Photo Gallery: The New Great Game

Foto: ? Staff Photographer / Reuters/ REUTERS

Appeasing the Uzbek Dictator Who's Afraid of the Ruler of the Silk Road?

Uzbekistan is both a nation of terror led by brutal dictator Islam Karimov and a partner of the West that is an important staging ground for NATO's war in Afghanistan. Its story is best told through the eyes of two men -- the flamboyant former British ambassador and the current top German diplomat in the country.
Von Erich Follath und Christian Neef

Some cities are tedium set in stone, joyless places where people don't live but merely survive.

And then there are the cities whose names alone are the stuff of legend. They are places of stunning geography, impressive history and breathtaking architecture. Three of these cities are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, located on the legendary Silk Road in Uzbekistan in Central Asia, lined up like a string of pearls, each rising up from the shimmering heat of the surrounding deserts like mirages. These are magical places.

Their turquoise domes, madrassas decorated with mosaics and ornate caravanserai roadside inns are not only evidence of the skill of those who built them, but also of the ambitions of the ethnic groups that proudly left their mark on the region in past centuries: Persians, Greeks, Mongols and Turks. In the 19th century, the British and the Russians competed over strategic bases and mineral resources in the region, in what was known as the "Great Game." After 1920, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin drew the arbitrary borders that would later outline the Central Asian nations. Today, the region's conflicts are crystallizing once again.

Uzbekistan is the most populous and probably most important of the new Central Asian countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union. Islam Karimov, the Communist Party's first secretary in Uzbekistan prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, easily transitioned into his new role as president, brutally eliminating all opposition and placing members of his family into positions of power. Today Karimov has his eye on billions in future business. Uzbekistan is the world's sixth-largest cotton producer and has massive reserves of natural gas as well as gold and uranium deposits. It is potentially a wealthy country.

A Supply Base for Afghan War

For the world's major powers, there is much more at stake. Military bases, for one thing. Uzbekistan borders on Afghanistan and serves as a supply base for the war against the Taliban. The Germans have their largest and most important supply base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez. They are also interested in building oil and gas pipelines from Uzbekistan that could help satisfy Western Europe's energy needs. Finally, drug prevention is an important issue for the major powers. Some of the world's most important heroin trafficking routes pass through the region and are controlled by Islamists, who threaten to deploy their fighters to commit acts of terror well beyond the borders of these countries.

This explains why we are now experiencing a revival of the Great Game. Only this time a few other powerful players have joined in: the United States, China, Iran, India and Germany.

Once again, they are competing for influence in the region. And, as in the past, foreign envoys play a central role. Just like in the old days, they have a presence on the ground and send reports back home.

A Briton from Norfolk, who is extroverted, narcissistic and combative, and a German from the town of Hüls in western Germany, who is introverted, reliable and accommodating, managed to land their dream jobs. They were named the ambassadors of their respective countries in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

But how should they handle an authoritarian country that is so important for the West? Should they flatter the dictator to wrest concessions from him? That would be in the interests of European politicians and military officials -- and perhaps also in the interests of the Uzbek civil rights activists behind bars, who wouldn't stand a chance without a gentle, behind-the-scenes slap on the wrist. Or should they confront the dictator with his misdeeds, sharply criticize his human rights violations and expose the regime, and thus risk a breakdown in relations and the loss of all influence? And how much scope do the ambassadors, who are largely expected to follow their governments' instructions, actually have to make their own decisions on such matters?

With their different approaches and diametrically opposed characters, the only thing these two men have in common is their sincere commitment to a difficult host country. British Ambassador Craig Murray, 51, and German Ambassador Wolfgang Neuen, 63, are ambassadors of a somewhat different stripe. This is their story.

An Upstart and an Outsider

It is the summer of 2002, and the new British envoy has only been in Tashkent for a few weeks. He finally has time to catch his breath, after surviving the obligatory appointment at Buckingham Palace. Craig Murray has every reason to be proud. Following diplomat posts in Poland, Russia and Africa, he is now the youngest ambassador working for the British government. He is only 43, and already he is an ambassador in an important, embattled country.

