Book Review: Challenging myths about Central Asia

Book Review: Challenging myths about Central Asia
‘Dictators Without Borders’ sheds light on the inner workings of a little-understood corner of the world.
Updated 19 September 2017

Book Review: Challenging myths about Central Asia

Book Review: Challenging myths about Central Asia

Central Asia brings back the romance of the old Silk Road, one of the greatest trading routes in the world, and perhaps more notably, an avenue for the exchange of ideas and technologies. This ancient world in modern ferment has acquired considerable geostrategic importance due to the situation in Afghanistan, its natural resources, and its location between Europe, Asia, Russia, China, India and Iran.
“Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia” sheds light on the close link between secret financial transactions and political machinations in the Central Asian republics that became independent in the 1990s.
Central Asia made headlines worldwide when the Panama Papers were leaked to the press. The secretive world of tax havens became public knowledge. Politicians, celebrities, oligarchs — no one was spared. It became clear that Central Asian elites and businesses, far from operating in isolation, are embedded in a highly globalized system of shell companies and offshore intermediaries.
Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw take us behind the scenes through an obscure network of bankers, lawyers and lobbyists in Frankfurt, London, New York and other financial capitals. They challenge the myth that Central Asia is remote and isolated from global influences. In fact, Central Asians are more knowledgeable about global popular culture than we are about them.
Another myth the authors refute is that Central Asia’s lack of economic liberalization has caused its economic and governance problems. Although the old Soviet-Russian ruble was immediately replaced by new currencies in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, privatization policies instigated by Western experts were not governed by the rule of law, but “by the principles of neo-patrimonial relations, where ruling elites provided assets to relatives and allies in return for their absolute loyalty and a cut of the spoils,” write Cooley and Heathershaw.
These states, which have embraced economic liberalization while retaining authoritarian rule, are referred to as “hybrid regimes.” They are defined by the quasi absence of a boundary between politics and economics, and between the public and private sectors.
“Crony capitalism” has connected Central Asia to the hidden and complex global system of tax havens and shell companies, which provide the world’s mega rich with the means to dodge their taxes and protect their unlawful fortunes.
In “Tax Havens: How Globalization Really Works,” authors Christian Chavagneux, Richard Murphy and Ronen Palan explain that in financial circles, “those who know do not talk and those who talk do not know. In tax matters, those who know talk, sometimes, but those who do not know talk a lot. The world of tax havens is opaque, confusing and secretive. It is a world that is saturated with stories and anecdotes. Yet the veritable flood of information can sometimes hide a dearth of solid data.”
The post-Soviet-state-building coincided with the rapid expansion of globalization. But Eastern Europe and Central Asia took different paths. For East European countries, joining the EU dominated their political agenda.
Central Asian states were originally interested in joining European institutions, but in time they became closer to China and Russia, and joined the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Central Asia became a stratregic priority.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Central Asian rulers became new allies in the global “War on Terror.” Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provided logistical military bases for Operation Enduring Freedom, and all the Central Asian states provided transit rights for resupply and refueling. In return, the EU and US turned a blind eye to their increasingly authoritarian practices.
The Central Asian states skillfully juggled the new opportunities, institutions and legal tools provided by globalization to pursue their private economic agendas on a more global scale. Their use of shell companies played a key role in covering up their personal transactions and corrupt deals.
Corruption and environmental abuse watchdog Global Witness, in a report on Turkmenistan’s intermediary energy trading companies, says: “These companies have often come out of nowhere, parlaying tiny amounts of start-up capital into billion-dollar deals. Their ultimate beneficial ownership has been hidden behind complex networks of trusts, holding companies and nominee directors and there is almost no public information about where their profits go.”
Since many Central Asian shell companies are registered abroad, legal jurisdiction and contestation have shifted to foreign courts. In 2011, the Financial Times reported that about half of all active cases in the English Commercial Court were linked to Russia and the former Soviet states.
But this legal globalization has not advanced global governance or standards of accountability. Central Asian states have used and abused legal proceedings for their own purposes, mixing without qualms their personal business with state obligations.
Central Asian elites and oligarchs have also acquired passports and citizenship by taking part in a growing number of investor-residency programs. Countries such as Portugal, Cyprus and Malta provide passports to investors, which gives them free movement and residency rights in the EU’s Schengen area.
The UK, another popular destination, offers the Tier 1 Investor Residency program, which according to the Home Office is for people with a high net worth who want to make a substantial financial investment in the country.
The memory of the road that saw all the treasures, ideas, inventions, products and skills of the peoples of Eurasia remains alive. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2011 the concept of a New Silk Road (NSR), a web of economic and transit connections that will bind together a region too long torn apart by conflict and division. The NSR strategy continues to be a centerpiece of US policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Two years later, in September 2013, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping declared that his country would promote a Silk Road Economic Belt. A few months later, he said the land-based belt includes building transportation networks (high-speed rail, airports and roads), energy infrastructure (power generation and energy pipelines) and a 21st-century Maritime Silk Road Belt. These two belts are known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR). This project, worth $1 trillion, is far more ambitious than the NSR.
Today’s Central Asian autocrats defend their authoritarianism and protect their activities as global individuals. They benefit from the complicity of Western institutions, companies, banks, regulators and politicians, and from the indifference of the rest of the world.


