Behind the Silk Curtain

Behind the Silk Curtain

Mini Teaser: Despot Watch turns the spotlight on Islam Karimov, America's newest Central Asian ally.

by Author(s): Joe Bob Briggs

Islam Karimov was such a happy and contented Communist Party leader that, when his domain inconveniently became the independent republic of Uzbekistan in 1991, he simply took all the trappings of Soviet Communism--one-party rule, state control of the press, secret surveillance of the populace, five-year plans, government monopolization of the means of production--and converted them, lock, stock and political prison, into a well-oiled banana republic--or, to speak more properly, a cotton republic, since Uzbekistan was completely denuded and environmentally destroyed during its decades as the designated cotton supplier to the rest of the USSR.

Of course, there were little niggling problems for Karimov. He had to get a new flag. He had to invent a new name for the KGB. (He settled on National Security Service.) He had to learn Uzbek, since that's what some of the natives actually speak. He had to take the oath of office with one hand on the Quran and one hand on the new democratic constitution, which must have thoroughly revolted him since, in the intervening 13 years, he's never actually paid attention to either one.

You would think at some point he would have changed his first name, since he believes that most Islamists are threats to civilization and, more to the point, to his own life. But since the country is 86 percent Muslim, he's got that General Custer feeling in the pit of his stomach all the time. He deals with it by forcing all mosques to be approved by the state. Anyone caught worshipping at home (the official charge is being "too pious"), or praying in public (he forbids the mosques to broadcast the call to prayer), or wearing a beard (the symbol of what he inevitably calls "Wahhabism"), is subject to summary arrest and interrogation.

Karimov's most telling act of political symbolism was to take down all the statues of Marx and Lenin (and let's not forget Stalin, who had an especially strong statuary presence in Uzbekistan) and replace them with Tamerlane the conqueror.

Tamerlane had a way of uniting warring Central Asian tribes--with the sword--and Karimov feels a philosophical, if not spiritual, kinship. In one of Karimov's typically endless speeches to his parliament (the kind that are reported Pravda-style with notations of "unanimous ovation"), he said of the outlawed Muslim organizations: "Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself, if you lack the resolve." This is the kind of public strongman chutzpah we haven't been able to enjoy since the days of Nikita Khrushchev.

Islam Karimov's biography reads like a Monty Python skit about a humorless Bolshevik climber. Raised in a Tashkent orphanage (thereby realizing the early Soviet ideal of being educated entirely by the state), he was trained as an engineer (the prototypical job of the aspiring party member) and took his first job as assistant foreman at the Tashkent Farm Machinery Plant. (Say "Tashkent Farm Machinery Plant" with a John Cleese accent. Right, then. See what I mean?) He was quickly promoted to design engineer at the Chkalov Tashkent Aviation Production Complex, which supplied most of the cargo planes to the Soviet Union, and in 1966 started his party career as First Secretary of the Kashkadaria Regional Committee, which qualified him for a job at the State Planning Office.

That would be the same planning office that consistently met its cotton quotas on five-year plans--until satellite photos in the 1980s revealed that most of the cotton had never been planted, much less harvested. The cotton that did exist had been sold on the black market. By that time, Karimov was head of the State Planning Committee, so he bravely took to the offensive and, according to his official website, "resolutely defended his nation, rejected all criminal myths and defamations from outside by those who, for the sake of their career aspirations, tried to set up interrogation rooms in the ancient land of the Uzbeks." More than 50,000 bureaucrats were fired, but Karimov, at the top of the pyramid, survived and thrived, becoming Uzbek First Secretary in 1989.

Of course, that devotion to the "ancient land of the Uzbeks" is entirely a post-1991 phenomenon, occasioned by the failure of his Geezer Bolshevik pals to carry out their coup. Before independence, Karimov was part of the hardcore wing of the party, so much so that terms such as glasnost and perestroika were never used in Uzbekistan. "If we remain part of the Soviet Union", said Karimov as the tanks rolled through Moscow, "our rivers will flow with milk. If we don't, our rivers will flow with the blood of our people." As soon as the coup was suppressed, though, Karimov became a diehard nationalist--and started filling Uzbek rivers with the blood of his people.

For much of the rest of the 1990s he amused himself by hounding the political opposition into prison or exile, and inventing new ways to deal with this pesky constitution thing.

For his first election in 1991, he banned the Unity Party (founded by Tashkent intellectuals in 1989 and claiming a membership of 1.5 million) and the Islamic Renaissance Party on the grounds that they might put forward actual candidates who could receive actual votes. But to keep some semblance of democracy he found an opponent: a poet named Mohammed Solih, representing the Erk Party (I'm telling you, it's a whole Python episode).

The result was Karimov receiving 86 percent of the vote. Two points about this: 1) The fact that 12 percent voted for the Erk poet is pretty amazing in a country that has no idea what democracy is. 2) Karimov was so scared by that 12 percent that he drove the poet into exile, banned the Erk newspaper, drove Erk supporters out of legislatures, and made sure anyone else associated with Erk would be fired from his job, detained or interrogated. (Presumably he also banned the complete poetical works of Mohammed Solih, although there's no evidence that the public was clamoring for his stanzas.) Karimov's one concession: he allowed the party to continue to exist. No doubt they gather on Wednesdays to read Kahlil Gibran under the watchful eye of a government agent.

For the 1995 election Karimov decided that, rather than being irked by Erk again, he would set up his own opposition party--the National Progress Party--but then apparently thought even that was too dangerous to public order. So the National Progress Party magnanimously decided not to run a candidate at all, and the voting was characterized as a "referendum" as opposed to an election, because Karimov had discovered, to his horror, that the constitution only allowed him to serve two terms.

Karimov maintained that the word "referendum" meant that his first term had merely been extended five years, so that he could run again in 2000. He did, of course, but he'd taken so much international heat for his "referendum" that he promised the next trip to the polls would be "an election with choices." That choice came in the form of a wimpy guy named Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, who was so naive that he told reporters he was only in the race to make it appear democratic, and then proudly announced that he cast his own vote for Karimov. With such fierce opposition, Karimov was only able to garner 91.9 percent of the vote.

The Good Ol' Soviet Model

As dictators go, Karimov follows the Soviet model of persecution in that any international outcry can be characterized as meddling in the nation's internal affairs. He's old-fashioned about interrogation, favoring electric shock, rubber truncheons, rape of family members of those who won't reveal where the fugitive is, asphyxiation, suspension from wrists or ankles, needles under the fingernails and toenails, and that old favorite of the Hollywood thriller, burning with cigarettes. His sole innovation in this respect seems to be the recent boiling alive of two troublesome Muslims. Unfortunately the mother of one of the dead men, shopkeeper Fatima Mukhadirova, persuaded the British embassy to investigate her son's death, and the University of Glasgow conducted an autopsy on the body concluding that, yes, the man had been boiled (probably in water), but only after his head and neck had been severely beaten and all of his fingernails ripped off. For her pains, Fatima Mukhadirova was sentenced to six years hard labor--and was only released after an international outcry preceding Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Tashkent.

Which brings us to the point. Perhaps no world leader has benefitted more from 9/11 than Islam Karimov. Since most of his waking hours are spent figuring out how to eliminate Islam from his part of the planet, the U.S. declaration of war on the Taliban must have seemed like a gift from God (if not from Allah). Turkmenistan has a dictator even more iron-fisted that Karimov. Tajikistan is still bursting into periodic tribal warfare. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has a capital city with a Le Meridien and an Intercontinental--in other words, just Western enough in a region that makes it its policy to hate the West.

Essay Types: Essay