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Central Asia: Corruption A Common Feature Of Daily Routine

Although corruption is seen everywhere in the world, it has different faces and scopes in various countries and cultures. While corruption is seen as a scandal in Western democracies, in many countries farther east, it is regarded as a basic part of human life. RFE/RL takes a closer look at Central Asia, where corruption has flourished for years.

Prague, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The role of corruption in the life of Central Asians begins, literally, at birth: Parents present nurses and doctors with gifts of cash in order to assure their child will be safely delivered. Then, as the child grows, so too do the number, and size, of such "gifts."

A Kyrgyz woman describes the traditional routine. "I think we give and take bribes for everything, starting with sending a child to a kindergarten, and then for getting him into a well-respected or elite school, and then we have to give bribes to get a good job. I know so many talented young people with higher educations who can't get a good job because they don't have the big money they need to pay bribes."

By the time offspring reach adulthood, the total amount of bribe money their parents have "invested" in their upbringing is considerable, especially considering average salaries in the impoverished region range between just $10 and $100 a month. When the time comes to "collect" on this investment, according to Central Asian tradition, you must "reap what you sow" -- in other words, begin taking bribes yourself.

Corruption is so ingrained in Central Asian society that it has none of the stigma of criminality or immorality that many Western societies attach to it. It is a region, unlike the West, where collective morals and public opinion mean more than written laws and individual principles. One Kyrgyz woman, discussing the role of corruption in society, says: "This is our culture. What can we do? We're not ready to live like Scandinavians."

In Central Asia, the practice is so accepted it is not even referred to as "corruption." Instead, it is looked at as a long-established art of gift giving and gift taking, and is part of the hospitality culture that is an integral part of life and national pride in Central Asia.

The tradition trickles down to nearly every aspect of life. A guest arriving for a visit is expected to bring a gift; when the guest leaves, it is the host's turn to give a present in return. If your host is someone you are hoping to do business with, all the better -- the gift-giving tradition may help seal the deal. Gifts can run from simple boxes of chocolate and bouquets of flowers to large sums of hard currency wrapped in a shiny envelope.

Jobs in Central Asia all come with an unwritten price tag. The higher the job's potential for bribe taking, the higher the price will be. Jobs in law-enforcement bodies like the Interior Ministry; Prosecutor's Office; and the judicial, tax, and customs services, as well as most government executive positions, are all considered desirably "oily," or ripe with possibilities for graft.

The tradition of corruption is deep-seated in Central Asia, a region that remains tied to the "hokim" system of rule. Hokims are territorial administrative heads, direct presidential appointees who command near-absolute authority in their regions. Through Soviet rule and the decade of independence that has followed, the hokim system has changed very little. All of a territory's financial flows pass through the hokim, making it a highly desirable position.

Uzbek dissident writer Safar Bekjon says that, although there are no official statistics on how much various hokim positions can cost, people interested in buying their way into such a career should be prepared to pay a lot of money. "In Uzbekistan, in order to become a district hokim, one should pay around $100,000. For an oblast [regional] hokim's position, you should pay up to $500,000. Of course, their deputies pay half this price. At each level, this money is collected and then sent to the upper level, to the central government," Bekjon said.

According to unofficial statistics, the prices for such executive positions in Uzbekistan are higher than in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but far below those of oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In Kazakhstan, securing an oblast hokim position may mean a bribe of up to $5 million; in Turkmenistan, such a position can cost up to $2 million. Throughout the region, such prices are determined by the individual area's potential for corruption.

Central Asia is widely considered one of the most corrupt regions in the world. Stian Christensen is a Commonwealth of Independent States program officer for Transparency International, an anticorruption nongovernmental organization. Christensen told RFE/RL that because of the lack of reliable information in the area, not all Central Asian countries are included in Transparency International's annual corruption index. But he said the problem is considered very bleak. "As a whole, the countries that have been included -- I think primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- have been very close to the bottom, or in the bottom fifth, I should say, in a CPI [Corruption Perceptions Index], which indicates a serious corruption problem. When you look at the countries that have not been included, I think, for the simple reason that their political structures tend to be less democratic, relatively, than the two countries I've just mentioned, there is reason to believe that the corruption problem is at least not any smaller than in those countries. The bottom line is that Central Asia is a highly, highly corrupt region," Christensen said.

The Transparency International expert added that there are more similarities than differences in the region when it comes to corruption. "[Central Asian corruption] comes from, I would say, very similar political systems that have developed, which can be explained by looking at the past history, very strong presidential systems, very centralized, let's say, corruption. Most of the [high-level] corruption [is] very tightly controlled. In many ways it is not, let's say, a chaotic form of corruption where anybody can grab anything. It seems to be mostly [high-level and] fairly organized, which in my opinion, of course, makes it all the most serious," Christensen said.

High-level officials in Central Asia acknowledge the problem but try to downplay its scale. In all five countries there are special committees or presidential commissions to fight corruption, but so far little has been done on a practical level to curb the problem. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev recently addressed the issue, citing the trials of two former ministers and a hokim accused of abuse of power and corruption. But independent experts believe that in Central Asia, such corruption trials are largely used by the government as a way of weeding out opponents. "We see [the fight against corruption] used as a political instrument. A lot of people claim they want to fight corruption, but it is more used as an instrument to combat your political opponents," Christensen said.

Christensen cited recent developments in Kazakhstan as an example. The trials of Ghalimzhan Zhaqiyanov and Mukhtar Abliyazov, both former high-level government officials, began after the two joined the political opposition and started to draw attention to Nazarbaev's Swiss bank account. Likewise, a continuing crackdown on Kazakhstan's independent media started soon after articles were published on the president's private finances. Christensen said Nazarbaev's declared war on corruption is, in reality, anything but. "That is, in my opinion, not a very convincing way of fighting corruption. Saying 'We want to fight corruption, but we want to do it alone,' to me sounds like a way of saying, 'We want to monopolize the corruption,' and it makes me very worried," Christensen said.

While international organizations are urging Central Asian governments to liberalize their political and economic systems and establish a balanced distribution of government power, ordinary Central Asians are pessimistic that anything can be done to change the central role of corruption. For them, life not only begins with a bribe, it ends with one as well: In order to assure a burial plot close to one's family members, a "donation" must be given to cemetery authorities.