What We Are Reading Today: Raceless by Georgina Lawton

What We Are Reading Today: Raceless by Georgina Lawton
Updated 01 March 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Raceless by Georgina Lawton

What We Are Reading Today: Raceless by Georgina Lawton

Raceless is an exploration of a fundamental question: What constitutes our sense of self? 

Drawing on her personal experiences and the stories of others, British journalist Georgina Lawton grapples with difficult questions about love, shame, grief, and prejudice, and reveals the nuanced and emotional journey of forming one’s identity.

The book “is a must-read for any racially integrated family, especially with children,” said a review in goodreads.com.

“This is a book written fiercely, scorchingly, with evident painful honesty. It is extremely well written and thought provoking,” it added.

“Raised in sleepy English suburbia, Georgina Lawton was no stranger to homogeneity. Her parents were white; her friends were white; there was no reason for her to think she was any different. But over time her brown skin and dark, kinky hair frequently made her a target of prejudice,” said the review.

The author expresses her journey so well that others can relate and hopefully start their own if needed. “The combination of research and her personal journey, made this a fascinating read. Her story was very raw, and she held nothing back,” said the review.


What We Are Reading Today: Promoting Peace with Information by Dan Lindley

What We Are Reading Today: Promoting Peace with Information by Dan Lindley
Updated 28 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Promoting Peace with Information by Dan Lindley

What We Are Reading Today: Promoting Peace with Information by Dan Lindley

It is normally assumed that international security regimes such as the UN can reduce the risk of war by increasing transparency among adversarial nations. 

The more adversaries understand each other’s intentions and capabilities, the thinking goes, the less likely they are to be led to war by miscalculations and unwarranted fears. But how is transparency provided, how does it actually work, and how effective is it in preserving or restoring peace? 

In Promoting Peace with Information, Dan Lindley provides the first scholarly answer to these important questions, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.

Lindley rigorously examines a wide range of cases, including UN peacekeeping operations in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Namibia, and Cambodia; arms-control agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and the historical example of the Concert of Europe, which sought to keep the peace following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. 

Making nuanced arguments based on extensive use of primary sources, interviews, and field research, Lindley shows when transparency succeeds in promoting peace, and when it fails.


What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta
Updated 27 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

What We Are Reading Today: European Passerines by Tomasz Cofta

Opening up new frontiers in birdwatching, this is the first field guide to focus specifically on the identification of European passerines and related land birds in flight. Showcasing 850 stunning and remarkably lifelike color illustrations from acclaimed bird artist Tomasz Cofta, produced using the latest digital technology, backed up with more than 2,400 photographs carefully selected to show typical flight profiles, it provides detailed and unsurpassed coverage of 205 European passerines and 32 near-passerines. This cutting-edge book brings a new dimension to birdwatching, the concise and authoritative species accounts presenting novel yet essential information on the flight manner of individual birds and the structure and behavior of flocks — features that are key to identification, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. It also includes precise transliterations of flight calls, supported by sonograms, and links to a unique collection of hundreds of online audio recordings. Beautifully designed and written in an accessible style, this book will appeal to birdwatchers of all abilities.


What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval
Updated 26 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

Authors: Dong Guoqiang and Andrew G. Walder

A Decade of Upheaval chronicles the surprising and dramatic political conflicts of a rural Chinese county over the course of the Cultural Revolution.
Drawing on an unprecedented range of sources — including work diaries, interviews, internal party documents, and military directives — Dong Guoqiang and Andrew Walder uncover a previously unimagined level of strife in the countryside that began with the Red Guard Movement in 1966 and continued unabated until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Showing how the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were not limited to urban areas, but reached far into isolated rural regions, Dong and Walder reveal that the intervention of military forces in 1967 encouraged factional divisions in Feng County because different branches of China’s armed forces took various sides in local disputes.
The authors also lay bare how the fortunes of local political groups were closely tethered to unpredictable shifts in the decisions of government authorities in Beijing, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. Eventually, a backlash against suppression and victimization grew in the early 1970s and resulted in active protests, which presaged the settling of scores against radical Maoism.


What We Are Reading Today: The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy

What We Are Reading Today: The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Updated 25 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy

What We Are Reading Today: The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy

In The Virus in the Age of Madness, world-renowned philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy interrogates the many meanings and metaphors we have assigned to the pandemic — and what they tell us about ourselves.

With medical mysteries, rising death tolls, and conspiracy theories beamed minute by minute through the vast web universe, the coronavirus pandemic has irrevocably altered societies around the world. 

Drawing on the philosophical tradition from Plato and Aristotle to Lacan and Foucault, Lévy asks uncomfortable questions about reality and mythology. He rejects the idea that the virus is a warning from nature, the inevitable result of global capitalism; he troubles the heroic status of doctors, asking us to think critically about the loci of authority and power; he challenges the panicked polarization that dominates online discourse. 

Lucid, incisive, and always original, Lévy takes a bird’s-eye view of the most consequential historical event of our time and proposes a way to defend human society from threats to our collective future.