Book Review: Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia

Editor’s note: This review was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in The London School of Economics Review of Books, and has been repost­ed with per­mis­sion. It is avail­able under Creative Commons and the orig­i­nal page can be found here

In Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central AsiaAlexander Cooley and John Heathershaw look at the under-explored finan­cial reach of the rul­ing elites of five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan  – who reap the ben­e­fits of glob­al­i­sa­tion while deny­ing civ­il lib­er­ties to their own pop­u­la­tions. Anton Moiseienko wel­comes this book for com­bin­ing high-qual­i­ty schol­ar­ly research with an urgent and pow­er­ful moral message. 

Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia. Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw. Yale University Press. 2017. Find this book:

While the real­i­ty of glob­al­i­sa­tion is uni­ver­sal­ly acknowl­edged, its work­ings are not always obvi­ous. Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw sets out to show how appear­ances can be mis­lead­ing and how the decep­tive­ly iso­lat­ed post-Soviet region of Central Asia is in fact deeply embed­ded in the fab­ric of glob­al­i­sa­tion. Dictators Without Borders offers a poignant account of how the rul­ing elites of Central Asian coun­tries reap the ben­e­fits of inter­con­nect­ed­ness while deny­ing civ­il lib­er­ties to their pop­u­la­tions. It also argues that all too often for­eign cor­po­ra­tions are keen to seize on dubi­ous busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties in the region while Western gov­ern­ments remain complacent.

Dictators with­out Borders deals with the five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of them share a Soviet past and faced sim­i­lar chal­lenges on the path of tran­si­tion to mar­ket economies. Despite some marked dif­fer­ences in their post-1991 expe­ri­ences, in each of these coun­tries, Cooley and Heathershaw argue, the nation­al economies have been brought under the con­trol of tight­ly-knit net­works based on fam­i­ly ties and patron-client rela­tion­ships.

The book is struc­tured around four case stud­ies. One of these revolves around the US pros­e­cu­tion of three mam­moth tele­com com­pa­nies for trans­fer­ring about US$684 mil­lion in bribes to the unnamed ‘Government Official A’ in Uzbekistan. This offi­cial is report­ed to be the late President Islam Karimov’s elder daugh­ter Gulnara, a one-time pop star and Uzbek ambas­sador to Spain (129). After crim­i­nal charges against the com­pa­nies were set­tled out of court, the US Department of Justice is con­tin­u­ing to seek civ­il for­fei­ture of approx­i­mate­ly US$550 mil­lion in alleged bribe pro­ceeds that had been stashed away in a Swiss bank. The pro­tag­o­nists of Dictators with­out Borders also include oth­er mem­bers of the rul­ing fam­i­lies from Central Asia as well as the abscond­ed Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been accused of owing around US$4 bil­lion to the bank that he once ran.

A major dif­fi­cul­ty in writ­ing a book on cor­rup­tion is that the phe­nom­e­na it deals with are most­ly clan­des­tine. Commentators are often con­signed to a diet of spec­u­la­tion, con­jec­ture and ‘guessti­mates’, which can lead to unver­i­fi­able con­clu­sions. 

Dictators with­out Borders avoids this pit­fall by mak­ing exten­sive use of court cas­es from juris­dic­tions with estab­lished rule of law tra­di­tions.  The four case stud­ies have in com­mon not just the stag­ger­ing amounts at stake, but also the fact that each gave rise to lit­i­ga­tion beyond the bor­ders of the state con­cerned. Many of these cas­es do not prove any indi­vid­ual wrong­do­ing but nonethe­less give rea­son­ably reli­able insights into the broad­er pat­terns of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal life in the region. Bringing the avail­able infor­ma­tion togeth­er in a detailed but lucid nar­ra­tive, Cooley and Heathershaw con­clude that:

auto­crat­ic elites and their allies rou­tine­ly use the pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices and insti­tu­tions of the West to ele­vate their sta­tus, play up their cos­mopoli­tanism, relo­cate per­son­al funds and cam­ou­flage their iden­ti­ties (220).

A scep­ti­cal read­er might ques­tion the nov­el­ty of these insights. After all, the notion that the wealthy across the world use off­shore com­pa­nies to con­ceal their assets is hard­ly new. Nor will any­one be sur­prised by the find­ing that real estate in places like London is prob­a­bly an attrac­tive invest­ment, or that the rich and pow­er­ful tend to retain top lawyers and PR firms and vig­or­ous­ly defend their rep­u­ta­tions. In a sense, one could say that Dictators with­out Borders con­firms some­thing that the pub­lic has already known about devel­op­ing coun­tries in gen­er­al – albeit with­out aware­ness of the spe­cif­ic Central Asian circumstances.

However, the authors con­vinc­ing­ly argue that – sur­pris­ing as it might be – the impor­tance of inter­na­tion­al finan­cial ties in Central Asia has not been ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed or act­ed upon up until now. Far from being redun­dant, such a study is in fact long over­due. By spelling out how cross-bor­der activ­i­ties can sus­tain domes­tic cor­rup­tion in the long run, it points out the ele­phant in the room and calls for action. The involve­ment of for­eign facil­i­ta­tors and inter­me­di­aries in illic­it cross-bor­der flows means that devel­oped nations, includ­ing the UK, are in a posi­tion to curb them by enforc­ing laws against mon­ey laun­der­ing and for­eign bribery.

The most dis­turb­ing part of Dictators Without Borders is its account of what it terms ‘extrater­ri­to­r­i­al inter­nal secu­ri­ty’: name­ly, attempts to silence or pun­ish dis­si­dents and whistle­blow­ers liv­ing abroad. The text abounds with exam­ples of the dan­gers that haunt those who dare to chal­lenge the wrong­do­ing of pow­er­ful offi­cials. By mak­ing explic­it the link between eco­nom­ic wrong­do­ing and oth­er sorts of abuse, the book brings the human costs of cor­rup­tion to light. It describes how even the exiles who find refuge in European coun­tries remain at risk, espe­cial­ly when their home states seek their extra­di­tion on trumped-up charges through Interpol’s Red Notice sys­tem. Ensuring that Interpol and the courts pre­vent such abuse should be anoth­er priority.

In the past few years, sev­er­al note­wor­thy books have been pub­lished that shed light on dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­men­tal prac­tices in var­i­ous parts of the world, among them works by Sarah Chayes and Karen Dawisha. Without a doubt, Dictators with­out Borders is a wel­come addi­tion to this lit­er­a­ture. Besides all the usu­al hall­marks of high-qual­i­ty aca­d­e­m­ic work, a par­tic­u­lar mer­it of this book is the sense of urgency that it con­veys by com­bin­ing schol­ar­ly analy­sis with a clear and pow­er­ful moral message.

Anton Moiseienko is a PhD can­di­date at the Criminal Justice Centre, Queen Mary University of London. He writes about the fight against cor­rup­tion and inter­na­tion­al law. Read more by Anton Moiseienko.

Note: This review and inter­view gives the views of the author, and not the posi­tion of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw

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