File this book title under wishful thinking (circa 1998) that proved to be completely wrong:
The contemporaneous reviews were glowing…at least according to YUP. This one is especially funny in hindsight:
“Mr. Lieven examines the weaknesses of Russian nationalism and shows why this potentially destabilizing force has remained relatively quiescent in populations live outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Mr. Lieven argues convincingly, that the oligarchy of powerful bankers and “reformed” communists that now dominates the Russian state has little interest in promoting national self-awareness. [An] insightful book.” —Christian Caryl, Wall Street Journal
It could now be argued that Russians have more than an adequate share of “national self-awareness.”
And this review is just sad:
“This book pays tribute to the Chechen people. They alone emerge from the calamity with honour. . . . They managed to create a nation for themselves against overwhelming odds.”—Economist Review
More wishful thinking:
“A probing account of the Russian defeat in Chechnya and its importance in revealing the end of Russia as a great military and imperial power. Lieven’s perceptive and intelligent work succeeds in all of its objectives, providing a gripping eyewitness account of the war in Chechnya, a lengthy account of the reasons and meanings behind the outcome, and a useful examination of the character of the new Chechen nation and its people. Lieven’s work is the best account currently available on the Chechen war and its consequences not only for Russia, but for our own understanding of the post-Communist world.”—Virginia Quarterly Review
One of the few critical reviews – this one in the NY Review of Books – had this to say:
…it is fairly clear on which side of the Chechen-Russian conflict his sympathies will lie.[...] t may be deduced that Mr. Lieven’s feelings toward the Russians are somewhat less admiring. [review goes on to cite some rather egregious examples]
…If his Russia is not something to provoke fear or hatred, that is only because it has decayed into something more worthy of pity and contempt. Indeed, Russia emerges from his analysis as a place so hideous that the only thing redeeming it is the completeness with which it has allowed itself to be defeated.
The journalist and historian as a biased advocate….makes for interesting reading and bad history. It reminds me of the horrendous body of literature on the Soviet-Afghan war that came out in the 1980s.
You can read this up-to-date timeline to see how things shifted back in Russia’s favor.
The website of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defence proudly displays a photograph and short biography of Lt.-Gen. Kazhimurat Maermanov, the Deputy Defence Minister and artillery supremo. The General is praised for the ‘exemplary discharge of military and service duties’; however, indications are that his promising career is about to be cut short.
On April 10, 2009 Gen. Maermanov was charged with abuse of office and embezzlement by the KNB Investigations Department. These charges relate to contracts with the Israeli companies to procure and modernize three types of self-propelled artillery systems – the ‘Nayza’ MLRS, the ‘Semser’ howitzer, and the ‘Aybat’ mortar. The General has conducted negotiations and overseen the project since 2006.
Lt. Gen. Kazhimurat Maermanov
Last year the first fruits of Israeli-Kazakh military cooperation were demonstrated amid much pomp, roar, and cordite smell to the top brass of the Kazakh army. Maermanov might have had good reasons to expect a third star on his shoulder board. As a report in the official Kazakhstanskaia Pravda stated, the new equipment was produced “in line with the demands of the President and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev”
Now it has transpired that the US$190m deal was signed in violation of the standard tender process. Maermanov appears to have favoured a friend with close ties to the Israeli IMI; the sum of the contract may have been inflated 2- or 3-fold; and there are serious doubts as to the actual extent of ‘modernisation’. A KNB spokesman lamented the fact that 80% of the artillery systems supplied broke down after a few salvos.
‘Semser’: a good old Soviet D-30 howitzer mounted on the flimsy KAMAZ truck chassis.
Some say ‘state of the art modernisation’, others – Mickey Mouse on wheels, dangerous to its own crew.
The case of Gen. Maermanov could be easily dismissed as yet another example of individual malfeasance. Nobody is perfect in the public service of Kazakhstan – or any other former Soviet republic, after all. However, given that Nazarbaev’s personal credibility is at stake in this instance (the above-mentioned article from Kazakhstanskaia Pravda has been removed from the paper’s website and is now available only through the Google cache), other heads are likely to roll in the Ministry of Defence and other government departments.
