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.

REUTERS

By Erich Follath and


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.

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