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Peter Zalmayev Headshot

The Cost of Corruption

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As legislators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member states gathered in Oslo on July 6 for the annual session of the organization's Parliamentary Assembly, led by Kazakhstan, the organization's chair this year, the irony of a corrupt government presiding over the meeting, whose theme this year is "Rule of Law: Combating Transnational Crime and Corruption," was palpable. After all, President Nazarbayev is an unindicted co-conspirator in the longest-running and largest corruption trial in the history of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The so-called "Kazakhgate" case, which is being heard in the Southern District Court of New York, involves allegations of kick-backs in tens of millions of dollars from oil companies wishing to do business in Kazakhstan and facilitated by a shady American middleman. It was no surprise, therefore, when Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Kanat Saudabayev, failed to show in Oslo for his two-hour-long address to the assembly.

The U.S. Presidential administration and the State Department, including the Helsinki Commission (a quasi-independent agency of the Federal Government charged with monitoring compliance with OSCE's founding charter) must remind the Kazakh chairmanship in the remainder of 2010 of the obligation it has to its own citizens, its neighbors and the OSCE community at large. It must also do some soul-searching of its own and take a hard look at its own frequent role of the enabler of the region's corrupt and undemocratic ways, including by giving a carte blanche to the region's tin strongmen, including recently overthrown kleptocratic Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Having given its weight -- shortsightedly -- to the 2010 bid for OSCE chairmanship by Kazakhstan, whose president has squashed all internal dissent and shut down those newspapers which dared cover the Kazakhgate, Washington has been largely silent on Astana's conspicuous failures so far in this lofty perch. Despite its promises, Kazakhstan has failed to initiate credible anti-corruption reforms in its own backyard. With Kazakhstani sycophantic political establishment too busy promoting the idea of bestowing upon Nazarbayev the title of "Leader of Nation," no doubt as a present for his upcoming 70th birthday, the chairmanship also missed its chance to diffuse tensions which led to the bloody downfall of Kyrgyz President's Bakiev's regime two months ago and, subsequently, to mediate in Kyrgyzstan's escalating unrest following Bakiev's ouster. Had it done so, this latest horrifying round of bloodshed could have been prevented.

Washington has ruled out an active intermediation in the conflict in Kyrgyzstan, deferring to Russia and, potentially, the UN. It must be reminded, however, of the partial responsibility it bears for the bloodshed by aiding and abetting Bakiev's criminal and corrupt regime, first through negotiating with him a new deal for the lease of the Manas airbase, structured in a way - wittingly or not -- that enriched the former president and members of his large family, and subsequently turning a blind eye to the regime's growing authoritarianism and corruption. It was precisely the corrupt influence of clannish politics which was given free rein under Bakiev that made last month's bloodshed possible. The money that the disgraced former president and his henchmen are said to have paid to the marauding mercenaries to foment unrest in order to unseat the interim government had been earned by milking this poor land-locked country dry through a feudal system of patronage, enriching a small political elite and leaving crumbs for the rest 95% of the population, seething in resentment and looking for scapegoats. Corruption, as the bloodshed in Osh has so vividly demonstrated, is far from a victimless crime.

Unless the U.S. administration heeds its lesson and stops giving region's strongmen like Bakiev and Nazarbayev a clean bill of health, it risks witnessing a repeat of the bloodshed in Osh, when corrupt former and present politicians are able to manipulate disenfranchised masses into committing mass-scale violence against their fellow-citizens. The US must work with Kazakhstan's chairmanship following the Oslo conference to put together a credible anti-corruption plan containing verifiable benchmarks. With respect to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan must be persuaded to use its substantial institutional mandate as chair of OSCE to lay the foundation for genuine peace there thorough an impartial inquiry into the circumstances of the bloodshed. The idea floated in Oslo is to seek the UN Security Council's mandate for a commission of inquiry under the joint EU-Council of Europe-OSCE auspices. This is Kazakhstan's chance to assert its ambitions of a regional powerhouse: it must flex muscles to bring the reticent Kyrgyz government on board.

Finally, the U.S. must do some housecleaning of its own and start acting as an honest broker in the region: the ongoing congressional investigation into the deals it struck with the Bakiev regime for the use of the airbase is a step in the right direction.