Leaked Kyrgyzstan Cable: Corruption “Appallingly High”
Kyrgyzstan watchers have zeroed in on a juicy dispatch from the latest influx of wikileaked diplomatic cables: Ostensibly written by current U.S. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in October 2008, the cable describes an “astonishingly candid” discussion with the United Kingdom’s Prince Andrew and a group of British businessmen in Bishkek.The leitmotif is corruption, which the businessmen lamented was “appallingly high […] in the Kyrgyz economy.” The conversation took place during the reign of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in street riots this April, in part because he and his family were widely believed to be lining their pockets at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.
In an astonishing display of candor in a public hotel where the brunch was taking place, all of the businessmen then chorused that nothing gets done in Kyrgyzstan if President Bakiyev’s son Maxim does not get “his cut.” Prince Andrew took up the topic with gusto, saying that he keeps hearing Maxim’s name “over and over again” whenever he discusses doing business in this country. Emboldened, one businessman said that doing business here is “like doing business in the Yukon” in the nineteenth century, i.e. only those willing to participate in local corrupt practices are able to make any money. His colleagues all heartily agreed, with one pointing out that “nothing ever changes here. Before all you heard was [former President Askar] Akayev’s son’s name. Now it’s Bakiyev’s son’s name.”
The U.S. ambassador then went on to point out “that part of the problem with business conditions in Kyrgyzstan was the rapid turnover in government positions. Some reacted to their short tenures in a corrupt manner, wanting to ‘steal while they can’ until they were turned out of office.”The businessmen reportedly agreed and urged the prince “to impress upon his [Kyrgyz] hosts the importance of predictability and the sanctity of contracts in order to attract more Western investment.”
At the same time, they pointed out that none of this was necessary to attract Russian, Kazakh, or Chinese investments. It appeared to them that the Kyrgyz were satisfied with their level and on the verge of “not bothering” with making the necessary improvements to attract Western investments. Returning to what is obviously a favorite theme, Prince Andrew cracked: “They won’t need to make any changes to attract the French either!” Again turning thoughtful, the Prince mused that outsiders could do little to change the culture of corruption here. “They themselves have to have a change of heart. Just like you have to cure yourself of anorexia. No one else can do it for you.”
In parsing the cable, the British press, justifiably, has focused on dubious morals closer to home: The prince takes repeated jabs at the lack of scruples evinced by the French, while railing against “British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the ‘idiocy’ of almost scuttling” a major business deal with Saudi Arabia. (This second bit was deemed especially unsavory as His Royal Highness is not just an eccentric royal but also a special trade representative of the UK government.)The Guardian’s PovertyMatters blog, however, scolded Prince Andrew for making light of corruption in impoverished Kyrgyzstan:
There are few issues that are more important to poor countries, or poor people, than corruption. […] Whether corruption harms a country economically depends largely on whether stolen money is spirited out of the country to be spent or invested elsewhere, or reinvested locally. Corruption was endemic in Britain in the 19th century, just as it is in China today – but because the money is invested domestically, it hardly hinders economic growth. But in many other countries, including Kyrgyzstan, vast quantities of money leave the country, thus undermining fragile hopes for economic progress while further enriching a small elite.
Sounds about right.