Tag Archives: Central Asia

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why I Miss the Berlin Wall

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This week’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me back, not to warm fuzzies about peace and freedom and Gipper Ron Ron and winning the Cold War, but the reaction of my former BFF Dan (whom I miss for his talent for lightening-quick, wicked-brilliant repostes).

The Berlin Wall has fallen, I informed him. Germany is reunited.

Thoughts?

“This,” he replied as usual without missing a beat, “is like the reunion tour recently announced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I didn’t care for any of their previous collaborations, and I’m not looking forward to the next one.”

The former two Germanies haven’t given us another Hitler. Not yet. But Germany 2.0 did revive and realize the Führer’s dream of uniting Europe into a unified trading bloc, with a common currency, big enough to give the United States a run for its devalued money. The new euro was, naturally, pegged to the old Deutsche Mark. Germany is by far the most powerful nation in Europe.

Which is a good place to start my List of Reasons I Miss the Berlin Wall.

As usually-correct economist-professor-columnist (and usually ignored) Paul Krugman has pointed out over and over, the German-dominated European Union — which would never have come into being had the Wall remained standing and the Soviet bloc continued to exist — has been an unwieldy amalgam of political autonomy and fiscal union, dragging relatively poorer nations like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (“PIGS”) into a vicious cycle of austerity, budget cuts and seemingly endlessly rising unemployment. “The creation of the euro was about politics and ideology, not a response to careful economic analysis (which suggested from the beginning that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency),” Krugman wrote in May.

Why should hard-working Germans bail out lazy, corrupt Mediterranean nations? Protestant pundits ask. Scratch the surface of the Eurozone crisis and you find that the Germans aren’t the victims here. Far from propping up their swarthy southern partners, Germans are using their control over the euro to turn the PIGS into trade debtors.

Adolf blew his brains out but Germany won the war. Cuz: reunification.

The most important consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall was, of course, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Economic shock therapy” — U.S.-backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s misbegotten attempt to convert the USSR’s state economy to neoliberalist capitalism overnight — led to the infamous Russian Mortality Crisis, when death rates soared 40% in Russia, and even higher in other former Soviet republics.

It has been estimated that 30 million people either died or will die as the result of the catastrophic dissolution of the USSR.

Socialism was destroyed but not replaced. The power vacuum opened by the collapse of the Soviet system was quickly filled by gangsters. Corrupt former factory managers forcibly seized state property and industries whose profits might otherwise have been used to create a blow-softening social safety net for the millions who lost their jobs. Hard drugs from Central Asia and Afghanistan, set free to fall apart after Gorbachev stepped down, supplemented rampant alcoholism. The infamous Russian oligarchy rose during this period, widening the gap between rich and poor, and set the stage for Putinism supported by traumatized Russians who happily chose authoritarianism over the anarchy of the post-Soviet period.

No wonder most Russians tell pollsters they miss the Soviet Union.

Former Soviet client states lost their financial and military backing. Nations like Somalia and Congo disintegrated into bloody civil conflict.

But hey. The demise of the Evil Empire was good for the United States, right?

Not really.

American and European citizens paid trillions for the Cold War. After 1991, pundits promised a “peace dividend” — lower taxes, more public spending on infrastructure and social programs. Barely two years later, the peace dividend was gone — spent, ironically, on the high costs of the Soviet collapse.
“Defense cuts and reductions in military forces have brought in their wake a series of job losses,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reported in 1993. “The transitional costs of the end of the Cold War, combined with the inadequacy of government responses across Western Europe, have meant that we are worse, not better, off.”

You’d think that, as believers in the magic of the marketplace, Americans would see the value of competition in the world of ideas, militarily and politically, on the international scene. Whether or not they admit it, however, citizens of the United States have gotten softer and dumber after assuming their status as the world’s last remaining superpower. Unchallenged ideologically and otherwise, Americans questioned themselves and their beliefs in capitalism and American exceptionalism even less after the 1990s than before. But now, as de facto rulers of the last empire, Americans became the obvious targets of choice for opposition forces that want to change the new order, like fundamental Islamist movements.

