Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan: Corruption, Shmorruption

The people of Uzbekistan are apparently satisfied corruption is on the wane, while the president of Turkmenistan is indignant it is still rampant.

The “good news” first.

Podrobno.uz website reported on February 1 that a survey in Uzbekistan carried out by polling company Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) has found that experiences of corruption declined markedly from 2013 to 2014.

Izhtimoy Fikr is notorious for its almost comically unrealistic surveys, so the vat of salt should probably be taken with only a pinch of seriousness and perhaps only to understand the extent to which the government intends to embark on a serious fight against corruption. 

Perceptions of corruption in the health care sector dropped from 37.7 percent to 25.5 percent, in education it went from 37.8 percent to 24.2 percent, and in the justice system from 24.3 percent to 14.6 percent, according to the poll.

The question “Is there corruption in Uzbekistan” yielded a 34 percent positive response in the latest query, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 53 percent in 2011.

As many 74.5 percent of respondents believe the fight against corruption is being waged effectively. Leaving the best for last, Podrobno.uz reveals that Izhtimoiy Fikr’s survey found that 80 percent claimed that they have never been exposed to extortion or bribery.

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests the real number may well literally be zero.

Transparency International’s recently issued Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 shows Uzbekistan in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.

Uzbekistan is, in fact, so corrupt that Transparency International notes that it has managed to help blot the copybook of otherwise typically high-performers.

“Take Sweden for instance. It comes third in the index, yet the Swedish-Finnish firm TeliaSonera – 37 per cent owned by the Swedish state — is facing allegations that it paid millions of dollars in bribes to secure business in Uzbekistan,” Transparency noted exasperatedly.

On a less cynical note, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) observed in a report adopted in October that Uzbekistan is demonstrating some degree of political will to combat corruption. In support of that assessment, the OECD recalls that Uzbekistan ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2008 and acceded in 2010 to the Istanbul Action Plan, which subjects the country to regular reviews and monitoring.

And then again, the most recent country OECD progress report on Uzbekistan records lack of progress pretty much across the board. (And that is despite the fact that OECD actually appears to rely on Izhtimoy Fikr to gauge the public mood. Not just that, but the OECD believes Uzbekistan has “largely” complied with its obligations to carry out corruption surveys).

The OECD notes approvingly that during its 2015 visit to conduct its latest round of monitoring, officials spoke about plans to reduce the state’s role in the economy, the introduction of a “one-stop-shop” for providing government services (to avoid opportunities for bribe-taking), e-government and the need to bolster the role of parliament. 

The same officials also purportedly insisted it was important not to rely only on repressive measures, although Izhtimoy Fikr’s findings claim to show that Uzbeks are all for the stick-not-carrot approach. Of course, threats of punitive measures all too often lead to more corruption, not less, so it is not difficult to see why some bureaucrats might lobby for that solution.

Uzbekistan’s illusory embrace of corruption-busting is likely motivated by the regularly touted plans for mass privatizations, whose success would require hapless foreigners being gulled into believing that their investments are not definitely going to be expropriated at some stage. 

On the public information front, Uzbekistan is at least, in piecemeal fashion, trying to instill the notion among young people that it is bad to take bribes.

A video developed jointly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the office of the Prosecutor General and recently released online shows what is at stake. A young man is studying hard over his books, when his friends invite him to go bowling. Drifting off into a reverie, he imagines himself having fun at the bowling alley, paying off examiners to compensate for his lack of study and then gradually achieving one success after another through kickbacks. In the end, however, he is caught in a sting laid by the honest police force and his once-proud parents can do nothing but sob pathetically as the young man has his day in the fair and transparent court.

Snapping out of his waking nightmare, the hero resolves instead to continue studying. The moral of the lesson here appears not so much that bribery is bad in itself, but rather that you might be caught. That might be a nit-pick to far, however.

Turkmenistan is not interested in any OECD or Istanbul tomfoolery, so it is the president himself that has to take up the cudgels and proceed to bash officials over the head with them.

On February 1, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took officials at the Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Ministry to task for serious shortcomings in their work.

While doing so, he fired the deputy head of the ministry, Resulmyrat Meredov. Berdymukhamedov didn’t spell out his motivations for doing so, but his follow-up remarks leave no room for misunderstanding.

The fight against corruption needs to be stepped and robust measures will be adopted against managers that allow violations, he said. 

The phrases “serious shortcomings in work” and “step up fight against corruption” appear so regularly in tandem in state media reports that it is safe to conclude that the former is essentially a codeword for stealing — or corruption to use the technical term.

And there are a lot of “shortcomings in work” in Turkmenistan, if reports on the president’s weekly Cabinet meetings are anything to go by.

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan: Corruption, Shmorruption

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