Tag Archives: turkmenistan

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Life Under Trump – What Happens Now?

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What happens now?

I suppose it’s my own fault that everyone’s asking me how America will change after January 20th. Such is the price one pays for being America’s political Cassandra: predicted Donald Trump would win the election, told the Democrats snubbing Bernie was a mistake, said we would invade Iraq two years before we did (and that we’d lose), may have been the only person besides Barbara Lee who knew that the “good war” in Afghanistan wasn’t good and wasn’t winnable. I wish I were this good at picking stocks; it pays better.

Anyway: what does happen now?

explainersmallThree scenarios show us what every day life in Trumpian America will probably feel like: Third World dictatorships, prison, and having an alcoholic parent.

In a dictatorship, particularly where the despot is a megalomaniac in the vein of a Saddam Hussein or a Muammar Gaddafi, citizens obsess over the Great Leader’s every move.

These days, there’s no better place to witness this phenomenon than the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. These days, a guy named Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is in charge of this former Soviet backwater. Berdimuhamedow recently made news by unveiling a massive statue of himself, in gold, riding a golden horse, on top of a cliff. (I assume he’s unfamiliar with “The Man From Snowy River.”)

Berdimuhamedow comes off as a relatively modest fellow compared to his predecessor, Sapamurat Niyazov. Niyazov, who gave himself the title “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of All Turkmen), plastered his face on even huger statues, posters, postage stamps, and the nation’s currency. He named everything after himself and his family, including a major city, months of the year, and a meteorite. But while it isn’t hard to draw a comparison between Niyazov’s ego and that of a certain New York real estate developer, what’s particularly relevant is the outsized impact Turkmenbashi had on Turkmens’ everyday lives.

Not unlike the pigeon- and kite-banning Taliban regime in nearby Afghanistan, Niyazov was constantly passing edicts and decrees about anything and everything that crossed his mind. He banned lip-syncing, dogs (only from the capital, because of their “unappealing odor”), smoking (only among government employees, and only after he had heart surgery), opera, ballet and circuses (“decidedly unturkmenlike”) and beards.

Imagine what he could have done on Twitter at 3 am.

New Yorkers facing four to eight years of midtown Manhattan gridlock due to the security cordon around Trump Tower can already sympathize with motorists in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat who know to stay put whenever their dictator is on the move because every major artery is closed. Neither Trump nor the Turkmen tyrant gives a fig for creating commuting havoc.

Whenever I visited Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi, the only thing anyone ever talked about – and this included ex-pats – was Turkmenbashi. What wacky new rule might the quirky monster impose next? What psychotic new infrastructure project? A ski resort in the blazing hot desert nation? A giant lake?

There was no getting away from this guy. If your kid wanted to go to college, Turkmenbashi was the country’s one-man university admissions committee, personally considering every applicant.

Turkmenistan’s totalitarian regime controls where people work, what news they see, even their facial hair. In such a nation obsessing over the leader’s latest moods isn’t just a symptom of a sick society – it’s a tactic essential for human survival.

Trump probably won’t impose totalitarianism. He’s too lazy for that. But you can already see his manic mind at work, for example at his first post-election news conference. He’s all over the place, free-associating to the point of babbling: “Our veterans have been treated horribly. They’re waiting in line for 15, 16, 17 days. Cases where they go on in and they have a minor early-stage form of cancer and they can’t see a doctor; by the time they get to the doctor, they’re terminal. It’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen. So David is going to do a fantastic job.”

Ho-kaay.

Trump wants to control aspects of our lives that used to belong to us. He’s unpredictable and weird and on some sort of spectrum and now, he’s incredibly powerful. No wonder we are watching and waiting so attentively: we’re scared!

We ought to be.

Many of us will feel like inmates in a prison. People who have done time will tell you that it’s important to study the guards, particularly the sadistic ones. You don’t want to wind up dead just because some correction officer came to work in a foul mood following a fight with his girlfriend, and you weren’t smart enough to avoid or suck up to him.

If you have or had an alcoholic parent, you are probably well prepared for what we as a nation are about to endure. How much you get abused tonight will be directly related to how many Daddy Donald tied on after work. So it’s always wise to watch how fast he takes the turn into the driveway. Read the signs right, and you might just make it out the back door in time.

Of course, there’s also the big question: will America survive Trump?

The country will survive no matter what. The system? Maybe not. At this point, probably the only thing that would save the system would be for the Republican-controlled Congress to impeach Trump. (This would also have the effect of saving the Republican Party.) This would have to happen in relatively short order, no longer than in a year or two.