It’s tough to disagree with the French writer Nicolas Bonnai, who noted in Pravda in 2012: “The US oligarchy [went] berserk, started new wars everywhere with the Bush dynasty and ruined [its] finances. Drastic inequality became the lemma of this crazy society driven by lunatic leaders and wars. Today America leads to nowhere; America is just a [locus] (Al Qaeda) of the new global matrix made of wars and terrors, manipulation and deregulation.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall created at least as many hardships as blessings.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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Autographed Copies Now for Sale! Revised/Updated 2014 Edition of “Silk Road to Ruin”

The expanded paperback 2nd edition of Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the Next Middle East is OUT NOW. You can order it from Amazon or scroll below to order an autographed copy directly from me. Signed copies come with a personal sketch and can be dedicated to anyone you want. And most of the money goes to me, unlike Amazon, which pays authors about a buck a copy.

The new edition updates the politics and current events sections to the present. In addition, there is a bonus chapter about my expedition to Lake Sarez in Tajikistan — Central Asia’s “Sword of Damocles,” which could cause an epic flood that could kill millions of people at any time.

If you are a book critic or reviewer interested in a review copy, please contact NBM Publishing directly.

If you would like me to speak about Central Asia and the new book at an event, please contact me through the contact form here on the Rallblog.

To order an autographed copy:


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Silk Road to Ruin: 2nd paperback edition

The expanded paperback 2nd edition of Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the Next Middle East comes out April 1, 2014. It is now available for pre-order from Amazon. The new edition updates the politics and current events sections to the present. In addition, there is a bonus chapter about my expedition to Lake Sarez in Tajikistan — Central Asia’s “Sword of Damocles,” which could cause an epic flood that could kill millions of people at any time.

I will sell personally signed copies of the book through my website. Please use the contact form if you’d like me to add you to the mailing list and I will get in touch as soon as I have copies to sell — probably around May 1st. (The Amazon copies will ship first, though.)

If you are a book critic or reviewer interested in a review copy, please contact NBM Publishing directly.

If you would like me to speak about Central Asia and the new book at an event, please contact me through the contact form here on the Rallblog.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: We Learned Nothing From 9/11

Ten Years Later, Americans Still Stupid and Vulnerable

They say everything changed on 9/11. No one can dispute that. But we didn’t learn anything.

Like other events that forced Americans to reassess their national priorities (the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik) the attacks on New York and Washington were a traumatic, teachable moment.

The collective attention of the nation was finally focused upon problems that had gone neglected for many years. 9/11 was a chance to get smart—but we blew it.

First and foremost the attacks gave the United States a rare opportunity to reset its international reputation. Even countries known for anti-Americanism offered their support. “We are all Americans,” ran the headline of the French newspaper Le Monde.

The century of U.S. foreign policy that led to 9/11—supporting dictators, crushing democratic movements, spreading gangster capitalism at the point of a thousand nukes—should and could have been put on hold and reassessed in the wake of 9/11.

It wasn’t time to act. It was time to think.

It was time to lick our wounds, pretend to act confused, and play the victim. It was time to hope the world forgot how we supplied lists of pro-democracy activists to a young Saddam Hussein so he could collect and kill them, and forget the “Made in USA” labels on missiles shot into the Gaza Strip from U.S.-made helicopter gunships sold to Israel.

It was time, for once, to take the high road. The Bush Administration ought to have treated 9/11 as a police investigation, demanding that Pakistan extradite Osama bin Laden and other individuals wanted in connection with the attacks for prosecution by an international court.

Instead of assuming a temperate, thoughtful posture, the Bush Administration exploited 9/11 as an excuse to start two wars, both against defenseless countries that had little or nothing to do with the attacks. Bush and company legalized torture and ramped up support for unpopular dictatorships in South and Central Asia and the Middle East, all announced with bombastic cowboy talk.

Smoke ’em out! Worst of the worst! Dead or alive!

By 2003 the world hated us more than ever. A BBC poll showed that people in Jordan and Indonesia—moderate Muslim countries where Al Qaeda had killed locals with bombs—considered the U.S. a bigger security threat than the terrorist group.

In fairness to Condi Rice, Don Rumsfeld and Bush’s other leading war criminals, everyone else went along with them. The media refused to question them. Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, cast votes in favor of Bush’s wars. Democrats and leftist activists ought to have pushed for Bush’s impeachment; they were silent or supportive.

