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UK must work with Central Asia to combat corruption and sanctions evasion 

10 November 2023

The Foreign Affairs Committee has today published its report “Countries at crossroads: UK engagement in Central Asia”. The report calls for high-level, consistent diplomatic engagement with Central Asian countries, whilst ensuring that the UK financial services cannot be used as a conduit for illicit finance flows from the region. This is of increasing importance as these five countries become a setting for a great power competition.

Ministerial engagement   

The report describes the UK’s high-level ministerial engagement with Central Asian governments – Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – as persistently inadequate and interpreted by our partners as demonstrating a lack of seriousness from Government.   

 Deepening this engagement both bilaterally and as a regional group is a geopolitical imperative, and the Committee calls for the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State to engage with all five countries over the next three years.  

 Illicit finance  

The report finds that the UK is a leading enabler for corrupt Central Asian elites and a key node for capital flight out of the region. The Committee says that the continuance of an underenforced financial crime prosecution system in the UK constitutes an undeclared interference in the form of facilitation of kleptocratic autocracies.  

 UK agencies have been under-resourced in comparison with the wealthy individuals they are investigating, and the report calls on Government to increase resources available to law enforcement authorities, including the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office.   

 The report also urges the National Crime Agency to send agents to liaise with Central Asian governments on developing cooperation on Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO) and on returning stolen public assets from the UK.   

 The report finds that there are close links between the drugs trade in Central Asia and ruling elites and organised crime, and that funds originating in the drugs trade are being channelled through the City of London. The Committee argues that the UK cannot shirk its responsibilities: it is not only the source of demand for narcotics but is also complicit in the washing of the illicit gains of the trade.   

 Relationships with Russia  

Sanctions evasion by Russia via Central Asian states is a threat to international measures against Russia’s renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine.   

 The report calls for the Government to work with Central Asian states to reduce the dependence of their economies on that of Russia in the medium to long-term and to close off opportunities for entities involved in sanctions evasion to use the City of London and UK services.  

 The Committee underscores the dangers of Russian disinformation in Central Asia. The report argues that the insidious messages spread by the Russian state have a powerful impact on Central Asian states’ sovereignty and comments on how the older generation views the renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine and the nature of UK engagement in their countries.   

Relationships with China 

The report finds that China has taken advantage of the waning of Russian influence in Central Asia. Part of this has involved provision of Chinese surveillance technology which could be used to further curtail the rights of citizens. 

The report also notes that the UK's response should not aim to outcompete China but to take an assertive stance, providing different options to Central Asian leadership as they pursue regional cooperation. This will be key to the independence of Central Asian states from their powerful neighbour.  

Chair's comments

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, said:  

 “Sandwiched between Russia and China, Central Asian countries are courted by both powers. For too long, the UK has neglected to engage with Central Asian states. Instead, the FCDO has played whack-a-mole – easily distracted by crises elsewhere – and provided no consistent offer to Central Asia.   

 It’s clear that the UK has much to offer Central Asian states. Our report calls for ministerial engagement at the highest level – including visits from the Prime Minister. Now is the time to support regional cooperation between Central Asian states, as a project that will enrich Central Asian society and business, as well as countering Russian influence.  

 One of the major challenges in the UK’s engagement with Central Asia is our continued underenforcement of financial crimes of kleptocratic autocracies – by our inaction, we are complicit in these crimes. Central Asian elites wash the profits of their drugs trade in the offices of the City of London. The fortunes at the fingertips of ultra-wealthy elites outstrip UK enforcement agencies, who desperately need more resources.   

 While our diplomatic engagement with Central Asia should be values-led, we must also remain clear-eyed about the considerable barriers in the region, particularly those relating to human rights abuses by governments. The focus of our engagement must be improving the lives of those in the region and making the case for democracy.”  

Further information

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