Good Dictator, Bad Dictator

As the Arab World calls for integrity in governance, corrupt and despotic regimes are being supporte

The lessons learned from the Arab Spring hold little weight in Central Asia as western governments continue to befriend two of the world's most corrupt regimes.

The pursuit of US and EU-led relationships with the leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, revealed yesterday by Transparency International to be joint third most corrupt countries in the world, calls their commitment to creating transparent democratic regimes that uphold human rights into question.

As the Arab World continues to call for transparency and integrity in leadership and governance, corrupt and despotic regimes are being supported by the EU and US in the form of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan for a European market, and bankrolling the dictator behind Central Asia's Tiananmen Square-style massacre in 2005 in order to secure access into Afghanistan. A place where, incidentally, US troops are fighting for democracy.

In their Corruption Perceptions Index 2011, Transparency International rank only the war-torn countries of Afghanistan and Somalia -- and secretive totalitarian regimes of North Korea and Myanmar -- lower than the two Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who share 177th place with Sudan.

Using the definition of corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain," the index focuses on corruption involving public officials, civil servants or politicians, and is the latest of several indictments of the Government of Uzbekistan. The international image of the authoritarian and secretive nation of Uzbekistan was damaged by the Wikileaks revelations in December 2010 which reported:

Corruption is rampant in the GOU. Tenders and government positions can be fairly easily secured by paying the right amount of money to the appropriate individual, leading to a situation in which unqualified individuals have every incentive to engage in further corrupt activity to pay off the large debts they usually incur making down payments on the jobs.

This year has not been a success for Uzbek public relations, with the President's daughter Gulnara Karimova forced to cancel her private New York fashion show due to pressure from human rights campaigners protesting against the dependence of Uzbekistan's cotton industry on state-sponsored enforced child labour. President Karimov must be wishing Uzbekistan had the big bucks of Central Asia's oil-rich Kazakhstan, which has recently hired Tony Blair to boost their international image -- not the first controversial collaboration between a Central Asian dictator and a spokesman for democracy.

The irony of financing missions to depose corrupt dictators in one area of the world while supporting dispotic regimes in Central Asia was lost on Hilary Clinton as she visited Uzbekistan in order to strengthen US-Uzbek ties at the same time as the US government was celebrating the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. Following the trend set by Prince Michael who visited in late 2010, along with the representatives of more than 70 British companies including the London Stock exchange, the US Secretary of State is establishing a pattern of engagement with corrupt dictators when it suits national interests -- did I mention that the majority of the British companies who visited in 2010 were oil and mining companies? -- rather than promoting the rejection of corruption and a call for integrity in leadership and governance that the Arab Spring so emphatically raised.

Sharing the 177th least corrupt country in the world ranking with Uzbekistan and Sudan is Turkmenistan. Little is known about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the leader of this nation of 5.5 million people -- but the Wikileaks cables suggest that Berdymukhammedov was given a £50m yacht by a Russian company in exchange for Russia winning lucrative contracts. Added to reports of human rights abuses, the lack of free elections during his six-year presidency, and the strict enforcement of a Saddam-style personality cult, the leader of Turkmenistan makes Gaddafi look sane; even slightly open-minded.

Yet this has not deterred the EU from striking a deal with the Government of Turkmenistan that will see Europe increasingly dependent on a strong relationship with the leader, and lower the chance of any encouragement for him to change his despotic ways. In October this year it was announced that the South Iolotan fields in Turkmenistan contain between 13.1 trillion and 21.2 trillion cubic metres of gas, making it the second largest gas reserve in the world. (As a comparison, the entire US had gas reserves of 5.98 trillion cubic metres by late 2007.)

The Nabucco project, backed by the European Union and the United States, will finance a pipeline to be built through Turkey pumping 31 billion cubic metres of gas a year to European markets. With this amount of gas, collaboration with a government that has dismantled all satellite dishes and imposes adherence to the former President's religious book Ruhnama seems like a small price to pay.

While lauding the Arab Spring and the call for democracy, transparency and upholding of human rights in the Arab World, British and European governments seem to have forgotten their support of despots in Central Asia.

It's not all bad though. Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan made David Cameron's Christmas Card list.

Mary Mitchell is a freelance journalist and documentary researcher specialising in Central Asia, a region she has worked in regularly since 2004. She is now based in London.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.