, mind you a very conveniently placed one geopolitically, with the biggest military base in Central Asia in US hands?

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. 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.

SIMON JONES is a western NGO rep who has worked in Uzbekistan. He can be reached at SJ958@yahoo.com

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