Nevertheless, Murray still feels like an outsider in the club of private school and Oxford and Cambridge graduates in Whitehall. He doesn't get their jokes and he despises their arrogant demeanor. Murray, on the other hand, is from a working-class family and attended Dundee University, not one of Britain's more prestigious higher education institutions. He believes that everyone in Britain's class-conscious society can immediately recognize him as an upstart and an outsider. Perhaps this is the source of Murray's rebellious streak and his pronounced sense of justice. Fighting is his life's motto. And so is not taking no for an answer.

Uzbek's national holiday is an obligatory engagement for diplomats in the country. The protocol in Tashkent requires the ambassadors to arrive hours before the ceremony, forcing the diplomatic corps to endure the 40 degree Celsius (104 degree Fahrenheit) heat without complaint. But not Murray. He issues a written statement informing the Uzbek government that in the future he will not arrive until shortly before the ceremony. The defiant letter gets him the recognition of his fellow diplomats, who would never have dared to take such a step. But it alienates the Karimov administration.

Unlike his predecessors and most of his fellow diplomats, who tend to focus on the capital, Murray insists on traveling around the country, to beautiful places like Samarkand, for example. But Murray also travels to places where there are no paved roads or acceptable hotels, such as a remote corner of the Fergana Valley, an area strongly influenced by fundamentalists, and to what is left of the polluted Aral Sea, where residents live under wretched conditions.

A Grisly Document

On these trips, he discovers that some of the factories for which the government collects foreign funds are nonexistent. He keeps in contact with the few civil-rights activists who dare to criticize Karimov. And he attends the trials of opposition politicians accused of terrorism and insurrection against the government.

Most of the accused are Islamists, but whether they are truly guilty of any crimes is questionable. Witnesses make contradictory statements, attorneys, who are most likely bribed, collude with the prosecution, and death sentences are pronounced almost daily. Murray is appalled. He hears repeated reports of horrific cases of torture. They seem credible enough, but there is no evidence, because the relatives of the accused are even denied access to the bodies of the dead that are in police custody.

One evening, a sobbing woman comes to the embassy, a grisly document pressed to her chest. She managed to open her son's coffin and secretly took pictures of his maltreated body. "He was an opponent of the regime," she says. "That's why they immersed him in boiling water and tortured him to death."

Murray has heard enough. He decides to set an example. He sends the photos via diplomatic pouch to the pathology department at the University of Glasgow and requests an expert opinion. Two weeks later, the professional coroners submit their report, concluding that the victim suffered severe blows and that his fingernails were ripped out. The most likely cause of death, according to the experts, was submersion of the body into a boiling liquid. Murray informs Whitehall and makes sure that the diplomatic corps in Tashkent is made aware of the case.

"You're certainly not a normal ambassador," an Australian human-rights activist says admiringly. "I certainly hope not," Murray proudly replies.

But there is also another side of the heroic Craig Murray who, with his blonde hair and tinted glasses, looks a bit square. He isn't just a provocateur out of conviction -- he is partly motivated by sheer enjoyment of provocation. And despite his wedding ring, he is a womanizer par excellence. In addition to beautiful women, he also has a fondness for alcohol and is an expert on all kinds of whiskies.

Murray is always good for an ostentatious appearance, consistently coming across as a pasha. He attends his accreditation ceremony in a kilt. The appearance features on Uzbek television news for days. He prowls the belly dance and striptease bars of Tashkent and has a reputation for being generous to the dancers.

'Fürst Bismarck Quelle'

The route of German diplomat Wolfgang Neuen to Central Asia is a long and convoluted one. Originally from the western German town of Hüls, Neuen served in Germany's diplomatic missions in Chicago, the Yemeni capital Sana'a, Valetta in Malta, Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, and Paris, before being called to the Silk Road in 2000. But before being sent to Tashkent, Neuen first served as ambassador to neighboring Tajikistan.

In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, President Emomali Rahmon behaves like Karimov's little brother -- no less authoritarian and almost as brutal. Although in Moscow's shadow, he has a small amount of latitude to maneuver among the powerful. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, Washington, the European Union and China suddenly regarded the small, mountainous country as an important ally.

The German ambassador diplomatically urges the powerful to exercise moderation. For Neuen, a model husband and father, drinking and womanizing are as inconceivable as secret meetings with Islamists. He is respectable and reliable, and more predictable than exciting. Local business people, whose respect he earns by using his excellent government connections to open doors for them, nickname him "Fürst Bismarck Quelle," after the brand of mineral water that's supposedly always on his table.

