Laurence Jarvik on Shirin Akiner’s Washington appearance
Monday September 19th 2005, 3:00 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

Read the whole thing.

Shirin Akiner in DC
Friday September 16th 2005, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

Laurence Jarvik has a post on Dr. Akiner’s visit to Washington DC’s SAIS at Johns Hopkins. Apparently, an executive of the International Crisis Group tried to get her fired. Nathan comments.

I am really interested in returning to London next week to – among other courses – make an independent study project under Dr. Akiner’s supervision.

Related post here.

The fourth burst tyre
Tuesday August 23rd 2005, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

It happened three times before this trip started, and now the fourth one burst on the way from Samarkand to Bukhara, right before reaching Navoi. Luckily, nothing happened. We just had to exchange tyres under star-clear sky.

The trip by taxi was fairly tiring – before deciding for the car we desperately tried to jump on a bus. All of them though were overcrowded, not a single place left for us. I am taking tons of pictures here, and hope to post some of them when I am sitting on a neat computer, maybe in Baku. It’s a damn-beautiful city.


We’ll leave for Turkmenistan the day after tomorrow, hopefully meeting our guide at the border. David in Almaty set up a small tour and organised some special destinations for the two of us. Good to know Berliners around the globe, it always pays off!

Tashkent – Samarkand
Sunday August 21st 2005, 12:54 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

The last night in Tashkent had to be celebrated with a dinner on Broadway, the local strip – a weird mixture of county fair, mall and open-air bar. Roaring Russian techno music reverberated from every single restaurant and filled the air with cacophony.

It was fairly difficult to have a proper conversation as our diner had been interrupted by half a dozen rose sellers, human-size Mickey Mouse and Garfield figures posing for a photo, and bellydancers, the latter being the most pleasant of them all.

The bill amounted to more than $15, for Tashkent a Ritz-like figure. One of the more expensive items showed to be musika. What a scam. After all though, we had a great chat with Aliya about her home in Karakalpakstan and some future projects.

To quickly get back to the hotel we picked a cab, whose driver once has been a remarkably successful boxer (3rd in World Championship, Asian Champion, SU Champion…). Just like so many of our acquaintances, he had connections in Germany and visited Hamburg and Berlin during his boxing career.

Once having had a bright outlook for the future, the collapse of the Soviet Union often stood for a deep fall on the career ladder. So, these often well-educated people have to fill such simple jobs (if even) like driving a taxi to make ends meet.

Unlike any of the other mornings, Ben jumped out of the bed at the first sound of the alarm clock at 5:40. The reason behind this inhumane wake-up time was our ambitious plan to catch the 7 o’clock train to Samarkand – once a fable Silk Road oasis.

This special tourist train, which goes by the name ‘The Registan’, is outfitted with very comfortable seats and included breakfast service. In addition, other services may have also been available, as Ben’s brief conversation with a stewardness left us guessing for the rest of the day.

While a novice English-speaking service-staff asked us – after some sentences of cordial but disinterested chit-chat – to continue the conversation in a private room, her older colleague subtly moved her head with an inviting gesture.

In terms of friendliness and charme, after all though, the Uzbek train staff beats the German counterpart by miles.

As we arrived in Samarkand around noon, we found a very relaxed athmosphere. Though also dominated by numerous Soviet-style buildings, the city is undergoing a major transformation. Construction sites are everywhere and so far, only a small part of the town’s center has been converted into a pedestrian zone.

Deprived of fast-food for the past week or so, we couln’t contain ourselves and tried a local ‘Big Mac’ version, which was indeed much tastier than the original.

And then came the ruins. Very spectacular.

Sven’s update
Friday August 19th 2005, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan

We have left the relative familiarity of Almaty a couple of days ago and have made our way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The 14 hour bus ride was more or less comfortable, despite the screening of several third class movies that lasted until about three o’clock in the morning.

Crossing the border from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan was a piece of cake by all standards, no hassles and friendly people helping us out. Just one borderguard had jokingly asked us about our present for him, a demand that Ben rebuked by claiming that we had just forgotten to bring it!

Tashkent is Central Asia’s largest metropolis and way different than Almaty. Due to the massive earthquake that flattened the city in the 1960s, the communists were given the unique chance to build the eptiome of a Soviet city. Thus, the boulevards of Tashkent are even wider than those in Almaty and virtually all of the buildings have been constructed over the past fourty years. The Soviet charm of colossal landmarks mingles in an interesting way with newly built shopping centers, office buildings and other commercial space. In additional, a good dozen of different monuments can be found, the most recent one paying tribute to the independence of Uzbekistan and to the victims of Stalinist oppression.

Ben’s local contact, Aliya, has been showing us around town for the past couple of days. She a law student at the university and has spent a year in the US as an exchange student. Thanks to her, we have been able to delve into the local culture much more than regular tourists. Contrary to the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks appear to me a tad friendlier still, which may owe to the fact that they are not as materialistic as their northern neighbors yet. We have had great chats with policemen checking our passports and, thank God, have not felt threatened once yet. Our Russian is slowly improving, which shall be of advantage as we head on to Samarkand on our own tomorrow.

