Shilling for Dictators?
S. Frederick Starr is by any measure that rare academic whose success mixes administrative work (former president of Oberlin College and the Aspen Institute) and top-level scholarship (leading expert on the Soviet Union, Russia and the countries in Central Asia that were created when the Soviet Union fell apart). A talented jazz musician, he's also mixed that interest with his scholarship -- and his lectures and op-eds make him a highly successful public intellectual as well.
In the last few weeks, however, Starr has found himself under attack -- accused of being an apologist for some of the world's worst dictators and for in effect selling his credibility for funds for the research center he currently runs, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a part of the School of Advanced and International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
Starr says that the accusations are unfair for multiple reasons. He says that the financial links between oil companies that need the support of Central Asian governments and his research center have been overstated and have had no impact on his views. And more important, he says that he is being criticized for demanding solid evidence to back up claims being made against those governments -- something he says scholars should always do.
Criticism of Starr's links to the governments of Central Asia was recently the focus of a Web site of the Central Eurasia Project, which is affiliated with the Open Society Institute, the effort founded by George Soros to promote democracy and civil society in the countries formerly ruled by the USSR. The site noted that Starr's institute at Hopkins recently held a screening for a video produced by the Uzbek government to refute accusations made by journalists and human rights groups that last year, in the city of Andijan, there was some sort of uprising against the government and that security forces put down the protests, with many killed in the process.
The Central Eurasia Project quoted people at the event as saying that Starr told people that the video provided "overwhelming" evidence to back the claims of the Uzbek government that the protests were instigated by Islamic fundamentalists, and that the bloodshed was much less than reported. Starr was also quoted as criticizing the journalists who reported on the events in Andijan for "lying" because of their "anti-government agenda."
These reports were the primary source in turn for an article on the Harper's Magazine Web site in which Starr was dubbed "The Professor of Repression" and his support for the Uzbek government was questioned. In that article, Starr was quoted as saying that his center did not get money from Central Asian governments or oil companies -- except for one discontinued grant.
Ken Silverstein, the author, wrote a follow-up on Starr a week later, citing evidence and additional information about the scholar that the first article prompted people to send him. In the second article, Silverstein wrote about grants Starr's center had received from several other oil and energy companies that work in the region. The second article also says that in Starr's Hopkins classes, he goes out of his way to defend the conduct of leaders of Central Asian governments -- even the infamous Turkmenbashi, the former Communist Party official who leads Turkmenistan and has established a cult of personality there that many says rivals any in the world.
A former student is quoted as saying that Starr "became notorious among students for his predictable whitewashing of each and every Central Asian despot" and that students took to calling him "Starrembashi."
In an interview, Starr freely admits that he doesn't agree with everything human rights groups or journalists say about the leaders running the countries he studies, and that frequently he disputes claims about outrages said to have taken place in those countries. But he is quick to add that he doesn't think that the governments are perfect (or anywhere close), but that he must insist on evidence before condemning groups.
"This debate is about evidence," he says. "I am opposed to those who would speak or make policy and then collect the evidence later. I'm afraid we have rushed repeatedly, and rushed to conclusions without basing them on rigorous evidence."
Starr says that the grants his center have received from oil companies were few and far between and small and have no impact on his work. He also said that the grants were never linked to the center taking any particular positions. And he calls the tactic of quoting students and others about what is said in his courses and public programs "a McCarthyite tactic."
While Starr disagrees with it, he says that there is a legitimate argument to be made to be more critical than he is of the governments of Central Asia. But he says that rather than engage him in argument, his critics are trying to silence him -- and keep scholars and policy makers from exploring his ideas -- by implying that people with his views must have been bought. The central issue, he says, is that while it may feel good to just denounce various countries, that may not help anyone.
"In the case of governments and countries that fall short of the standard of Denmark and Switzerland, how does the United States deal?" he asks. "Do you disengage in order to not sully your hands and hope that things change for the better? Or do you acknowledge that it's not a simple situation, keep up contact on the knowledge first that if you don't, you will lose all opportunity to influence the situation, and second and more serious, that they can easily form close links with countries that consider authoritarianism to be quite normal and which have no scruples on the question of civil rights and democratization and fudge questions of market economics."
The Association of International Affairs Schools does not have an ethics policy that governs how members should treat donations from governments or from companies with business interests in those countries.
Neither does the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. But John Lippincott, president of CASE -- while stressing that he was not familiar with the grants Hopkins received for work on Central Asia -- said that when seeking or accepting such grants, clarity is the key to avoiding controversy.
"What a lot of this comes down to is having clear memoranda of understanding between the donor and the organization and those memoranda of understanding need to spell out any expectations," he said, adding that those understandings "need to respect the principles of the institutions."