Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly:“With the growth of general crime, corruption, poverty and unemployment, organized crime in Central Asia appears to have taken a more concrete form over the past 17 years. Non-transparent privatization and division of property in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union created good grounds for the growth of organized crime as large-scale frauds and thefts have flourished. These operations involved government officials, businessmen and criminals of all stripes. According to Kairat Osmonaliev, those who stole a lot do not believe themselves that the stolen property belongs to them, and, hence, the struggle to maintain such a property is fierce. [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies, Saltanat Berdikeeva is a Senior Research Analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, Washington DC, and a contributing security Analyst for Exclusive Analysis, London |*|]

“The threat of organized crime in Central Asia emerged most clearly in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the 2005 power change. Despite its surfacing from the shadow, organized crime in Kyrgyzstan has existed before 2005, while much of its context and many of its elements are replicated in the criminal underworld of its neighboring countries, albeit to differing degrees. A confluence of negative factors, such as autocracy, “institutionalized” crime, widespread corruption, deteriorating quality of life, inadequate law enforcement capabilities, and a lack of the rule of law, has created fertile grounds for the growth of organized crime in Central Asia. |*|

“But these problems are not new or unique to Kyrgyzstan. Although it is more magnified now, it has always existed. In the same way, it is a serious threat faced by all the Central Asian countries... Without the consent and true commitment of the regional governments to address crime effectively and a push for feasible and resultsoriented reforms ushered by external donors, the criminal situation in Central Asia is bound to deteriorate with deleterious implications to the regional stability. This article provides a general threat assessment of organized crime to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, focusing on major internal and transnational organized crime activities and problems and progress in addressing them. |*|

Forces Behind Organized Crime in Central Asia

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: The problem of organized crime in four Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (Turkmenistan is not included due to the lack of reliable data) “demonstrate that a combination of negative factors, the key ones being authoritarianism, corruption, poverty, weak law enforcement capabilities, lack of the rule of law, and divisions along clan and regional lines, have created fertile grounds for the growth and entrenchment of organized crime in Central Asia. Conditions are quickly worsening and could lead to a situation where these powerful criminal elements gain real power within state structures, further diminishing the capability of the government to combat organized crime effectively. [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100 |*|]

There is no standard definition of organized crime. An organized crime group, according to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime of 2000, is “a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences […] in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.” Some common features of organized crime are non-ideological strong organizations, considerable financial resources, permanency of membership, and links between “professional criminals, politicians, law enforcers, and various entrepreneurs”2 seeking “to supply illegal goods and services such as narcotics, prostitution, loan sharking, gambling, and pornography.”|*|

“The underlying problem with criminality lies in the combination of state weakness, “institutionalized” crime, endemic corruption, inadequate and incompetent law enforcement and poverty...As such, organized crime historically lacks ideological goals. It is particularly germane to post-Soviet states as ideology did not matter to post-Soviet politics. In other words, politics were de-idealized because most politicians and criminals alike valued money and stealing more than an ideology. The ties between crime and government in most post-Soviet countries exist to different degrees, and it is often difficult to separate the two. In fact, the definition of organized crime within the Central Asian context could include an active interaction between criminals and power structures, but such links vary from country to country. Since there is a strong tendency of collusion between organized crime and governments in Central Asia, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which these notions should be treated separately. One of the strengths of organized crime in the former Soviet Union, enunciated by Louise Shelley, is the privatization of the coercive capacity of the state.” |*|

Inability of the Central Asia Nations to Combat Organized Crime

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: “Weak states are not able to effectively cope with organized crime, which is often stronger than the state and is able to provide the services that the state has failed to provide. Amid weak governance, governmental feuding and political vacuums, criminal forces present a danger to the viability of the state as they penetrate the government and establish influence over parts of the country where the central authority has limited reach. These features of crime are well-established in Central Asia. The law enforcement agencies in all the countries in the region lack the capacity to fight the spread of serious organized crime. In some cases they are easily co-opted. [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100 |*|]

“The law enforcement system, bequeathed by the Soviet Union, was not designed to effectively deal with crime; it was a “tool of the state” to protect the ruling elite, not the public. Thus, without legitimate and far-reaching reform of the police forces, organized crime will continue to remain a major problem. Key among the difficulties faced by the police is a lack of trained manpower and competency, proper equipment, and sufficient salaries.For example, in 2001, while Kyrgyzstan remained a key location for drug trafficking, only “fourteen narcotics officers [were] responsible for the entire city of Bishkek [capital of Kyrgyzstan], where a quarter of the country’s 4 million people live.”|*|

“The police, particularly in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are largely demoralized, under-funded and undertrained. In the environment of corruption and lack of the rule of law in these Central Asian countries, sufficient training and funding may not be enough to raise police competency. For example, even though Kazakhstan’s police forces are in a relatively better shape than those in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, there have been reported cases of their collusion with drug traffickers. |*|

High-level government officials with vested interests in maintaining the status quo pose perhaps the biggest obstacle to police reform. Given these problems, backtracking from democratic reforms and the rise of authoritarianism of the Central Asian governments will jeopardize the viability of these states as their effectiveness to advance the rule of law and stability erodes in proportion to the loss of their own legitimacy and credibility. In this setting, the state itself begins to seek support and compromise from powerful and strong criminal entities to maintain its power.

Failure to Address Organized Crime in Central Asia

Saltanat Berdikeeva wrote in China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: On the implementation level, the reform of the security sector should be a number one priority both for the Central Asian countries and the Western donors. Such reforms must focus on the ineffective law enforcement and judiciary, which are central to operating rule of law and any effort to fight organized crime. [Source: Saltanat Berdikeeva, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 2 (2009) p. 75-100 |*|]

“A failure to address these entities is bound to perpetuate the vicious circle of corruption, crime and state weakness, thereby putting at risk the overall stability and security of these countries. Securing higher salaries, providing better equipment for the law enforcement, and “reducing corruption and dependence on political leadership” should be first steps. In order to increase the material and technical well-being of the law enforcement, the states will need to undertake dramatic structural and management changes in their financial sectors. Transparency and accountability will be key to reforms, which appears to be difficult to demand from inherently corrupt governments in Central Asia. Reform initiatives from Western donors must be comprehensive and results-oriented. |*|

“Thus far, the West has largely ignored the reform of Interior Ministries and the police. Donors appear to be reluctant to train police forces for fear of facing potential accusations of abetting police brutality. However, the ad hoc Western initiatives to reform law enforcement bodies in Central Asia appear to have fallen short of their goals. The EU’s fresh attempts to assist the Central Asian law enforcement agencies to access the Interpol services and databases is a positive step towards confronting organized crime, terrorism, drug trade and other crimes as well as fostering regional and international cooperation. |*|

“Efforts to address organized crime within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have so far been stronger in rhetoric than in action. Fundamentally, no reform will succeed without the genuine commitment of the Central Asian governments to carry them through. Many reforms have been undertaken, but there are limited positive results. An important conclusion drawn from this assessment is that a general lack of democratization in the region, which illustrates many features of the corrupt and authoritarian Soviet system, is inherently tied to the failures to fight crime. The entrenched Central Asian elites maintain vested interests in the status quo, that is, they are reluctant to reform government institutions, and the very institutions designed to tackle serious crimes serve as tools of enrichment and suppression of dissent; therefore there are limited incentives to commit to decisive reforms.” |*|

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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