The UK’s high-level ministerial engagement with Central Asia’s governments is persistently inadequate and is interpreted by partners as demonstrating “a lack of seriousness” from the British government, according to a report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament released on November 10.
The report, entitled “Countries at crossroads: UK engagement in Central Asia”, calls for “high-level, consistent diplomatic engagement” with Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, “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.”
Deepening the engagement both bilaterally and as a regional group is “a geopolitical imperative”, said the committee, calling on the British prime minister and secretaries of state to engage with all five countries over the next three years.
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.”
In recent months, Central Asia’s leaders have had meetings with US President Joe Biden in New York and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, while last week French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
A press release summarising the report’s findings also turned to how 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.”
It added: “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 (UWOs) and on returning stolen public assets from the UK.
The report further 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.
Sanctions evasion by Russia via Central Asian states is a threat to international measures against Russia’s renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine, the report also observes.
The UK government, it said, should work with Central Asian states to reduce the dependence of their economies on that of Russia in the medium to lon term and to close off opportunities for entities involved in sanctions evasion to use the City of London and UK services.
The committee also underscored the dangers of Russian disinformation in Central Asia, with the report arguing “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”.
In another observation, the report finds that China has taken advantage of the waning of Russian influence in Central Asia, with part of this involving provision of Chinese surveillance technology that could be used to further curtail the rights of citizens.
The report also says 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,” it advises.