Central Asia often seems like a remote region. You don’t hear much about Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan playing roles in international affairs. There is an impression that the five countries are tucked away in the heart of the Eurasian landmass with only the most tenuous of ties to the world outside.
A new book, Dictators Without Borders: Power And Money In Central Asia, argues that this is far from the case, that the elites of these countries are, in fact, very well connected to the outside and are also very knowledgeable about laws and regulations in the world beyond Central Asia.
This has allowed a relatively few people in Central Asia to locate or accumulate great wealth abroad. It has also allowed the Central Asian governments to encumber political opponents who have fled their countries. At the same time, these international laws and regulations have helped some of these political opponents not only find safe havens away from Central Asia but, in some cases, retain money they brought out of their countries under unclear and, at times suspicious, circumstances.
To take a closer look, we asked the authors of Dictators Without Borders -- Alexander Cooley, the current director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York, and John Heathershaw, associate professor at Exeter University in the U.K. -- to join us on the Majlis podcast.
Those of you who have been following Central Asia for any time at all will no doubt be familiar with the extensive, previous work of our guests.
Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir, and for this one time I joined him in that role as well, as I had some questions I wanted to ask our guests.
Cooley recalled that he had already dedicated a chapter in an earlier book (Great Games, Local Rules) to the topic of transnational corruption and Heathershaw had also researched and written on such practices in Tajikistan.
Heathershaw said the two started discussing transnational corruption and found that "you spot the patterns from one Central Asian state to another...Certain kinds of practices by Central Asian elites, by company service providers that enable these flows and these networks to emerge."
Cooley mentioned that there is "this kind of constant refrain that Central Asia lacks connectivity," but the two authors' research showed it was "not the lack of connectivity, they’re the wrong kinds of connectivity. They’re systemic kleptocracy and capital flight through which these societies and countries are looted and then, with the assistance of this apparatus in the Western states, funds are taken out of the country. So there’s this myth of global isolation."
Cooley explained that far from sitting in their countries and enjoying lifestyles beyond the abilities of the average citizen in Central Asia, the region’s elites often "maintain residences overseas, they maintain bank accounts overseas, they purchase luxury real estate, they engage with international charities and international organizations, so they’re as much global players."
Heathershaw said these "global financial dimensions [are]...extremely important in telling the full story of how Tajikistan recovered from the civil war. They’re important in telling the story of the political instability in Kyrgyzstan." And, Heathershaw said, "They’re important in telling the story of how Kazakhstan’s rise as a major oil and gas power enables certain kinds of corruptions, whether Kazakhstan will fall victim to a resource curse or not."
Cooley noted that "the playbook tends to be similar," saying, "What we tend to get are elites with access to state assets, using offshore companies, shell companies that are registered overseas to parse the ownership of these assets to obscure what happens with these revenues later and these sales, and then to sort of structure deals in a way that enables future payoffs."
Heathershaw pointed out that while there are rules and regulations in Western countries to prevent such activities on their territories, in fact often these are matters of self-regulation. Heathershaw mentioned that in the United Kingdom, "real estate agents are supposed to report if they have a suspicion [about a client]...but very often, obviously, they have an interest not to report that."
And Heathershaw mentioned that the Central Asians have become acquainted with "intermediaries who facilitate these networks and exchanges."
Another sign Central Asia’s governments are connected globally is their use of international organizations to hamper the activities of political opponents who have fled Central Asia.
"One of the arguments that runs through the book is that in this quest to go after political opponents who have fled overseas, the Central Asian governments start using certain international institutions and foreign policy tools for these kinds of political purposes," Cooley said. "One of these institutions is Interpol and the Red Notice system."
Many Central Asian opposition figures have been detained, particularly in cities in Europe. Cooley said that "by tagging political opponents with accusations like they’re terrorists or that they have been involved in money laundering, this constricts the ability of political opponents to move overseas, to catch airplanes or even trains, and so their mobility is restricted and often times they are detained and then processed through the legal system of these various countries in which they find themselves."
Exeter University is compiling a database of known Central Asian political exiles to provide law-enforcement agencies, and others, outside Central Asia with a source of information about Central Asian citizens who have fled their countries and are wanted -- on frequently dubious charges -- back home.
The use of political asylum is also a topic addressed by Cooley and Heathershaw.
While most of those fleeing Central Asia have good reasons to do so, some seem to be taking advantage of asylum laws.
"If you were a former regime insider, you had access to a ministry or an insider privatization deal and you have now fallen out with the current regime, persona non grata, and you leave, part of the paradox of fleeing an authoritarian regime is you have a pretty strong case for political asylum," Cooley said.
Heathershaw said that despite the best of intentions "global governance just hasn’t kept up with these business practices and these political practices."
Heathershaw said it really should not be so surprising that Central Asian governments and elites have figured out how to use international systems and organizations to advance their own aims.
"The [Central Asian] states became independent in an era of globalization and therefore the states reflect that reality," he said.
Cooley concluded, saying, "The take-home message [of Dictators Without Borders] is as much a mirror on how we [in the West] facilitate these extraterritorial spaces for these financial transfers and for these extraterritorial authoritarian types of attacks."
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.