Sorry. I wish I had better news.

It’s never fun to be a Cassandra.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. Please consider supporting Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Politics Behind a Paywall: If CNBC Sponsors a Debate, Did It Really Happen?

There are two kinds of media censorship: direct and self-directed.

In an authoritarian regime, nothing gets published or broadcast without state approval. I watched the inner workings of direct government control of the press during a visit to Turkmenistan. Every magazine and newspaper was run out of the same office. Many were edited by the same people, all wearing the same lapel pins, an image of the country’s then-dictator, Sapamurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.

This didn’t exactly make for a bunch of scintillating reads: the “our harvest rocks” stories were direct heirs of propaganda in the Soviet Union, of which the Turkmen SSR was a remote outpost. But it did offer clarity. The Turkmen people have never suffered from any illusions about the nature of their political system. They knew they weren’t free.

Censorship exists everywhere. In the so-called “free world,” however, political and cultural gatekeepers work to try to fool citizens into thinking that it does not. This morning, on NPR, I took note of an in-house ad in which an employee of the network claimed that it reports “unbiased news.”

There is, of course, no such thing as unbiased reporting or analysis. I’ve been listening to NPR for decades. In stories about foreign policy crises, never once have I heard an interview with a pacifist, someone who is against all military action. Whether it’s about Iran or ISIS, the “debate” is always between two varieties of interventionism: harsh (sanctions, i.e. “containment”) and harsher (bombs). If NPR’s “Marketplace” has ever interviewed a communist about why capitalism sucks and should be replaced, I missed it. Biased? You betcha. Always. Inevitably.

Here in the United States, censorship is usually self-directed. No one from the State Ministry of Propaganda calls The New York Times to tell them what’s fit to print. They make those decisions on their own. But those calls are informed by who those editors are — the elite schools from which they graduated (Columbia Journalism School), their class background (parents rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School), input from their friends and colleagues (other people whose parents are rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School). Who they are determines what makes it into print.

Which is often motivated by a desire not to offend those in power.

Major American media outlets are run by people who believe that they need access to those in power, which is to say government officials and corporate executives, in order to do their jobs. The Los Angeles Times, where I worked until July, fired me, apparently as a favor to the police. You see, I drew cartoons critical of police brutality and incompetence. The cops, understandably, didn’t like that. So they ginned up an excuse — since disproven — for the paper to get rid of me. Now they’re in a pickle. They know they messed up, but if they admit it they’ll hurt their relationship with the LAPD by revoking their favor to them. That might mean, the next time there’s a big O.J.-type crime story, that the LAPD refuses to feed them information.

A cartoonist colleague working in the Midwest tells me that, after he drew an anti-police cartoon, the cops stopped talking to his paper’s reporters. If the paper wants tips from the police, they’ve let his editors know, all they have to do is fire their cartoonist.

America, land of innovation, has now conceived of yet a third kind of media censorship: economic.

Last night, like millions of Americans, I turned on my TV to watch the third Republican presidential debate. Since I only subscribe to the basic cable package, however, I couldn’t get it. It only aired on CNBC, which where I live is on premium cable. (It didn’t livestream online either.)

I pay north of $120 a month for cable TV and broadband Internet access. This makes me a relatively privileged member of the mediarati. But not privileged enough. To watch a political debate — a civic ritual that used to be, and still ought to be, on every TV channel and radio station, free, by law — I would have to bump that up to something closer to $200. This is really, really wrong.

As a result, I — and other political commentators — are reduced to commenting on a debate as seen through the lens of media elites who have those $200 a month to spend.

Many millions of Americans, particularly young people, have “cut the cord” and watch only streamed television and movies. You can’t accuse them of apathy if you won’t let them participate in a presidential campaign.

Here’s how niche CNBC is. Debates sponsored by FoxNews and CNN averaged 24 and 23 million viewers, respectively. (After CNN offered livestreaming, Fox followed suit.) CNBC’s all-time viewing record is 3.9 million, during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Economic censorship is gross. But, much like the brazenness of censorship under a dictatorship, putting politics behind a paywall serves as an unintentional signifier. The system is not of, by or for you, the people.

It’s the ultimate triumph of pay-to-play electoral politics: democracy without voters.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 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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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse

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What the Media Can’t/Won’t Tell You About Why Russia Invaded Ukraine

As usual, America’s foreign correspondents are falling down on the job.

Stories devoid of historical context cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a naked act of neo-Soviet aggression. Considering that the relevant history begins a mere two decades ago, its omission is inexcusable.