9/11 was “blowback”—proof that the U.S. can’t wage its wars overseas without suffering consequences at home. But we still haven’t learned that lesson. Ten years later, a “Democratic” president is fighting Bush’s wars as well as new ones against Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Now he’s saber-rattling against Syria.

American officials correctly inferred from 9/11 that security, particularly at airports but also in ports where container ships arrive daily from around the world, had been lax. Rather than act proactively to close gaps in transportation security, however, bureaucrats for the new Department of Homeland Security created a gauntlet of police-state harassment so onerous that it has threatened the financial health of the aviation industry.

“Aviation security is a joke, and it’s only a matter of time before terrorists destroy another airplane full of innocent passengers,” wrote Barbara Hollingsworth of The Washington Examiner after the 2009 “underwear bomber” scare. As Hollingsworth pointed out, the much-vaunted federal air marshals have been removed from flights because the TSA is too cheap to pay their hotel bills. (This is illegal.) What’s the point of taking off your shoes, she asked, when planes are still serviced overseas in unsecured facilities? No one has provided an answer.

Ten years after 9/11, there is still no real security check when you board a passenger train or bus. Perhaps the sheer quantity of goods arriving at American ports makes it impossible to screen them all, but we’re not even talking about the fact that we’ve basically given up on port security.

While we’re on the subject of post-9/11 security, what about air defenses? On 9/11 the airspace over the Lower 48 states was assigned to a dozen “weekend warrior” air national guard jets. Every last one of them was on the ground when the attacks began, allowing hijacked planes to tool around the skies for hours after they had been identified as dangerous.

Which could easily happen again. According to a 2009 report by the federal General Accounting Office on U.S. air defenses: “The Air Force has not implemented ASA [Air Sovereignty Alert] operations in accordance with DOD, NORAD, and Air Force directives and guidance, which instruct the Air Force to establish ASA as a steady-state (ongoing and indefinite) mission. The Air Force has not implemented the 140 actions it identified to establish ASA as a steady-state mission, which included integrating ASA operations into the Air Force’s planning, programming, and funding cycle. The Air Force has instead been focused on other priorities, such as overseas military operations.”

Maybe if it stopped spending so much time and money killing foreigners the American government could protect Americans.

On 9/11 hundreds of firefighters and policemen died because they couldn’t communicate on antiquated, segregated bandwidth. “Only one month away from the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” admits FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, “our first responders still don’t have an interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety. Our 911 call centers still can’t handle texts or pictures or video being sent by the phones that everyone has.”

Because the corporate masters of the Democratic and Republican parties love the low wage/weak labor environment created by illegal immigration, American land borders are intentionally left unguarded.

A lot changed on 9/11, but not everything.

We’re still governed by corrupt idiots. And we’re still putting up with them.

What does that say about us?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: A Tsunami 100 Times Worse Than Japan

Apocalypse Looms in Landlocked Central Asia

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last week has killed at least 10,000 people. It is terrible. It may be a sneak preview of something 100 times worse.

The next Big Flood will probably be the worst natural disaster in history. It could easily be avoided.

Yet no one is lifting a finger to save the lives of one to five million people.

Lake Sarez, in the eastern Pamir mountains of eastern Tajikistan, is known to Central Asians as the region’s “Sword of Damocles.” A mile wide and 600 feet deep, Sarez is one of the biggest high-altitude bodies of water on earth, at an elevation of 11,200 feet.

Lake Sarez was created just over 100 years ago in a remote corner of what was then czarist Russia. On February 18, 1911 a 7.4-scale earthquake, common in the Pamirs, shattered a mountain adjacent to the Murgab River. The resulting landslide formed a half-mile high natural dam that blocked the river. Today the lake is 37 miles long.

Geologists have been warning about the Sarez threat since Soviet times. Now it’s urgent. Due to climate change the clock on the Sarez time bomb runs faster every year. During the 1990s the water level was rising eight inches a year. Now it’s one or two yards.

Scientists say the dam is going to burst. Whether a quake dislodges a rockslide that creates a wave that crests the dam, or melting glaciers brings the water to the top, computer models predict a devastating inland tsunami sooner rather than later.