Outrageous Statements and 'Misconduct'

Murray makes some outrageous statements in Tashkent. In a 2002 speech at a conference hosted by Freedom House, he says: "Nobody should seek to underestimate the genuine security concerns of the government of Uzbekistan and the difficulties it has faced in countering those who seek to use religion and the problems of poverty to promote terror. ... But let us make this point: No government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means. Sadly, the large majority of those wrongly imprisoned in Uzbekistan fall into this category."

A colleague from another Western embassy, who tends to keep a low profile, warns Murray by quoting Oscar Wilde: "If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out." And the reaction from London comes swiftly. Murray is warned not to exceed his authority and not to continue behaving so "unpatriotically." The administration of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair has long adhered closely to the policy of then-US President George W. Bush, which is that Uzbekistan is an important ally, and that everything else must be secondary to this principle.

Murray, agitated and beleaguered, decides to take his mind off things. He sees a long-legged, 22-year-old dancer in a nightclub and falls desperately in love. Nadira, who is from Samarkand, has a biography that is not untypical for Uzbekistan. She spent her adolescence in the drug scene, and later worked as a teacher with a salary that was barely sufficient to survive. Murray is realistic when it comes to his prospects with the dancer, who, with her perfect proportions, could easily win a Miss World contest. "Such beauties are normally out of reach for a slightly overweight, graying guy with bad teeth," he says. But he has something to offer. And he doesn't mind that he has to spend a long time fighting for the self-confident young woman.

His marriage fails. Nadira moves into his residence. He refuses to hide her and takes her along to official events. What should I wear, she asks? Buy something pretty, he says. Nadira chooses an outfit that looks like a school uniform, with an extremely short miniskirt. It's the talk of Tashkent. And, of course, Whitehall learns of Murray's escapades. The dossier detailing his "misconduct" grows.

But Murray keeps playing with fire. He sends coded telegrams to London in which he accuses the United States of using information gleaned from confessions obtained under torture in Uzbekistan. He later learns that the CIA is secretly flying terror suspects to Tashkent so they can be interrogated under torture. He finds it "outrageous that British intelligence also uses information from such grossly illegal practices." London avoids giving him a clear answer.

Again and again, Murray pokes fun at the naïveté of government officials at home. When a senior official from London, concerned about the supposedly rampant flu epidemic, asks whether she should wear a face mask during a trip to Tashkent, he writes in an e-mail: "I have no idea. How ugly are you?"

'A Disgrace for the Entire Foreign Office'

The Foreign Office is not amused. The undiplomatic diplomat is advised to resign. When Murray refuses, the Foreign Office takes disciplinary action against him. His fundamental criticism of Karimov is not part of the government's case against him, at least not officially. Instead, he is accused of frequently going to work drunk, using his official car for private trips and handing out British visas in return for sexual favors. Murray is beside himself over these attempts at character assassination. He has a physical and mental breakdown, is flown out under dramatic circumstances and is admitted to the psychiatric department of London's St. Thomas Hospital. "That was my personal purgatory," he says.

Once he has recovered, he convinces the Foreign Office to allow him to return to Tashkent, where he fights the charges tooth and nail. In the end, Whitehall orders the suspension of its inconvenient envoy -- the worst end for a British emissary since Charles Stoddard was beheaded in Bukhara in 1842.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calls Murray a "disgrace for the entire Foreign Office." But Murray receives words of consolation from the usual "leftist" suspects. For playwright Harold Pinter, a Nobel laureate in literature, who describes Murray is "a man of decency." Actress Vanessa Redgrave invites him to dinner and US linguist Noam Chomsky writes supportive e-mails.

Murray is ultimately vindicated for his anti-Karimov stance. In May 2005, the dictator orders security forces to fire at protestors in the Fergana Valley. More than 700 people are believed to have been killed in a massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan. The death toll may have been twice as high, but Karimov blocks an independent investigation and claims that the victims were part of an Islamist uprising. In light of these brutal excesses, London and Washington can no longer get back to business as usual. They issue sharp protests through all diplomatic channels.

