BOOK REVIEW: The international reach of Central Asia’s autocratic elites

BOOK REVIEW: The international reach of Central Asia’s autocratic elites
Detail from the cover of Dictators without Borders.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest July 25, 2017

Dictators without Borders combats the myth of Central Asia as a deeply traditional region isolated from international financial and legal systems. Instead, it makes a compelling case that the ruling elites of the five post-Soviet republics are in fact adept at using international financial institutions and legal tools to further their political aims and for personal financial gain. 

To back up their argument, the authors of Dictators without Borders — its title is a play on the name of the NGO Doctors without Borders — use case studies from the region, drawing on a wealth of information revealed in various international legal cases. While these cases have already been reported by publications including bne IntelliNews, by bringing them together the authors are able to make a solid and convincing argument based on specific events. 

The authors of Dictators without Borders are two academics: Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and professor of political science at Barnard College, and John Heathershaw, associate professor of international relations at the University of Exeter. A large part of their book looks at how Central Asia’s authoritarian rulers have used international court systems and tools such as Interpol red notices to pursue exiled political opponents. In doing so they employ the very tools that in theory can be used against them — from anti-money laundering rules to international policing — to reinforce their domestic grip on power. 

The authors look first at the Kazakh authorities’ use of the international legal system to target former BTA Bank chief Mukhtar Ablyazov and other exiled political opponents in London and elsewhere in Western Europe. Ablyazov, a former member of the Kazakh elite who financed the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, fled his home country in 2009, shortly after his bank was nationalised at the height of the international financial crisis. 

While British courts have repeatedly found that Ablyazov and his associates were guilty of embezzling billions from BTA, the authors argue that the official explanation for the pursuit of the fugitive banker “fails to account for the sheer zeal and significant state resources that have been deployed in the international effort to fight Ablyazov”. This included the dramatic (and illegal) detention of Ablyazov’s wife and daughter by Italian security agents and their forcible return to Kazakhstan in 2013. Ablyazov was recently sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison by a Kazakh court. 

Other former members of the Kazakh elite turned exiled critics of Nazarbayev’s regime, who have been hotly pursued by the authorities include former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former Almaty mayor Viktor Khrapunov and the former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Rakhat Aliyev, who died in an Austrian prison while awaiting trial in 2015. 

Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have also used international organisations to pursue their opponents; the book gives a chilling account of how they have allegedly been used to forcibly repatriate — and sometimes kill or “disappear” — opposition activists abroad. Those who critics claim were killed on the orders of the authorities include Tajik businessman and opposition leader Umarali Quvvatov, who was killed on an Istanbul street in 2015.

“Domestic politics here works inside out. Central Asian dictatorships not only stifle political competition at home but also seek to wipe it out abroad,” the book says. 

“Central Asian governments have not passively accepted the rise of this ‘opposition in exile,’” the authors add. Instead, they have “used international state mechanisms and law enforcement tools to target their critics abroad. The diplomatic priorities of the Central Asian states, rather than pursuing national interests, have often become global projections of these authoritarian agendas”. 

Yet international laws and institutions also work in favour of high-profile exiles from Central Asia with the money and legal know-how to take advantage of the system; people like Maxim Bakiyev, the younger son of former Kyrgyz President Kurmabek Bakiyev, for instance. Known as “the prince” for his immense wealth and privileged position, Maxim’s rapacious efforts to take over any lucrative business in the country were one of the factors that precipitated Kyrgyzstan’s second revolution in 2010. 

Despite his dubious business activities, and even his conviction in Kyrgyzstan for ordering the murder of British national Sean Daley over a gold mining deal, Bakiyev is at liberty in the UK, where he lives in a £3.5mn mansion in Surrey. Having flown to the UK in his private plane shortly after the revolution, he successful claimed asylum on the grounds that he would be subjected to persecution and would not receive a fair trial in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev “has thus managed skilfully to use Western legal protections” to avoid either being sent back to Kyrgyzstan or extradited to the US.

Delving further, the book looks at the large volumes of international investment poured into Central Asia — in particular pan-regional infrastructure schemes such as those initiated by first the US and more recently China — and how these have benefitted corrupt elites.

This dates in the US’s case back to the start of the “war against terror” in 2001, after which the Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan were seen as important logistical hubs and a bulwark in the spread of extremism. Not only did this lead to the less savoury characteristics of the regimes being overlooked, it also created numerous opportunities for large-scale graft. Among deals that resulted in large-scale corruption were the fuel supply contracts at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Airport, a lucrative business for the families of the country’s first president Askar Akayev and his successor Bakiyev.

Despite all this, the authors stress that, contrary to myth, Central Asia is “not predestined to corruption” by its history, and nor are the activities described in the book specific to the region; this is a global phenomenon. “Central Asia is not exceptional … the whole system of international law, universal human rights and global governance has been undermined by secretive offshore jurisdictions,” they write. 

Finally, as well as illustrating the problem, the authors also make a strong case for reform, calling for regulatory changes in national and global governance. 

Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw, was published by Yale University Press in 2017