Seventeen cubic kilometers of water will be instantly released. A wall of water 800 feet high will cascade down a series of river valleys in four countries.

In 2007 I trekked up to Sarez in order to research a magazine article for Men’s Journal. The following is from that piece:

“The 75-mile Bartang Valley, cultural and spiritual heartland of the Ismaili Muslims, would lose 30 villages and 7,000 people. The Bartang empties into the Pyanj, a large river that marks the border with northern Afghanistan, then Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan. Six hundred miles downstream from Lake Sarez, the flood would cross into another time zone. Even this far downstream, Scott Weber of the U.N. Department for Humanitarian Affairs told New Scientist in 1999, ‘the wall of water would still be as high as a two-story house.'”

“The city of Termiz in southern Uzbekistan is home to 140,000 people, the Uzbek-Afghan Friendship Bridge that the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan, and currently a German airbase with 3,000 NATO troops. Termiz would be obliterated. The water would keep going. The Pyanj is a tributary of the Amu Darya, which Alexander the Great knew as the Oxus. The flood path would continue along the Amu Darya, roughly marking the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before emptying into the shrunken Aral Sea, 1,200 miles downstream of Sarez.”

“Five million people—mostly residents of landlocked deserts that routinely reach 125 degrees—would be drowned by snow melt.”

That will only be the beginning of the misery.

Most of the arable land in Central Asia will be destroyed by silt. Tens of millions of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Afghans and Tajiks could starve.

This might happen in 10 years. Or next week. It could be happening now.

We can prevent it.

The dam can be shored up. A bypass to release pressure can be tunneled through bedrock around the left flank of the natural dam. Liberal cost estimates of such an engineering project run around $2 billion.

Tajikistan is desperately poor. Over a third of its GDP comes from Tajiks who have moved to other countries and send money back home to their families. The Tajik government doesn’t have the cash.

However, $2 billion is small change to Western countries. The U.S. spends that to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for one week.

When Men’s Journal published my piece on Lake Sarez in 2008 I hoped it would prompt the U.S. to act. Aside from preventing the worst natural disaster ever, couldn’t we use five million new best friends in the Muslim world?

I sent copies to Presidents Bush and Obama, members of Congress, the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international organizations. No one replied.

Interestingly, Japan is one of the few donor countries to have taken interest in Lake Sarez, having coughed up a few million dollars for a monitoring station. But there’s still no way to evacuate people living downstream in the event of a breach.

Why don’t the U.S. and other wealthy countries care about Lake Sarez? Maybe they’re just not paying attention. Also, the Tajiks don’t have oil or natural gas.

Whatever the reason, a flood that will make the current disaster in Japan look tiny by comparison is becoming increasingly likely. And it will be mostly our fault.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The New Face of Revolution

After Tunisia and Egypt, the World

From the British newspaper the Independent: “Like in many other countries in the region, protesters in Egypt complain about surging prices, unemployment and the authorities’ reliance on heavy-handed security to keep dissenting voices quiet.”

Sound familiar?

Coverage by U.S. state-controlled media of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is too dim by half: they say it’s an Arab thing. So it is. But not for long. The problems that triggered the latest uprisings, rising inequality of income, frozen credit markets, along with totally unresponsive government, span the globe. To be sure, the first past-due regimes to be overthrown may be the most brutal U.S. client states—Arab states such as Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. Central Asia’s autocrats, also corrupted by the U.S., can’t be far behind; Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who likes to boil his dissidents to death, would be my first bet. But this won’t stop in Asia. Persistent unemployment, unresponsive and repressive governments exist in Europe and yes, here in the U.S. They are unstable. The pressure is building.

Global revolution is imminent.

The first great wave of revolutions from 1793 through 1848 was a response to the decline of feudal agrarianism. (Like progressive historians, I don’t consider the 1775-1781 war of American independence to be a true revolution. Because it didn’t result in a radical reshuffling of classes, it was little more than a bunch of rich tax cheats getting theirs.)

During the 19th century European elites saw the rise of industrial capitalism as a chance to stack the cards in their favor, paying slave wages for backbreaking work. Workers organized and formed a proletariat that rejected this lopsided arrangement. They rose up. They formed unions. By the middle of the 20th century, a rough equilibrium had been established between labor and management in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. Three generations of autoworkers earned enough to send their children to college.

