The image of Central Asia in the minds of many in the West is that of an exotic, distant land ruled by evil despots—its entrenched culture of corruption and repression both eternal and intractable. However, in Dictators without borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, academics Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw aim to refresh and reframe our understanding of the region.
They seek to challenge the image of an isolated Central Asia riven by a culture of corruption. They instead argue that Central Asia’s contemporary problems are not a result of isolation but rather the very opposite. Many of the region’s problems find their source in the international political, economic and legal systems of the liberal world order—tax havens and foreign banks, global real estate markets and international policing.
Central Asian leaders are now enmeshed in this international system in a myriad of ways—personally, economically and politically. They have successfully established complex transnational links which allow them to extract resources from their people and redeploy them against their enemies. Facilitated by an international network of intermediaries which actively serve to hide and protect their dubious dealing, Central Asia’s modern autocrats have taken advantage of globalization to become the titular “dictators without borders”—although the borders they transgress are more than just geographical in nature, they are also legal and ethical.
The authors recommend abandoning the artificial division between domestic and foreign affairs when it comes to understanding Central Asian regimes.
With the end of the Cold War, there was a commonly held belief that in the post-Soviet world emerging economic and political liberalizations would reinforce each other, leading to the expansion of civil society. However, in fact instability in the immediate post-Soviet environment provided the opportunity for large scale kleptocracy and the consolidation of political power. In Central Asia, rulers clung to authoritarian rule, entrenched institutional power and destroyed political opposition. In time, Central Asian leaders took advantage of the links, tools and institutions afforded by globalization to magnify their existing predatory practices to unprecedented levels.
The authors argue that Central Asia has as a result suffered not from the failure of liberalization but rather its incomplete and selective adoption. Partial liberalization of Central Asian economies and the establishment of new connections with the West has enabled domestic corruption to reach a global scale that would be impossible without access to international financial, legal and political institutions. As the authors note:
Corruption, at the grand scale, never exists without money laundering, and therefore only exists through the international financial system headquartered in London and New York.
The authors recommend abandoning the artificial division between domestic and foreign affairs when it comes to understanding Central Asian regimes. Given the closed space of most Central Asian political spheres, political contestation largely is based in overseas exile communities. As a result, Central Asian leaders now seek to reach out beyond national borders to limit and punish their enemies. International systems for legal accountability are misused to list political opponents as criminals and raise Interpol red notices against them, limiting their movements. In more extreme cases, international law is flaunted to undertake “extraordinary rendition” of accused terrorists, extremists and dissidents from third countries back home for trial.
However, the international environment is more than just a field of battle for Central Asian elites; it is also a place where ill-gotten gains can be freely enjoyed. It is in London, Moscow and Paris that the hypocrisy of Central Asia’s leaders is laid bare, with many extolling the virtues of traditional values and austerity at home while living hedonistic international lives of fast cars, luxury real estate and expensive clothes. Ironically, even the international humanitarian system has been gamed by Central Asian elites to claim political asylum—often after having spent decades reaping the rewards of the very same corrupt system from which they now seek protection. The book cites numerous examples of Central Asian figures who undergo a miraculous transformation from regime loyalist to democratic champion shortly after falling out of favor with the ruling leader.
Western banking institutions have been complicit in enabling the flight of stolen capital from Central Asia.
While it is Central Asia’s elites who bear primary responsibility for the corruption that has undermined the region’s prosperity, the authors also take the West to task for failing to enforce their own laws designed to curb such behavior.
Central Asia is not predestined to corruption by its past, its culture, its religion or its traditional social ties. Rather Central Asia’s dictators and their allies are able to abuse power and pilfer their countries resources because of the fact that international bankers accept their business and foreign politicians don’t properly enforce their own laws.
Western banking institutions, they argue, have been complicit in enabling the flight of stolen capital from Central Asia. International guidelines intended to identify and prevent money laundering often fail to recognise ill-gotten gains as they enter banks. The authors cite a notable example of a Norwegian state enterprise that was implicated in the defrauding of the Tajik people by its corrupt leaders, with wilful blindness on the Norwegian side a contributing factor to the success of the crime.
The United States, and its War on Terror, is also specifically chided for its undermining of good governance in Central Asia. In return for allowing US military forces to use their territories as a logistical hub for the military intervention in Afghanistan, Central Asian leaders were rewarded with lucrative contractual arrangements ripe for diversion to personal accounts as well as the turning of a blind eye to their domestic political repression.
Also looming in the background is the growing influence of China in the region, which is now beginning to supplant the West as a source for development assistance, financial lending and infrastructure investment. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative in particular offers an alternative to Central Asian leaders with its promise of investment in infrastructure without the more onerous governance arrangements often required by Western actors.
Also looming in the background is the growing influence of China in the region.
In their investigations, the authors of Dictators Without Borders draw on a multitude of sources. Leaked diplomatic cables and records of court proceedings provide the bulk of the data which the authors have analyzed and used to craft their arguments.
But they go beyond mere desk research. At one point, for example, they lodge false enquiries claiming to be representatives for a Central Asian country looking to establish shell companies in OECD countries. The subsequent lack of due diligence on the part of the responding companies providing a clear picture of the willingness of Western institutions to facilitate the crimes of Central Asian states.
The authors are nevertheless upfront about the limitations of their sources and evidence. Given the opaque nature of state corruption and international financial dealings, they are often only working with fragments of information—doing their best to fill in the gaps.
Turkmenistan’s former dictator-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov renamed several months of the year after himself and installed a giant golden statue of his likeness in the nation’s capital.
Given the volume and complexity of global corrupt practices at play in Central Asia, Dictators Without Borders is necessarily a dense book—and can make for a challenging read. Nonetheless, the authors do an admirable job explaining the often deliberately complex systems of shell companies and offshore tax havens that have been developed to obfuscate and conceal the nefarious activities of Central Asian leaders. The numerous simple diagrams woven through the text are particularly helpful.
Perhaps in recognition of the somewhat dry nature of their topic, the authors also work hard to balance their reportage with stories of the colorful characters that constitute Central Asia’s elite. For example, Turkmenistan’s former dictator-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov who renamed several months of the year after himself and installed a giant golden statue of his likeness in the nation’s capital which revolved in time with the movement of the sun. These add some much-needed lightness to what would otherwise be a quite overwhelming topic.
After reading the book it is clear that traditional approaches to combating the abuse of international systems for personal and political gain are no longer effective—if indeed they ever were. However, more than just a laundry list of grievances, the authors use their research as an evidence base to push for changes to international financial and governance regulations. The book therefore concludes with a series of policy recommendations aimed to persuade international financial and political leaders. For the sake of the people of Central Asia, we can only hope they are paying attention.