Cozying Up to the Uzbek Dictator

Ambassador Neuen has already left Central Asia by the time of the Murray scandal and the Andijan massacre. He is now serving in Washington as the head of the German Information Center, which is to help overcome the alienation between Bush's America and Germany under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Once again, he proves to be a smooth and skillful diplomat, a conciliator who knows how to mediate. After his Washington assignment, Neuen is sent home to serve as a division head in the Foreign Ministry. In 2009, he is finally assigned to Tashkent. He is already 62, two decades older than Murray was when he assumed office in Uzbekistan. And, as is the nature of things, Uzbekistan will be Neuen's last post.

The career diplomat makes one thing clear from the very beginning: He will not spare Karimov from having to address critical questions behind the scenes, and he too will meet with civil rights activists -- to an extent he finds reasonable -- who are attempting to strengthen civil society. But all of this is to take place on the quiet. Ambassador Neuen has no intention of openly challenging the regime, or possibly contradicting Berlin's established policy.

That policy consists of cozying up to the Uzbek dictator. The Germans joined, but repeatedly circumvented, the EU sanctions against Tashkent after the Andijan massacre. The entry ban against leading Uzbek politicians was already lifted in 2005 when Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov was given a special visa for medical treatment in Hanover. And in October 2009, Germany was the leading force behind the decision to lift the EU weapons embargo against Uzbekistan.

"Our country has made enormous progress, which is recognized and valued all over the world," Karimov said recently. But the dictator is apparently the only one capable of seeing a positive side.

Transparency International has declared Uzbekistan to be one of the seven most corrupt countries in the world. Reporters Without Borders rates Uzbekistan 160th out of 175 countries when it comes to freedom of the press, and the conservative US Heritage Foundation puts Uzbekistan in 158th place in its ranking of countries on the basis of economic freedom. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are sharply critical of Uzbekistan for brutal child labor  in the cotton fields, systematic torture and arbitrary court decisions. AIDS activist Maxim Popov was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for his involvement in HIV prevention efforts. In Uzbekistan, a self-proclaimed ideal country, social problems apparently cannot be allowed to exist.

The two previous administrations in Berlin, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party coalition under former Chancellor Schröder and the SPD and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel, believed, for reasons of realpolitik, that they had no choice but to come to terms with Karimov. Merkel's current coalition government with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) is continuing the same course. The Germans have a strategic air transport base in Termes near the Afghan border. It serves as a hub to supply the German contingent in the Afghanistan war. Every soldier who is deployed to Afghanistan changes planes in Uzbekistan, from an Airbus to a Transall aircraft. The German military could not fulfill its mission without Karimov's goodwill, for which he is paid handsomely each year with an estimated €20 million ($28 million).

Murray's Despair

Former Ambassador Murray fell upon hard times after his forced resignation from the diplomatic corps. In addition to suffering from depression, he also has a serious heart condition. He also has financial problems. His wife is divorcing him, and any money he still has will go to her and the children.

His employer's attacks are especially hard to take. He often thought of committing suicide in the past, he says in retrospect. His girlfriend Nadira, who moved to England with him from Uzbekistan, keeps him from doing it. He pays for the acting lessons she has always dreamed of taking. Sometimes the couple can hardly afford to order a pizza. But his fall from social grace is almost as hard to bear as his financial decline. His loss of status is painful, although he still insists that he enjoys "being an outsider."

Then things take a turn for the better. His attorney convinces Whitehall to withdraw its charges against Murray (except the charge of violating secrecy regulations), and he is awarded a settlement of about €460,000 for leaving the Foreign Office.

He takes the money, buys an old, red fire truck -- and enters the British election campaign. He has selected a specific district, that of his archenemy Jack Straw. He is looking for revenge. But, as an independent candidate, he manages to capture only 2,085 votes. In his disappointment, he later goes so far as to say that the British election system isn't much more democratic than the Uzbek system. Nevertheless, he adds, he will continue to fight against every injustice. The upstanding Murray is something of a blend of a Scottish Braveheart willing to stand up against dictators, a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, and a Michael Kohlhaas, who was prepared to smash a lot of porcelain in the name of justice.

In early 2008, Murray's girlfriend Nadira, after completing her training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, celebrates her first minor success as an actress. The play for one actor, performed at a London basement theater, is taken from real life, her life. It's called "The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer."