Now Detroit is a ghost town.

The uprisings we are witnessing today have their roots in the decline of industrial production that began 60 years ago. As in the early 1800s the economic order has been reshuffled. Ports, factories and the stores that serviced them have shut down. Thanks to globalization, industrial production has been deprofessionalized, shrunken, and outsourced to the impoverished Third World. The result, in Western countries, is a hollowed-out middle class—undermining the foundation of political stability in post-feudal societies.

In the former First World industry was supplanted by the knowledge economy. Rather than bring the global economy in for a soft landing after the collapse of industrial capitalism by using the rising information sector to spread wealth, the ruling classes chose to do what they always do: they exploited the situation for short-term gain, grabbing whatever they could for themselves. During the ’70s and ’80s they broke the unions. (Which is one reason average family income has steadily declined since 1968.) They gouged consumers in the ’90s and ’00s. (Now their credit cards are maxed out.) Now the banks are looting the government.

Now that the bill is due, they want us to pay. But we can’t. We won’t.

It’s bad enough during a cyclical recession, when millions of Americans are losing their jobs and getting evicted from their homes. When the government’s response to an economic holocaust is not to help these poor people, but instead to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars to the giant banks and insurance companies causing the firings and carrying out the foreclosures, it’s crazy.

And when the media tells the one in four adults who is “structurally” (i.e. permanently) unemployed that he and she doesn’t exist—the recession is over! recovery is underway!—it’s obvious that the U.S. is cruising for revolution. Not the Tea Party kind, with corny flags and silly hats.

American Revolution, Tunisian/Egyptian style.

Late last year I wrote a book, The Anti-American Manifesto, which calls for Americans to revolt against our out-of-control plutocracy and the corrupt political biarchy that props it up. I expected the Right to react with outrage. To the contrary. While the desire for revolution is hardly universal among Americans, it is widespread and distributed across the political spectrum. Revolution, when it occurs here, will be surprisingly popular.

Criticism of my Manifesto centers not on its thesis that the status quo is unsustainable and ought to go, but on my departure from traditional Marxist doctrine. Old-school lefties say you can’t (or shouldn’t) have revolution without first building a broad-based popular revolutionary movement.

“We are still in a time and place where we can and should be doing more to build popular movements that can liberate people’s consciousnesses and win reforms necessary to lay the foundation for a transformed society without it being soaked in blood,” Michael McGehee wrote in Z magazine. “All this talk about throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails is extremely premature and reckless…”

Maybe that used to be true. I think things have changed. Given the demoralized state of dissent in the United States since the 1960s and the co-opting of radical activists by the cult of militant pacifism, it would be impossible to create such an organization.

As I argue in the book, anyone who participates in the Official Left as it exists today—the MoveOns, Michael Moores, Green Party, etc.—is inherently discredited in the current, rapidly radicalizing political environment. Old-fashioned liberals can’t really help, they can’t really fight, not if they want to maintain their pathetic positions—so they don’t really try. America’s future revolutionaries—the newly homeless, the illegally dispossessed, people bankrupted by the healthcare industry—can only view the impotent Official Left with contempt.

Revolution will come. When it does, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt, it will follow a spontaneous explosion of long pent-up social and economic forces. We will not need the old parties and progressive groups to lead us. Which is good, because they aren’t psychologically conditioned to create revolution or midwife it when it occurs. New formations will emerge from the chaos. They will create the new order.

In my Manifesto I argue that old-fashioned ideologies are obsolete. Left, Right, Whoever must and will form alliances of convenience to overthrow the existing regime. The leftist critic Ernesto Aguilar is typical of those who take issue with me, complaining that “merging groups with different political goals around an agenda that does not speak openly to those goals, or worse no politics at all, is bound for failure.”

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may well be destined for failure—but it doesn’t look that way now. So far those popular insurrections have played out exactly the way I predict it will, and must, here in the United States: set off by unpredictable events, formed by the people themselves, as the result of spontaneous passion rather than organized mobilization.

