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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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.