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Central Asia: Transparency Report Faults Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan For 'Systemic' Corruption

The Germany-based Transparency International nongovernmental organization has published an index that ranks countries in terms of the extent of corruption. The annual Global Corruption Report 2003 shows that Central Asian countries are plagued by problems that lend themselves to systemic corruption, mainly inactive civil societies and the lack of independent media, while local governments lack the political will to tackle the issue.

Prague, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Transparency International's annual report ranks countries according to the Corruption Perception Index, which measures levels of corruption in 102 countries around the world.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- the only two Central Asian countries to be rated in the survey -- are ranked 68th and 88th, respectively. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan are not included in the index because of a lack of sufficient data.

Stian Christensen is the program officer in charge of the Commonwealth of Independent States region at Transparency International in Berlin. He told RFE/RL that all five Central Asian countries are united by what he calls the "systemic" nature of their corruption, a legacy of the Soviet era, when irregular practices were viable means for ordinary people to persuade bureaucracy to perform its proper functions.

Christensen explained that "systemic" corruption means that corruption "is part of the way countries in the region function. It is something that is not only taken for granted by the population, but it's something that regional leaders base their power on. They have direct access, almost without any controls on them, to the revenues of the state. And they use this in a corrupt manner in order to buy the loyalty they need in order to maintain political stability in the country."

He said that fighting corruption requires the political will, which is absent from almost all Central Asian countries, to establish law and order, pass the appropriate legislation, and train more professional law-enforcement officers. Christensen pointed out that the rhetoric of officials in Central Asia rarely translates into effective anticorruption programs. "There are hardly any countries in Central Asia that don't say that they want to deal with corruption. It's by now at the point where you can't deny its existence anymore in all the countries. But clearly you're not going to take it seriously when it comes from [Turkmenistan's capital] Ashgabat. And I have problems taking it seriously from any of the other capitals, as well," Christensen said.

In Kyrgyzstan, Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov declared the anticorruption fight to be a priority after he came into office last year. The Code of Ethics for Government Personnel, which went into effect in Kyrgyzstan in January 2001, appears to have had little impact.

Christensen, however, remains optimistic about the goodwill of the Kyrgyz government on the issue. "If you're trying to find some bright spots, I'm hoping that Kyrgyzstan now bounces back and is serious about what it's saying. It's clearly indicating that it wants to fight corruption. And it desperately needs to, because that's the only way the economy can go anywhere in the country," Christensen said.

Christensen said the political will to deal with corruption in Central Asia is frequently determined by political expediency. "They use the fight against corruption as a populist tool in order to win support in the public. Now I think that this tool is less and less effective, because, as every day goes by, the leaders lose credibility using the corruption argument. You see the extreme version of that in Turkmenistan at the moment, where they even have show trials against opposition leaders, sometimes on the accusation even of corruption," Christensen said.

The report focusing on the CIS -- written by Alena Ledeneva, a lecturer at University College London -- notes that similar cases have occurred in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbaev last year dismissed his son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, and former Prime Minister Nurlan Balgymbaev from their posts of president of Oil and Gas Transportation and the chairman of Kazakhoil, respectively. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt by Nazarbaev to distance himself from an international corruption scandal.

Transparency International, Christensen noted, makes it easier for citizens to know what is going on in their government, but in Central Asia, local governments are intolerant of civil-society organizations, and more alarmingly, conditions of press freedom have deteriorated sharply in the past two years. "One should stress the problem with access to information, which is the main issue of the 2003 Global Corruption Report. And when you're talking about Central Asia, you cannot avoid that topic, because it is the main problem in the region. Maybe with the hopeful exception of Kyrgyzstan, I am very concerned. Kazakhstan [especially] has taken several dramatic steps backwards," Christensen said.

Christensen gave the example of Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was jailed last week for 3 1/2 years after he was found guilty of raping an underage girl following a trial that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe characterized as "flawed." Duvanov has run into repeated problems with the Kazakh authorities, particularly after he wrote a series of articles that looked into claims that President Nazarbaev and his entourage had funneled money into secret Swiss bank accounts.

The report says that international organizations play a particularly important role in sustaining the work of nongovernmental organizations and pressuring governments in the region to introduce higher standards of transparency, accountability, and disclosure.

In November 2001, United Nations Development Program administrator Kalman Mizsei urged Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to take tougher measures to eliminate corruption and implement reforms or risk a reduction in aid. Rakhmonov responded with anticorruption warnings to ministers and dismissed on corruption charges the head of the government agency responsible for channeling international aid to the victims of natural disasters.

The Transparency International report raises concerns about double standards in regard to the fight against corruption. Aid and loan statistics appear to indicate that Uzbekistan was let off the hook regarding corruption and human rights violations because of its strategic value, particularly after Uzbek bases became a major platform for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Christensen said that Uzbekistan has received "substantial economic support. And if there are no requirements regarding anticorruption initiatives as part of lending agreements, well then, that indicates to me that they are given the [domestic] leeway that they shouldn't."

It is unclear, Christensen noted, whether anticorruption conditions will be attached to any new international loans or aid. He insisted that "propping up" regimes that are in place is not a sustainable long-term solution.

The cost of corruption to the private sector in Central Asia is huge, while the business environment remains damaged by scandals, dampening the appeal the energy and mineral-rich region might hold for foreign investors.