In Egypt, an ad hoc coalition composed of ideologically disparate groups (the Muslim Brotherhood, secular parties, independent intellectuals), has coalesced around Mohamed ElBaradei. “Here you will see extremists, moderates, Christians, Muslims, all kinds of people. It is the first time that we are all together since the revolution of Saad Zaghloul,” a rebel named Naguib, referring to the leader of the 1919 revolution against the British, told Agence France-Press. ElBaradei’s popularity, said Tewfik Aclimandos of the College de France, is due to the fact that “he is not compromised by the regime; he has integrity.”

This is how it will go in Greece, Portugal, England, and—someday—here. There is no need to organize or plan. Scheming won’t make any difference. Just get ready to recognize revolution when it occurs, then drop what you’re doing and then organize.

What will set off the next American Revolution? I don’t know. Nevertheless, the liberation of the long-oppressed peoples of the United States, and the citizens of nations victimized by its foreign policy, is inevitable.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: WikiLeaks: The Devils We Know

Cables Reveal Background of Pro-Dictator U.S. Policy

After the Soviet collapse in 1991 U.S. policy toward Central Asia was transparently cynical: support the dictators, screw the people.

As the U.S. stood by and watched, corrupt autocrats looted the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Dissidents were jailed, massacred—even boiled.

Well, actually, the U.S. was anything but passive. They negotiated deals for oil and gas pipelines. They rented airbases after 9/11. They poured in tens of millions of American tax dollars—all of which wound up in secret bank accounts belonging to the dictators and their families. Meanwhile, average citizens lived in abject poverty.

During trips to Central Asia the locals constantly ask me: “Why doesn’t America stop supporting [insert name of corrupt dictator here] so we can kill him and free ourselves?”

Poor, naïve people. They believe our rhetoric. They think we like democracy. Actually, we’re all about the looting. Dictators are easier to deal with than parliaments. One handshake and a kickback, that’s all you need with a dictator.

Central Asia only had one democratically elected president, Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan. George W. Bush ordered the CIA to depose him in a coup.

Americans who care about human rights have long wondered: Is the State Department stupid and/or naïve? Or did the diplomats in Tashkent and other capitals of unspeakable misery understand the brutal and vile nature of Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders?

An examination of the WikiLeaks data dump answers that question: Yes.

Hell yes.

Like those from concerning more prominent countries, the WikiLeaks cables on the Central Asian republics can be funny. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a U.S. “ally in the war on terror” who seized power in a palace coup following the death of Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov, is described as “the ‘decider’ for the state of Turkmenistan.” This is true. Turkmenistan is an absolute dictatorship in which millions starve while Berdimuhamedov’s inner circle feasts on the profits from the world’s largest reserves of natural gas.

A December 2009 cable describes America’s pet autocrat as “vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,’ and vindictive.”

According to an unnamed source, the outwardly conservative dictator has a Russian mistress named Marina, with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter. Though Berdy’s power may be limitless, his intellect is not. “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is,” says the cable. “Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”

No one’s perfect. Least of all America’s allies in Central Asia.

On the other side of the steppe in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev presides over the world’s largest oil reserves with an iron fist. Among his greatest hits: the convenient “suicides” of his top two political opponents a few months before a presidential “election.” The two men apparently shot themselves in the back of the head, then bound their own hands behind their backs and dropped into a ditch outside Almaty.

Needless to say, Nazarbayev is another valuable U.S. ally in the war on terror.

But that doesn’t stop American gossip. Nazarbayev’s defense minister, says an embassy staffer in Astana, “appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true ‘homo sovieticus’ style—i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.” But alcoholism isn’t illegal. Graft is—and the president is public enemy number one.

“In 2007, President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, celebrated his 41st birthday in grand style,” explains an April 2008 cable. “At a small venue in Almaty, he hosted a private concert with some of Russia’s biggest pop stars. The headliner, however, was Elton John, to whom he reportedly paid one million pounds for this one-time appearance.” How did he come up with all that coin? “Timur Kulibayev is currently the favored presidential son-in-law, on the Forbes 500 list of billionaires (as is his wife separately), and the ultimate controller of 90% of the economy of Kazakhstan,” states a January 2010 missive.

Membership has its privileges. The U.S. has never spoken out against corruption or human rights abuses in Kazakhstan.

So it’s clear: American diplomats have no illusions about their brutal allies. Interestingly, Central Asia’s overlords have a dismally accurate view of corruption in the U.S. government.

