Friday, August 24, 2007

Silk Road to Ruin

I've never quite read such a book - it's a strange mixture of cartoons and written text, by Ted Rall who is a cartoonist, writer, radio broadcaster, and it seems sometimes a tour guide with an abiding interest in Central Asia and human rights.

The book covers the period from roughly 1997 until 2006 (though it does not cover the death of Turkmenbashi, the president of Turkmenistan, who had himself made president for life. Alas, it was too short). In this period Rall has visited Central Asia on many occasions, once trying to drive across it, another time leading a (very intrepid, though in hindsight maybe not) tour group across it, a further time reporting on the Central Asian game of buzkashi where hundreds of men on horseback play polo with a dead goat as the ball; sometimes some of the men join the goat, too.

Rall is scathing on the dictators and plenipotentiaries of the central Asian countries, especially Karimov of Uzbekistan who may be the worst of them all. (I have a memory that someone in Tajikistan told me that he'd been to see Karimov, expecting much praise). He is similarly scathing about the Role of the US in the area, pointing out, for example, that the US said nothing about the Tajik's prohibition of worship in unregistered religious affiliations, but complaining bitterly about the lack of religious freedom in Iran. Even Karimov's regime gets away pretty scot-free for massive brutality against his people and his dissidents; when the US make a minor complaint about a massacre in Andjian two years ago, Uzbekistan just kicks them out. Rall compares Karimov to Saddam Hussein - but he says that at least Hussein invested a lot of money in infrastructure, rather than putting the oil revenues in his own pocket. Rall's major concern is that the oppression of religious groups may lead to an increasing level of fundamentalism and resistance. Not quite what we might like to see.

Apparently Uzbekistan as well as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan sit on oil and gas reserves which are bigger than anything ever imaged (but they also have no access to maritime transport); and he points out the hypocrisy of 'elderly people starving to death in nations sitting atop these large reserves'. Turkmenistan two years ago abolished pensions for some and cut by 20% those of others. The point was that families were supposed to be responsible for their relatives.

Everything Rall says about Central Asia is true, word for word, from the never-ending corruption to the diarrhoea to the accommodation and modes of transport. This book is a must for anyone who thinks of going there!

I'm depressed to note that Kyrgyzstan, a year after the Tulip Revolution, is now described as a 'failed state' - apparently its society has completely fallen apart (rumours are also around that this revolution was sponsored by the US). He describes Kyrgyzstan now as completely mafia-ruled, where for example Nurlan Motuyev, a friend of the Prime Minister, just seized a mine after the revolution and now sees himself as a warlord, who of course does not pay taxes. The prison system is said to be under the control of the mafia. Akayev, who was the president for a number of years, and reelected - not sure how democratically, had to flee the country after the revolution. I do remember reading about human rights issues there, too, including members of the opposition enjoying the hospitality of the prison services during Akayev's time, but all this came from Radio Free Europe, an American radio station with its own agenda. As is right-wing Freedom House which Rall describes as a spin-off of the CIA. (Some people think that peace corps volunteers are also part of the CIA, infiltration sort of thing. I'm not sure; if they are, they sure suffer for it, often living in not much more than hovels in remote parts of obscure countries on a local salary. I am sure the CIA would pay its people better...).

It's a brilliant book - and it tells it as it is. Thanks to my friend Kenneth for thinking of this birthday present!


Zoz said...

The Peace Corps volunteers are definitely nothing to do with the CIA. I have a very good friend who was in the PC in Turkmenistan. These kinds of rumors make life very difficult for them, because paranoiacs in the local security forces have a tendency to believe them, when it suits them at least.

Jane said...

Just supporting what the person above said in their comment - I've known several Peace Corps volunteers whom the CIA would never hire (and they would never work for the CIA). The CIA really isn't interested in peasant farmers and starving villagers - they are mostly interested in the power and money game.