Bell Pottinger and the Central Asian Dictator
Time and again through history Central Asia has shown its importance for the wider world; the West would do well to learn this lesson
Yesterday, the landlocked Central Asian state of Uzbekistan played a walk-on part in a minor domestic scandal about political lobbying.
The picture painted was simplistic although broadly accurate, showing a remote and little understood nation trapped in a post-Soviet time-warp where concepts such as democracy and human rights are totally absent and the stories of the dictator’s depravity are renowned even for a particularly brutal part of the world.
While this was a chance to bring much needed focus on an appalling regime, its murderous leader and an important yet ignored part of the world, this was squandered by the left-wing media which preferred to focus on links between a lobbying firm and senior Conservative politicians.
The story in question, which ran on the front page of the Independent newspaper, involved a sting by undercover reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) posing as representatives of the government of Uzbekistan to trap staff of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs making exaggerated claims of their influence in order to secure new business.
For example, they claimed responsibility for David Cameron making a phone call to the Chinese premier to complain about infringement of British intellectual property rights within twenty four hours of a complaint from the company of James Dyson.
The scandal, such as it was, fizzled out when it was revealed that Cameron’s phone call was undoubtedly in the British national interest and Bell Pottinger only agreed to take the Uzbekistan brief if ‘real’ changes were enacted in the country. Apart from some predictable faux outrage, the regime in Tashkent received almost no scrutiny and Central Asia has since slipped back into ill-deserved obscurity.
Uzbekistan has the misfortune to be located in a vast region that has been quietly forgotten since the fall of the Soviet Union and left to stagnate in its own poverty, corruption and occasional outbursts of violence. The country has been led since 1989 by Islam Karimov, who was never a beacon of enlightenment but was, originally, not especially unpleasant either.
His was a drift through authoritarianism to outright barbarism to the extent that it is thought that the story of two terrorist suspects, said to have been executed by being boiled in oil, is not apocryphal. Either way it says a lot about his regime.
Craig Murray, the former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, was sacked after protesting against the Western collusion with Karimov in the aftermath of 9/11. He was quoted as saying, “when it comes to the Karimov regime, systematic torture and rape appear to be treated as peccadilloes.”
The choice by reporters from the BIJ to base their sting of Bell Pottinger on fictional representatives of the government of Uzbekistan was a good one. Few people in the UK have heard of it, far fewer could point to it on a map and most would probably presume it was a fictional country like the West Wing’s Kumran.
Ignorance of this region is, however, unfortunate. It occupies a geopolitical space where Russia, China and the US are all competing for influence; where Islam is becoming more powerful; and where energy pipelines snake across the barren landscapes linking remote sources with rich markets.
Time and again through history Central Asia has shown its importance for the wider world; the West would do well to learn this lesson.
William Joce works for a Conservative MP in Westminster and has lived for extended periods in Russia, having previously worked for the Politico-Military division of the OSCE in the former USSR
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