The spark that led to the takeover of Crimea was not the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich. It is what happened the day after.

A 2012 law gave the Russian language official status in regions where Russians comprise more than 10% of the population. This is the case in most of eastern Ukraine and particularly in Crimea, where 59% are ethnic Russians.

One week ago, Ukraine’s rump parliament (members of Yanukovich’s party, hiding from opposition forces and in fear for their lives, didn’t show up) took advantage of Yanukovich’s downfall to overturn the language law. Americans didn’t notice, but Russians did.

            Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, tweeted that day.

Seems a little over-the-top, right?

Sure, but only if you don’t know that millions of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics have suffered widespread discrimination and harassment since the 1991 collapse — and that their troubles began with laws eliminating Russian as an official language.

Laws like the one passed last week in Ukraine.

The demise of the Soviet Union left 25 million Russians stranded in 14 newly independent states, in such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. These new countries had to scramble in order to create the trappings of national identity virtually overnight. They designed new flags, composed national anthems and printed new currency.

To instill a sense of loyalty and patriotism, the governments of many of the freshly-minted republics resorted to rank nationalism.

Nationalism isn’t just about what your country is. It’s also about what it isn’t. This requires defining some things — some people — as outsiders. Unwanted. Scapegoats. Enemies of the state.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian dictatorship and former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is one example. It instituted a policy of “Turkmenization” after 1991. Russians, a privileged group before independence, were now refused work permits. A 2000 decree banned the use of the Russian language in official business; since Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state and all business is legally governmental, this reduced Russians who didn’t speak Turkmen to poverty and low-status jobs.

The Turkmen government abolished dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, leading to the mass exodus of panicked Russians in 2003. Denaturalization — the stripping away of citizenship — followed. “Many people…were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline,” reported the UN. Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned.

“Over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions,” says the report.

Russians who remained behind after 2003 fared poorly. “On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty. Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs.”

Harassment of Russians is rife throughout the former USSR. Every other Commonwealth of Independent States nation has abolished dual citizenship.

In the former Soviet Union, everyone knows that the road to statelessness, unpersonhood and poverty begins with the official elimination of Russian as an official language.

National language statutes targeted against Russian speakers are analogous to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which prevented Jews from holding jobs or even owning a radio: the beginning of the end. At the end of the Soviet period in 1989, the Tajik SSR passed a law establishing Tajik as the sole official language. Less than two decades later, 85% of ethnic Russians had left the country.

“The linguistic nationalization carried out in each republic provided a strong impetus to emigrate…Even if schools systematically introduce children to the official language today, the [former Soviet] states have established no programs to train adults,” Seymour Peyrouse noted in a 2008 report for the Woodrow Wilson Institute about the Central Asian republics. “It seems that the principal cause of emigration remains the absence of a future, or the perception of such, for the younger generations.”

Given recent history, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that ethnic Russians freaked out when one of the first official acts of Ukraine’s parliament was a linguistic nationalization law.

As for Russia’s response, you need to know two facts. First, Ukraine isn’t as independent of Russia as, say, Poland. None of the former Soviet republics are. “Kiev is an ancient Russian city,” Masha Gessen writes in Vanity Fair. “It is an overnight train ride from Moscow — closer than 90% of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine — the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.” And of course there’s the Black Sea Fleet. Really really independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil.

Had it been possible for rational diplomats and demographers to manage the Soviet collapse, Crimea probably would have wound up in Russia.

Until half a century ago, after all, Crimea was Russian. Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, at the time, it did not occur to anyone that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and that Ukraine would again be an independent country,” writes The Moscow Times.

It’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin would invade, why Russian public opinion would support him, and why neither cares what America thinks. Back in September, after all, most Russians told pollsters Crimea is part of Russia.

Why are American reporters covering Crimea ignoring the big picture, and instead so focused on secondary distractions like how it makes Obama look and whether there’s a chance of a new Cold War?

Four horsemen of the journalism apocalypse afflict overseas reporting:

Journalistic stenography, in which attending a government press conference constitutes research.

Kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions, while reflexively assuming that rivals of the U.S. are ill-intentioned.

Jack-of-all-trades journalism, in which the same writers cover too many different beats. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there.

American ahistoricism, the widespread and widely acceptable ignorance of politics and history — especially those of other countries.

All four horsemen are pulling the Crimea story, but the fourth — not being aware of stuff that happened just one generation ago — is the most embarrassing.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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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: Libya: Another War We Shouldn’t Believe In

Why Won’t Obama Explain His Third War?

