The fight against Islamic extremism starts with the fight against corruption

No fancy econometric model or sophisticated polling was needed to predict that Shavkat Mirziyoyev would win this month’s presidential race in Uzbekistan, a country run by one of the world’s most corrupt and repressive regimes. The candidate of the tight-knit elite that has run the Central Asian state since its independence from the Soviet Union, the only suspense about the election is whether the surprise winner of the U.S. presidential election will ditch some of his more ill-considered campaign rhetoric when dealing with the Mirziyoyev Administration.

During the campaign President-elect Trump called the law making it a crime for American companies to bribe officials of foreign governments “horrible.” Mirziyoyev’s election will give the world its first chance to see how seriously the Trump administration takes that rhetoric. With the aid of Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, the Department of Justice has corralled $850 million in bribes paid to an Uzbek official in violation of that “horrible law.”  While, thanks to that horrible law, the five countries could keep the money, they are in talks with the Uzbek government about returning it – but only on condition the funds go directly to Uzbek citizens.  

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The Department must report the status of these negotiations to the judge presiding over the U.S. litigation Jan. 31, eleven days after the Trump inaugural.  The Trump Administration could use the excuse of a new government in Tashkent to abandon negotiations and send the money back without strings.  So what will it tell the judge Jan. 31?

It should say it will continue to negotiate an agreement like the BOTA Fund agreement the Bush administration and the Swiss government reached with Kazakhstan.  After these two had frozen $85 million in bribes destined for the pockets of senior Kazak officials, they agreed to a return.  But on two conditions:  First that Kazakhstan implement reforms its own economists had long acknowledged were critical for economic growth but entrenched interests were blocking; second that the government use the funds to help its most deprived citizens.

The Bush administration pressed hard for the Kazakhstan deal because America is at the forefront of the international fight against corruption.  Returning bribe proceeds to a notoriously corrupt government without strings would have tarnished that leadership.  With Uzbekistan, much more than American leadership is at stake in a decision sending the money back without strings.

Stability in Uzbekistan rests on a foundation that combines deep-seated, rampant corruption with such an extraordinary use of forced labor, torture, and repression that human rights organizations put its government on a par with North Korea’s.  The recent experience in the Middle East teaches what a fragile foundation the combination of corruption and human rights abuse makes.  The juxtaposition of corrupt leaders living in luxury while citizens suffer daily torment was Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s most powerful recruitment tool.   

Consider the consequences if militants spark a Syria- or Libya-like civil war in Uzbekistan.  For millennia the country has been a key route for East-West trade; continued growth in the world economy depends upon expanding that route.  Uzbekistan, with its location and large Uzbek population in northern Afghanistan, is a critical player in American support for Afghanistan’s beleaguered government.  Finally, Uzbekistan borders every other country in Central Asia; it is the center of gravity of the region, and if its regime collapses the entire region will be threatened.

Reform is essential. And though President Mirziyoyev appears to recognize the imperative, his commitment remains a question, and in any case reform depends upon overcoming stiff opposition by those prospering from the status quo.   If Mirziyoyev cannot deliver on reform, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, and other radical groups in the region will soon be knocking at his door. 

Constructive, critical engagement by the U.S.  and its Western allies is a must: to nudge him to open the economy, foster private enterprise, fight high level corruption, and treat citizens with a modicum of decency. 

The best leverage the United States and its Western allies have for pushing the Mirziyoyev government in this direction is to condition return of the $850 million to move on these fronts.  A Kazakh-style agreement would bolster the Mirziyoyev administration’s support among ordinary Uzbeks while helping it overcome internal opposition to economic and political reforms.  If the money is returned without strings, these advantages are lost.  And, not incidentally, the United States would cede its leadership on the global fight against corruption, leadership praised by friends and foes alike.

It is ironic that a first test of the most unexpected winner of a presidential election in 2016 will be how he deals with the most expected winner. Will President Trump stick by Candidate Trump’s ill-advised rhetoric?  Increasing the risk that a key country in a critical region falls victim to Islamic extremism while at the same time scrapping decades of American leadership on combating corruption.  For the sake of the U.S., its allies, and the citizens of Uzbekistan, let us hope that Mr. Trump accepts the need to take seriously the fight against corruption – abroad and at home.

Richard Messick, an attorney advising Uzbekistan activists in the litigation arising from the Department of Justice’s seizure of the $850 million, is a senior contributor to the Global Anticorruption Blog.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.