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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.