Kazaks to Shop Corrupt Officials for Cash

Will the latest effort to root out thieving bureaucrats be sustained and consistent enough to change long-established ways?

Kazaks to Shop Corrupt Officials for Cash

Will the latest effort to root out thieving bureaucrats be sustained and consistent enough to change long-established ways?

As the new policy of getting tough on corruption beds down in Kazakstan, many analysts say it is looking more credible than previous efforts because for the first time, the prime culprits are being targeted – government officials and public servants.

Others remain more sceptical, particularly about a plan to pay people for reporting corrupt officials.

A decree which President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed on April 22 makes the war on corruption a priority for police and instructs the government to raise standards in public life.

This effort differs from previous ones in that it tackles the heart of government, although it remains to be seen just how comprehensive it will be.

Under a novel incentive system, members of the public will get cash rewards if they shop a corrupt state official. By contrast, civil servants will be legally bound to report such case, and could face prosecution if they fail to do so.

Government employees will also be subject to conflict-of-interest regulations, details of which have still to be worked up, and their assets will be under scrutiny both while they are in office and afterwards, to ensure these were not obtained from back-handers. Finally, there will be a list of public sector jobs where the risk of corruption is highest, and recruitment procedures here will be tightened accordingly.

Corruption affects all areas of life in Kazakstan, including business and politics. Bribes come in various shapes and sizes, from the major inducements paid to win commercial contracts all the way down to the “fees” that the average person has to pay for notionally free public services such as healthcare or getting the correct official stamp on a document.

The acceptance – until now – of high-level corruption as a fact of life has a corrosive effect on society, according to Almaty businessman Kanat Batyrov.

“If officials are mired in corruption, what are ordinary people supposed to do when they’re asked for bribes everywhere, from [securing a place in] kindergarten to higher education?” he said.

The international corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Kazakstan 145th in a list of 180 states. Although it is in the lower quarter, it still does a lot better than neighbours Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and another oil-rich Caspian state, Azerbaijan.

Speaking in early May as the anti-graft campaign got under way, Marat Jumanbay of the Agency for Combating Economic Crimes and Corruption said that most cases of embezzlement of state funds involved government officials.

Economist Rahman Alshanov says it is an open secret that government tenders are often won by the bidder who offers the biggest bribe, rather than the one with the most competitive proposal on the table.

For those involved, the lure of a lavish lifestyle is irresistible.

“It has become a priority to have a detached house and a luxury car, but it’s practically impossible to acquire these if you do your job honestly,” said Alshanov. “There’s a disconnect between the desire for material wealth and the opportunity to earn it through work.”

Aydos Sarym, a political analyst who heads the Altynbek Sarsenbayuly Foundation, named after an opposition leader killed in 2006, sees a direct correlation between corruption levels and the holding of power.

“Bribes are accepted by people who hold some kind of authority and are involved in distributing various kinds of wealth, and not only that of the state,” he said. “Those who take bribes include bureaucrats of all stripes and all ranks, the heads of enterprises where the state holds a stake, judges, policemen, doctors, teachers and lecturers.”

Sarym believes the latest campaign has come about because Kazakstan’s leaders are becoming aware that “corruption has reached an extremely dangerous level that is a threat not only to the state but to the regime itself.”

The analyst also suspects that the leadership is keen to shake off Kazakstan’s reputation for corruption as it tries to reposition and rebrand itself as an international player.

Alshanov welcomes the Nazarbaev decree as it makes it clear that officials at ministerial level, who until now believed themselves untouchable, are now fair game for corruption charges. Previously, he noted, it always seemed that the little fish were made examples of just to show the authorities were doing something.

A number of high-profile prosecutions over the last month or so suggest the ambition to tackle high-end bribery is serious.

On May 25, the head of the state uranium firm Kazatomprom, Mukhtar Jakishev, was arrested along with senior staff members and accused of corruption, Reuters news agency reported. In mid-April, deputy defence minister Kajimurat Mayermanov was arrested in connection with an allegedly crooked defence contract signed with a foreign company. A month earlier, two deputy ministers of the environment, Aljan Braliev and Zeynolla Sarsembaev, were accused of siphoning off public money.

The big question now is whether this anti-corruption drive will succeed where others have failed.

According to Alshanov, in previous cases, officials at the centre of corruption allegations were frequently able to get off the hook easily, making the whole thing look like a sham.

“An official would be reprimanded, and after some time he would resurface in another senior post,” he said. “Everyone understood that he’d bought his way out of it. In other words, the more you take [in bribes], the better your chances of buying your way out.”

Yet past failures do not have to mean this latest effort is pointless, he says, noting, “Once they start jailing high ranking officials, the public will gradually start believing that corruption can get you into serious trouble.”

In Alshanov’s view, it will all come down to implementation.

“The issue is not the decisions that are taken, but who carries them out. There has to be transparency here. If that doesn’t happen, the decisions will exist only on paper, as has been the case previously,” he said.

Like Alshanov, political scientist Sarym is hopeful that anti-corruption measures will work over time, through “constant, sustained and focused efforts” rather than speeches, declarations and one-off prison sentences designed to make an example of someone.

“I want to believe that this [campaign] will be more successful than previous ones,” he added.

Nazarbaev’s edict also contained provisions to make Kazakstan’s police force more likely to combat corruption rather than connive in it. These include a more rigorous recruitment process and better pay, to curb the appeal of taking kickbacks.

The businessman Batyrov notes that public confidence in the police is very low, as they are regarded as being hand in glove with corrupt state officials.

Nazarbaev’s announcement that cash rewards would be paid to people who report corruption cases has proved controversial. Batyrov fears that the police and judiciary are in such poor shape that they are in no position to rule on whether a denunciation is genuine, a ploy to sideline a rival or enemy, or simply a bid to win the cash prize.

Yerjan Ashikbaev, manager of a consulting firm in Almaty, agrees that the system may be abused initially, but he believes it will work in the end. He views the cash incentive scheme as being at the opposite end of the moral scale from officials who spend their time lining their pockets.

Yermurat Koshymov, a farmer from the Almaty region, also believes the scheme will encourage people to report officials who demand bribes from them.

Overall, Koshymov believes the new war on corruption is being waged so seriously that it will win public support.

“I think people are now ready to help the financial police identify those engaged in corruption, because there’s a rigorous clean-up under way and no one is being spared,” he said.

In Ashikbaev’s view, public-spirited activity needs to be accompanied by some self-examination on everyone’s part.

“A citizen who angrily criticises corruption but half an hour later is prepared to pay a bribe to resolve a personal matter is unlikely to become an active participant in the real anti-corruption fight, which will be a prolonged, systemic fight,” he said.

Galiaskar Utegulov is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Almaty.
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