Uzbekistan’s Terrible Beauty


A breathtaking country with historic and hysterical links

Above: Schmuck and schmeckel smile for the camera in ’02 at the White House as a symbol of the close ties between Uzbekistan and the U.S. Below: Last week’s massacre at Andijan (center of map, to the right of Tashkent) has been likened to Tiananmen Square.
State Dept.

China’s authoritarian government, facing millions of pissed-off Muslims within its own borders, has reached out to Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, vowing “unequivocal support,” as the New York Times puts it this morning.

Wow, that’s a real shocker. As the New Statesman notes:

In an era when TV determines an event’s importance, the massacre in the Uzbek town of Andijan has received less coverage than it deserves. Camera access denied, few stories supplied.

The reported death toll of more than 700 constitutes one of the worst cases of bloodshed involving government troops and civilian protesters since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The upheaval in, first, Kyrgyzstan and now Uzbekistan has complicated the Great Game for George W. Bush‘s handlers.

Kyrgyz despot Askar Akayev was merely a supporting player in the imperial drama over Central Asia—though not to his people, who booted his ass out in March. But Karimov and Uzbekistan are a different matter.

As much as Karimov is a rich caricature of an unenlightened despot, Uzbekistan is simply rich. Aesthetically, the place is miraculous—Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, palaces, domes, mosques, 3,000-year-old burgs, staggering mountains, terrible deserts, fertile valleys, grand canyons.

That wouldn’t make it valuable except as a vacation spot for Wall Streeters. What the U.S., Russia, and China are fighting over is a country incredibly rich in money-making resources, which I guess also makes it a vacation spot for Wall Streeters. As Alisa Newman pointed out in ’99 in “Investing in Uzbekistan: a rough ride on the Silk Road,” a shrewd piece in Law and Policy in International Business:

Although Uzbekistan lacks the vast Caspian Sea oil reserves of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan … , its lands swell with other valuable resources. These are known as Uzbekistan’s three “golds”: white (cotton), of which it is the world’s fourth largest producer; blue (natural gas), of which it is the world’s 10th largest producer; and gold, of which it is the world’s eighth largest producer.

Like flies to shit, various capitalists, like Enron’s Ken Lay (with Bush’s personal help), have been drawn to Uzbekistan.

So have far less harmful and much more creative people, like M.J. Engh and John Candy.

Engh’s well-regarded 1987 novel Arslan is truly a shocker—a Central Asian dictator swiftly conquers the modern-day U.S. and sets up his HQ in a small town in Illinois, where he rapes youngsters and becomes friends with a school principal and … well, just read it. Author Mary Jane Engh, also a scholar of Roman history, places the title character as hailing from Turkiston, which is what the modern Uzbekistan once was.

The late John Candy and the rest of the old SCTV crew savaged “Uzbek treachery” in a send-up of Soviet-era Russian TV.

More recently, a real-life sex drama linked Islam Karimov’s daughter to a bitter divorce battle in New Jersey. Peter Baker of the Washington Post wove a terrific tale last year:

It turns out that divorcing Gulnora Karimova, known as “the Uzbek princess,” is no simple matter. Her father is Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan and autocrat nonpareil, who rules over a repressive Central Asian country where prisoners have been boiled alive. He also happens to be a key ally in America’s war on terrorism.

Karimova took the kids in 2001 and has been ducking an arrest warrant issued by a New Jersey judge ever since, hiding out in Moscow, where she knows officials won’t cross her father.

Whatever Gulnora wants, Gulnora gets—or “Lola,” as the New Statesman‘s Julian Holloway recalls the delectable daughter of the despot in “Dancing As the People Die.” Here’s how Holloway starts his piece:

I once danced with President Karimov’s daughter Lola at her nightclub, the Katakomba. After a few seconds her bodyguard cut in, and off she went past Uzbekistan’s elite, her head set like a princess’s under the flashing lights.

Since then things have changed in Tashkent.

The real change, an overthrow of Lola’s dad, hasn’t happened yet. But it will.