'The World Here Doesn't Let You Go'

In June 2010, we pay a final visit to Wolfgang Neuen at the German Embassy in Tashkent. It is an ugly, functional building located near a memorial to the victims of the Tashkent earthquake. We share a bottle of mineral water in his sparsely furnished office.

Of course his job is a balancing act, says Neuen. He points out how important Uzbekistan is for Germany, but that this doesn't mean that one can overlook Tashkent's democracy deficits, and that it's important to continually draw attention to undesirable developments. As the current ambassador, as a proper career civil servant and as a conscientious servant of German interests, he says, he cannot and will not comment on the details of his job. But people in diplomatic circles say that the criticism of the gentle admonisher has had its successes here and there.

One of those successes was the case of Umida Akhmedova. The photographer had been charged for "insulting the Uzbek people," because her photographs depicted Uzbek village life as backward. When Neuen interceded on her behalf, Akhmedova was spared a three-year prison sentence.

But shouldn't Berlin's envoy express his opinions in a more decisive, open and controversial way?

Neuen speaks of building bridges and reaching understandings. It sounds as if he were writing a speech for his new boss, German President Christian Wulff. Recently, however, there was reportedly a heated argument between the German ambassador and the particularly obstinate Uzbek justice minister. No comment, says the ambassador. Anyone who spends some time conversing with the diplomat and learns about his initial experiences while traveling around the country can imagine that there will soon be two hearts beating in his chest. It seems clear, however, that the reasons of state prescribed by Berlin, the dictate of good relations, will probably always win out in the end.

Will he return to Germany when he retires in two years? Probably, says Neuen, running his hand across his carefully parted silver hair. He envisions a peaceful retirement, with an occasional trip to the regions of the Silk Road. "This world here doesn't let you go."

'A Very Fallible Human Being'

In the fall of 2010, we visit Craig Murray one last time, in his surprisingly modest suburban house in Acton, a West London neighborhood. He serves whiskey, the best of the best. There are about three dozen bottles lined up like trophies in his study. We toast to his new life beyond the confines of diplomacy.

In 2007, he was appointed rector of the University of Dundee for three years, a job in which he represented students in the administration of his alma mater. Since leaving the university, he has been dealing with the possible filming of his memoirs, which were published after considerable legal wrangling, and without some of the details and documents Murray had planned to include.

The book is a mix of the impressive and the pompous, and Murray often flirts with self-criticism: "I'm no hero, but in fact a very fallible human being. But when I found out how old people, women and children were being tortured, I didn't question for a moment my obligation, as the representative of the British nation, to put a stop to it. How can it be that integrity in public life is such a rarity that one is already declared a hero for exhibiting a modicum of decency?"

It looks as though things could work out with Hollywood soon. "In all modesty, many a Bond film had a more boring story than mine," says Murray. Brad Pitt is reportedly interested in producing it.

Angelina Jolie is a possible contender for Nadira's role -- or Nadira herself. The Uzbek beauty isn't commenting, however. She has taken a break from acting to devote time to her family. She has tamed and married her macho party animal. She is carrying their 17-month-old son in her arms. The boy is named Cameron, after an old Scottish clan, not the new prime minister in London.

Murray has joined the Liberal Democrats, although he is now upset with the party for having entered into a coalition with the Conservatives. He isn't one for compromises. His career crunches along, perhaps in the direction of international fame or perhaps in the direction of oblivion, but always with a feverish sense of excitement. Neuen's career track as a senior civil servant, on the other hand, is gliding, very predictably, smoothly and honorably, toward retirement.

'Appeasing the Dictator'

The provocateur and the appeaser, the man who refuses to apologize for anything and the man with an explanation for everything, the man who constantly rubs people the wrong way and the man who fits in everywhere -- they have never met. But it's safe to say that the "Maharaja of Whiskeypur" and "Fürst Bismarck Quelle" have nothing but supreme contempt for each other.

Neuen, in his office at the embassy in Tashkent, whispers almost inaudibly when he talks about Murray: "When you work as a diplomat, you have to understand and accept your job description. The current British ambassador is still cleaning up the mess his predecessor left him."

Murray, in his house in London, almost shouts his opinion about Neuen: "Oh, the Germans! In Uzbekistan, they were always the ones who, of all Western countries, were the most interested in appeasing the dictator. Is that what they've learned from their history?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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