U.S. forces fired 110 cruise missiles at Libya on the first day of the war. Each one cost $755,000 to build; $2.8 million to transport, maintain and shoot. Austerity and budget cuts abound; there’s no money for NPR or teachers or firefighters. Note to union negotiators: the government has lots of money. They’re spending it on war.

For people too young to remember Bosnia, this is what a violent, aggressive, militarist empire looks like under a Democratic president. Where Bush rushed, Obama moseys. No one believed ex-oil man Bush when he said he was out to get rid of the evil dictator of an oil-producing state; Obama, the former community organizer, gets a pass under identical circumstances. Over the weekend, also the eighth anniversary of the start of the Iraq quagmire, there were few protests against Obama’s Libya War, all poorly attended.

I spent the weekend in New York at Leftforum, an annual gathering of anti-capitalist intellectuals. “What do you think about Libya?” people kept asking. What passes for the Left is ambivalent.

In part this waffling on Libya is due to Obama’s deadpan (read: uncowboy-like) tone. Mostly, however, the tacit consent stems from televised images of ragtag anti-Qadafi opposition forces getting strafed by Libyan air force jets. We Americans like underdogs, especially when they say they want democracy.

Still, the President is not a dictator. He can’t declare war. And while he might be able to lie his way into one, he and his party will pay at the polls if he fails to explain why we’re attacking a nation that poses no threat to the United States.

There are a lot of questions we—and journalists—should be asking Obama. Obviously, we’re broke. Our military is overextended, losing two wars against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. How can we afford this?

Also:

1. Whom are we helping?

The U.S. and its allies are destroying Libya’s air force in order to tip the balance in the civil war in favor of anti-Qadafi forces. A similar approach, aerial bombardment of Afghan government defenses, allowed Northern Alliance rebels to break through Taliban lines and enter Kabul in 2001. It could work again in Libya.

But who are these anti-Qadafi forces? Rival tribes? Radical Islamists? Royalists? What kind of government will they establish if they win? What are their ideological and religious affiliations? If anyone in the media or the White House knows, they’re not telling.

Or perhaps, as in Iraq, the White House doesn’t have a governance plan for post-Qadafi Libya. Which, as in Iraq, could lead to chaos. No nation should go to war without considering the long-term consequences.

Before we pick sides in a conflict, shouldn’t we know for whom we are going billions of dollars further into debt?

2. Does Qadafi have the right to defend himself?

From Shea’s Whiskey Rebellion to Confederacy to the Red Scares to the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, the U.S. government has violently suppressed armed rebellions. How then can the U.S. claim moral authority to prevent other governments from doing the same thing? (“The U.S. is more moral than Libya” is not an acceptable response. Obama murders and tortures more people than Qadafi.)

3. What about self-determination?

If the Libyan people rise up and overthrow Qadafi, an authoritarian despot well past his expiration date, that’s great. Shouldn’t that struggle be a Libyan matter, to be settled between Libyans? Isn’t a government that emerges from indigenous internal struggle more likely to enjoy widespread support than one that results from outside intervention?

“Free men set themselves free,” said James Oppenheim. Can a people truly feel emancipated when they owe their freedom—and later, inexorably, their oil and gas—to a foreign superpower?

4. Why are we OK with some dictators, but not others?

Since the Middle East began blowing up we’ve heard a lot of talk about Obama’s dilemma: How do we reconcile American values with American strategic interests? In a good country—at least a non-hypocritical one—they are the same.

Obama is employing circular logic. “Why strike only Libya, when other regimes murder their citizens too?” asks Chris Good in The Atlantic Monthly. “Obama’s answer seems to be: because the UN Security Council turned its attention toward Libya, and not other places.” But the UN reacted in response to the U.S.

In other words: We’re agreeing to a request that we made ourselves.

Ideology and policy must be consistent to be credible. If we have a policy to depose dictators, then all dictators must be targeted. We can’t just take out those in countries with lots of oil. We ought to start with tyrants for which we bear responsibility: our allies and puppets. At this writing the U.S. supports or props up unpopular authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

5. Is Libya our geostrategic business?

The United States has no substantial historical ties with, innate cultural understanding of, or geographic proximity to, Libya. Even under the imperialist doctrine of “spheres of influence” that governed international relations during the Cold War, Libya falls under the purview of other would-be interventionists. Italy, and to a lesser extent Britain and France, are former colonial masters. The Arab League and African Union have interests there. Even if you buy the sentimental argument—”Are we going to stand by and watch Qadafi slaughter his own people?”—why us? Why not the Africans or Europeans?

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

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