Israeli Haaretz has attributed the fall of Maermanov to the interdepartmental competition within Kazakhstan’s security elite.
The future of Israeli-Kazakh relations is not likely to suffer as a result of the Maermanov affair. Low-level intelligence contacts and technological transfer will continue apace. Of course, if one subscribes to the views of the US neocon think-tank Jamestown Foundation, the situation may look quite different. Last year it published a bizarre piece linking Maermanov’s endeavour to ‘the growing sophistication of Astana’s foreign policy’, and eventually to the advancement of ‘one of the U.S. administration’s most cherished agendas, establishing peace between the Palestinians and Israelis’. Poor disgraced General; in one fell swoop he may have destroyed decades of patient diplomacy across the region.
On February 3, 2009, Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that his country would soon end the use of Manas Air Base by US and NATO troops for their operations in Afghanistan. Such an unexpected decision by Bakiyev was a huge blow to Obama’s administration as it would significantly complicate a successful “surge” against Taliban forces. Many analysts immediately suspected that the Kremlin was behind the Kyrgyzstani government’s decision. However, it was quite difficult for them to name any rational reasons for Moscow to undermine US military operation in Afghanistan given the former’s hostility to the Taliban. Though it is difficult to understand, it seems that the Kremlin is more worried about the US military presence in Central Asia (the encirclement conspiracy theory) and its success in Afghanistan War (where the almighty Soviet/Russian Army was defeated) rather than the possible re-Talibanization of Afghanistan.
Photo via flickr user RaskarKarpak: Manas airbase
While officially Moscow denied any connection with Bakiyev’s decision, official Russian State Television (RUTV) was quite eloquent in defending the closure of Manas Air Base. Particularly, on April 5, 2009, RUTV broadcasted a special documentary film “A Base” that ‘revealed’ the true reasons for the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan. The film starts by exposing the primary aim of American “colonizers” in Kyrgyzstan that is to occupy Kyrgyz land and to implement the very same policies toward the local population which were used against Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Then film explains the function of the US military base in Manas that is to conduct reconnaissance in the Central Asia region, Russian Siberia and China, and not to provide the logistical support to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The report claims that reconnaissance information gathered is used to pressure and blackmail Central Asian political elites and most importantly to oppose Russian and Chinese dominance in the region. RUTV goes on to claim that numerous non-governmental organizations and institutions, such as Freedom House, National Democratic Institute, American University in Kyrgyzstan and Soros Foundation are used as a “spider net” to control and brainwash local population (in Russia, many such NGOs, labelled as “Jackals” by Putin, had been closed down by 2007). Having such a system, according to the film’s producers, allowed the US to stage the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan that ousted Askar Akayev from power (forgetting to mention post-revolutionary Kyrgyz government’s pro-Russian course and President Bakiyev’s decision to shut down US military base in the country). The documentary claims that hundreds of American spies are deployed all over Kyrgyzstan; some of them even working as sunflower seed sellers in local bazaars. An extreme claim made was that many American spies received their ideological inspiration from reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf, copies of which were allegedly found at one of the “American spy safehouses”.
According to the film, Americans are covering their wrongdoings by a staged PR campaign that includes giving candies to kindergarten children and visiting local schools. Then film also shows drunken American soldiers dancing and flirting with local “prostitutes” as a proof of how immoral Americans debauch local teen girls. One of the more interesting parts of the film is the accusation that the US air force is the biggest narcotics trafficker from Afghanistan to the world drug market. The film ends by comparing Russia to the US, where the former is a “true brother” and protector of poor Kyrgyzstan.
Here is the documentary film in three parts:
A friend on facebook posted this account of a visit by Jean Chardin to the Persian royal court in the late 1600s.