“Listen, almost everyone at the top [of the Kazakh regime] is confused,” First Vice President Maksat Idenov told the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan early this year. “They’re confused by the corrupt excesses of capitalism. ‘If Goldman Sachs executives can make $50 million a year and then run America’s economy in Washington, what’s so different about what we do?’ they ask.”

No response was provided.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

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Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?

This is the book I wanted to write instead of To Afghanistan and Back — everything you ever wanted to know about Central Asia, without having had to attend grad school — but didn’t have time. Five years later, I was able to release my Central Asia brain dump, a book anyone can read cold and come away understanding the importance of the region and why it’s so interesting.

Comprising travelogue, political analysis and five graphic novellas, “Silk Road to Ruin” examines the “New Middle East”–a part of the world the United States is focusing upon more than the Middle East. “Silk Road to Ruin,” featuring an introduction by “Taliban” author Ahmed Rashid, includes 200 pages of essays about everything from oil politics to the wild sport of buzkashi and 100 pages of graphic novel-format comics about each of my five trips to the region.

Elderly Central Asians are starving to death in nations sitting atop the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Looters are cavalierly ambling around in flatbed trucks loaded with disinterred nuclear missiles. Statues of and slogans by crazy dictators are springing up as quickly as their corrupt military policemen can rob a passing motorist. And on the main drag in the capital city of each of these profoundly dysfunctional societies, a gleaming American embassy whose staff quietly calls the shots in a new campaign to de-Russify access to those staggering energy resources.

CIA agents, oilmen and prostitutes mix uneasily and awkwardly in ad hoc British-style pubs where beers cost a dollar–a day’s pay and more than enough to keep out the locals. In an extreme case of the “oil curse,” wealth is being pillaged by U.S.-backed autocrats while their subjects plunged into poverty. Meanwhile Taliban-trained Islamic radicals are waiting to fill the vacuum.

It is a volatile mix. But does anybody care? Maybe not — but you should.

Transformed by what I saw being done in America’s name and eager to sound the alarm, I went back to remote Central Asia again and again. I returned to visit the region’s most rural mountain villages. He brought two dozen ordinary Americans on the bus tour from hell. I went as a rogue independent and as a guest of the State Department. I came back to cover the American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, then went back again. Capitals moved, street names changed and the economic fortunes of entire nations turned on a dime from year to the next, but those changes merely reinforced my  belief that Central Asia is really the new Middle East: thrilling, terrifying, simultaneously hopeful and bleak, a battleground for proxy war and endless chaos. It is the ultimate tectonic, cultural and political collision zone. Far away from television cameras and Western reporters, Central Asia is poised to spawn some of the new century’s worst nightmares.

“Ted Rall’s Silk Road to Ruin is a rollicking, subversive and satirical portrait of the region that is part travelogue, part graphic novel. It’s fresh and edgy and neatly captures the reality of travel in the region.” —Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia

For decades in the 19th century, the world’s superpowers competed in Central Asia in what became known as the Great Game, an epic scramble for influence and resources that still is being played today. Despite the high stakes — including what may be the planet’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas — the competition for the exotic lands between the Himalayas and Russia’s southern border has had remarkably few chroniclers. With ‘Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?’ Ted Rall fills that void with a book that combines fascination with Asian exoticism and the punchy distancing of cartoons and pop-culture irony. Rall is a former investment banker and expert in the harsh but potentially wealthy region known as ‘the Stans.’ His book is an unconventional, provocative and bitterly funny mix of travel diary, tour guide and graphic novel based on the author’s voyages, from Beijing to Turkmenistan through China’s remote Xinjiang region and the oil-rich steppes of Kazakhstan. The resulting collection is a travel book unlike any other. Besides pipelines, snow-capped mountains and Islamic radicals who may have alluded to the 9/11 attacks two years before the fact, Rall encounters along the way corrupt police, bizarre cult-of-personality regimes and the world championship of a sport where players are often killed during matches. —Bloomberg

Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?
Essays and Graphic Novellas, 2006
NBM Hardback (Original 2006 Edition), 6″x9″, 304 pp., $22.95

NBM Paperback (Expanded/Revised 2014 Edition), 6″x9″, 320 pp., $22.95

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