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.