It really defies summarization. You just have to read it:
The ambassadors drank no wine; only the Muscovite was served with some of his own country brandy. I was surprised that they gave no wine to that ambassador, being the king himself drank largely, as well as most of the grandees. I asked one of the nobleman there present the reason thereof. He answered me, that it was out of grandeur and the better to preserve the respect due to his royal majesty; and then smiling, he told me further that it was still kept in memory what one of his countrymen had done in a solemn audience, which he had of the late king. I presently desired to be informed what that was. He told me that in the year 1664, two Muscovite extraordinary ambassadors at the audience the king gave them, drank so excessively that they quite lost their senses. The king drank [to] their master’s health and would needs have them pledge it in a cup that held about two pints. The second ambassador, not being able to digest so much wine, had a pressing inclination to vomit, and not knowing where to disembogue, he took his great sable cap which he half filled. It is well known that the Muscovites wear large and high caps. His colleague, who was above him, and the secretary of the embassy, who was below him, enraged at so foul an action done in the presence of the king of Persia, and of the whole court, reprimanded him and jogged him with their elbows, to remind him of going out. But he, being very drunk, and not knowing either what was said to him nor what he himself did, clapped his cap upon his head, which presently covered him all over with nastiness. The king and all the assembly broke into a loud laughter thereat, which lasted about half an hour, during which time the companions of the filthy Muscovite were forcing him by dint of blows with their fists to rise and go out. The king was not at all angry; he only broke up the assembly and said as he went away that the Muscovites were the Uzbeks of the Franks. He thereby intimated that as among the Mohammedans there is no nation so nasty, so meanly educated, nor so clownish as the Uzbeks (who are the Tartars along the River Oxus). So among the Europeans there was not any that equaled the Muscovites in those foul qualities.
I think one could write an entire dissertation based on Persian and European stereotyping of Uzbeks. Historical accounts are full of non-Uzbeks ridiculing or demeaning Uzbeks. The trend reached its peak with the British writings that came about as a response to the rather poor treatment accorded to British spies travellers by certain Uzbek khans/emirs. The tradition is still present today, most notable in the writings of the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.
According to a Russian tabloid, Aysultan Nazarbaev, the Kazakh President’s grandson, is going to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He will start training on April 17, and is likely to spend a year and a half in the UK – a choice heartily endorsed by Nazarbaev Sr.
A stint at the prestigious academy, whose motto is ‘Serve To Lead’, could go a long way in preparing the 18-year old for grander things in life – an illustrious political career, perhaps? He might learn a thing or two about efficiency, prudence, and the fabled stiff upper lip attitude.
Granted, Sandhurst these days is not a bastion of virtue it used to be, lurching from one scandal to another. Young Aysultan should take heart in his mother’s life credo, which is “Kindness, decency, and acute sense of justice”.
Nazarbaev Jr. would be the first member of the top Central Asian political elite to experience the beauty and hardship of army life. The only exception to this pattern is the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, who fondly remembers his days as a sailor in the Soviet Pacific Fleet in the 1970s.
‘Service in the Armed Forces is an excellent school of courage, fortitude, manliness, and physical and spiritual strength’, says Rahmon.
Books by foreigners, mostly. Not that local titles are much better. However, I want to focus on English language titles for now. The champion, as crowned by Joshua Foust at Registan is the American edition of Ambassador Murray’s Book Murder in Samarkand. The US edition is subtly titled Dirty Diplomacy: The Rough and Tumble Adventures of a Scotch Drinking, Skirt Chasing, Dictator Busting and Thoroughly Unrepentant Ambassador Stuck on the Frontline of the War Against Terror. So you get the idea: publishers often get to name the book (sometimes in a way that is probably embarrassing to the author).
I’ll put up a few nominations here, categorized appropriately. First up is the category of gross exaggeration:
The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy by Robert Kaplan.
Poor Robert Kaplan: the illiterate man’s Samuel Huntington. His books sell well so I’m sure he’s OK with being perpetually wrong and usually racist.
Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia
The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism?
All three by Ahmed Rashid. Yes; North Waziristan, Helmand and…. Central Asia. Which of these does not belong? The contents are not much better than the titles. In one of these books Rashid claims that Kyrgyz were butchering, selling and eating Uzbek baby meat in the bazaar. Uh… thanks for that recycling of Russian tabloid BS.