Unfashionable German engagement in Uzbekistan
Friday August 05th 2005, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

Marcus Bensmann, known to the reader of The Registan and the like through his critical take on Dr. Akiner’s Andijon report, has written an interesting article in today’s TAZ. Contrary to the US, that has to vacate K2 (Karshi-Khanabad) within the next six months, Germany seems to keep relations warm and regularly donates medical equipment to the Uzbek armed forces. Well worth a read (if you can understand Deutsch).

Travel update
Monday August 01st 2005, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan

News regarding my upcoming voyage through Central Asia. My itinerary will be: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia – from where I am going to head back to Berlin on the 10th of September. Exciting. A whole month of travelling…

Andijon – the conflict within
Monday July 18th 2005, 5:54 pm
Filed under: Uzbekistan

My professor at my alma-ater SOAS, Dr. Shirin Akiner, wrote a report on what happened in Andijon back in May. She became quite a controversial figure for doing so. Her 50-pages report has been published, and is available here. Some of her statements can be read in short here (from an Uzbek TV-show). RIA Novosti picked up the story here. While she is widely cited as an ardent supporter of the Uzbek government’s position, she herself says:

. … the interview has been widely reported under the headline ‘Academic supports Karimov’. This is the cry of the ideologue: in other words, ‘you are either with us or against us – and if the latter, your views cannot be taken seriously’. This is the very antithesis of intellectual inquiry.

via Registan

Many contest her views, including a fellow German reporter, Marcus Bensmann. He testified during a Senator’s hearing which Laurence from The Registan attended. First off, this is Laurence’s opinion on the validity of Bensmann’s account:

Marcus Bensmann, a German reporter who had been in Andijan, looked like a Peter Sellars character, wearing funny glasses and hair that resembled a wig. He spoke with a strong German accent. In response to a question from Congressman Pitt, he attacked British scholar Shirin Akiner’s report on the Andijan event. But the only error he mentioned sounded rather minor. Akiner apparently claimed shooting began at 6:20, while Bernsmann said he was in the square when shooting began at 5:30. He condemned Akiner for touring with local officials, but remained oblivious to the irony that he said he had attended the Andijon demonstration at the invitation of some of the organizers. (Either Bensmann or Templer mentioned that someone told them that if Westerners came, they would feel safe, making them, essentially voluntary human shields.)

The most striking statement from Bensmann was that he attended the earlier trials of the Akromists, and had never before been to a trial of Islamists where they did not mention Allah. Yet, these defendants pointed to the Uzbek constitution, the words of President Karimov, and saying they were just businessmen, he said. But Bensmann didn’t try to explain where this new legal strategy had come from–ICG consultants perhaps? He also admitted that when his stringer was arrested, he just went to the Uzbek police and asked for him to be released–which they did. Bensmann then sent him to another country, he said. He said he knew IMU and Chechen gunmen, they were big and strong but the Andijon gunmen were skinny, so did not come from anywhere else. Given Bensmann’s own claims he is on friendly terms with terrorists, he might not want to anger sources by revealing things they wish to keep secret. Again, an unreliable witness.

(my emphasis)

I got in touch with that Marcus Bensmann to tell him about my (very positive) relationship with Dr. Akiner and that I am generally very much in favour of her analytical observations. As there are many conflicting accounts of what has happened, I was very interested his opinion. One should bear in mind that he is a direct witness, he stood on the square when everything sparked off. Here some of the most striking points:

- The square has been full of people. The AP photo taken by Efrim on that day is real.

- Most people on the square came from Andijon; women, children, young and old — they were not armed.

- The square is much more spacious than described by Dr. Akiner. Her accounts of the dimensions are a joke, according to Mr. Bensmann.

- People were on the square voluntarily, they weren’t forced to be there.

- There were no warnings, e.g. megaphones or shots in the air, to drive the people away from the square.

- Around 5:10 p.m., armoured cars drove past the square and the soldiers opened fire on the people standing on the square. Before, there was no attack on security forces from within the mass of people nor from the occupied Hokimat.

- Mr. Bensmann did not see any fighters from Chechnya or Afghanistan.

- According to Mr. Bensmann, Dr. Akiner forged the time of the attack and puts it to 6.30 p.m. However, it is easy to prove her wrong, as e.g. with the journalist’s telephone bill.

- Dr. Akiner writes that she has been led around through Andijon by the deputy of the local hokim and believes that she could lead fearless interviews. That is, according to Mr. Bensmann, absurd.

Mr. Bensmann is very interested, why Dr. Akiner writes such reports. He is reminded of a visit to a Soviet Gulag by Maxim Gorki and his subsequent report: “In June, 1929 Gorky visited Solovki (cleaned up for this occasion) and wrote a positive article about the Gulag camp that already gained ill fame in the West.”

I won’t comment on that. I am just very much looking forward to being in class with Dr. Akiner next year – when we’ll surely debate this topic as well.

IMHO, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these two conflicting accounts, with some bits better reflected by Mr. Bensmann (who is an actual witness). As Nathan has pointed out before, one very important thing I miss in Dr. Akiner’s reports is a call for more transparency on the Uzbek authorities’ side.