Rashid goes on to claim in his books that Uzbeks are “among the cruelest fighters in Central Asian” and are “noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes.” But don’t worry, Rashid bases his racism on historical prejudices of 16th century authors, as he notes here: “Mahmud ibn Wali, a 16th century historian, described the early Uzbeks as ‘famed for their bad nature, swiftness, audacity and boldness’ and reveling in their outlaw image. Little has changed in the Uzbek desire for power and influence since then.” And little has changed in Rashid’s bigotry in recent years.
I also like this title (albeit of a lesser known book):
Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?
Oh my God! Is that spelled in blood?
Probably not. But let’s move on to a new category which I call “You failed!”
Soviet Central Asia: A Tragic Experiment by Boris Rumer (1990).
Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise by Martha B Olcott (2001).
But don’t worry, these authors aren’t done with you yet:
Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? edited by Boris Rumer (2002)
Central Asia’s Second Chance by Martha B Olcott (2005)
And inspired by a friend’s comment about Central Asian book titles that offer “two competing bleak options or a straight ride into hell.” I will start with “two competing bleak options.”
The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? by Ahmed Rashid.
Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle by Vitaly Naumkin.
‘Melting pot, salad bowl – cauldron?’ by Shirin Akiner (OK, that’s an article actually).
And since I have made an exception for an article, how about my friend’s favorite: “Central Asia: Apocalypse Soon or Eccentric Survival?” by Cheryl Bernard.
I’ll take “eccentric survival.” I think. Maybe. Let me think about it more. I’ll get back to you.
But you often get one option that is obviously better:
Central Asia : between peril and promise by Gregory Francis et al.
Islam and Central Asia : an enduring legacy or an evolving threat? edited by Sagdeev and Eisenhower.
Central Eurasia – Prize or Quicksand? by K. Weisbrode.
Tajikistan: Disintegration or Reconciliation? by Shirin Akiner.
Well, on to another favorite category “This place is full of oil and crazy people.”
The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia by Lutz Kleveman.
Oil, Islam, and Conflict: Central Asia since 1945 by Rob Johnson.
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid.
And in the category of “euphemistic”:
Over the Edge: The True Story of Four American Climbers’ Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia by Greg Child.
An honest title would be We Are Idiots: A Bunch of Suicidal Egomaniac Summit Junkies not content with getting their Sherpas killed visit Central Asia, ignore everybody’s advice and get some poor Kyrgyz(stanis) killed and then sell themselves as heroes.
And finally, this offering:
Central Asia: Totalitarian Petro-Dictatorship or Wahhabi Super-Caliphate?
OK, that’s not a real title. But I should probably copyright it anyways.
Feel free to nominate your own entertaining titles.
The felicitous conversion of Emomali Rahmon
Alhamdolellah! On 5 March 2009 the lower house of the Tajik parliament endorsed a bill which recognizes the Hanafi school as an official religion of Tajikistan.
Apart from puzzling terminology (how can a mere madhhab become an official religion?), the rationale behind this development remains obscure. One likely explanation seems to be an uncompromising struggle against religious extremism. The bill was adopted shortly after the government’s ban on Salafis. The Tajik Ministry of the Interior, for one, is convinced that destructive forces inspired by foreign-based Wahhabis and Hizb ut-Tahrir are best constrained by this intrinsically Tajik and delightfully moderate way of interpreting the scripture.
Promoting Sunnism as the official creed may be another blow to the Ismaili trouble-makers in the east, and a not-so-subtle message to His Highness Aga Khan IV to tone down activities in Tajikistan.
The country is entering a fresh electoral cycle, so building bridges with the Sunni Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) could work in favour of the incumbent government.
…in the human rights sense?
The Pentagon’s concerns are quite clear in regards to its desire for the use of Uzbek territory for the transportation of materiel to NATO forces and the various support operations in Afghanistan. And this, in my opinion is an important variable in determining the level of concern exhibited for human rights in Uzbekistan.
At the height of American-Uzbek cooperation (2002-2005) there was much public consternation over the plight of the citizens of Uzbekistan, as exhibited across many different media platforms (mostly the op-ed pages). But after Andijon and the resulting departure of American forces from the K2 base in southern Uzbekistan, the amount of public concern dropped noticeably. And this was despite Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US State Department continuing to issue reports on human rights in Uzbekistan. So what did happen to all of this sincere humanitarian concern?