TLS Reviews Dictators without Borders by Cooley and Heathershaw

Sunday, August 6, 2017
Ricardo Soares de Oliveira reviews Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia  (Yale University Press, 2017) by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw in the 4 August 2017 issue of TLS. 
 
From the review: 
 
As vilified geopolitical regions go, Central Asia ranks alongside much of Africa or the war-torn Balkans of the 1990s. And yet its landlocked post-Soviet states are scarcely covered by the Western media beyond occasional nods to power struggles over natural resources or the stirrings of radical Islam. Difficult to access during the communist era, Central Asian states saw none of the post-Cold War liberalization that Eastern Europe did and quickly fell under the sway of thuggish and distrustful elites, often the same ones as in the Soviet period. The overwhelming perception is of a region remote and isolated from global trends. In this incisive book, Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw debunk assumptions about an "unknown and obscure" heartland, arguing that Central Asia is in fact highly, if selectively, globalized. This "offshore" dimension is crucial to understanding the internal politics of Central Asian autocracies. It is also a disturbing vantage point from which to explore the functioning of the Western societies they are inextricably linked to.
 
Central Asian elites may have had little familiarity with the West until a generation ago, but they caught up quickly. From money flows and education to health care and consumption, their global, increasingly anglophone, lives are carried out in London, Paris and New York as much as in Astana or Tashkent. Through the building of international networks of financial expertise, legal protection, PR campaigns and political complicity, a certain type of Central Asian elite uses the fruits of globalization to increase sway at home (the autocrats in power bludgeon civil societies for any hint of such external support). For these new "dictators" and their coteries, the field of action is global, whether it involves laundering stolen money, burnishing cosmopolitan credentials through art acquisition, bogus charity and "corporate social responsibility", or kidnapping and killing exiled opponents. [...] Yet the most fascinating details relate to the wider manners in which "authoritarian actions and networks are systematically embedded in Western institutions, legal spaces and professional practices". Lawyers, estate agents, PR consultants and former politicians are enthusiastic service providers and handmaidens of "status" and respectability for Central Asian elites. Tony Blair's Kazak dealings are inevitably mentioned, but arguably more glaring is Prince Andrew's roving quest for UK business opportunities in Kyrgyzstan and beyond. Meanwhile, faced with funding shortages, think tanks and universities entertain increasingly compromised relations with their new Central Asian donors. The authors go beyond the usual carping about liberal states failing to promote democracy in Central Asia and argue instead that the West is a major contributor to these authoritarian outcomes.
 
This ambitious and eye-opening book shows what political science at its best - based on realworld knowledge, free of jargon and focused on substantive concerns rather than disciplinary marginalia - can contribute to pressing contemporary debates. But two barely addressed dimensions should elicit further interest from anyone working in this area. The first has to do with the authors' parenthetical acknowledgement that the influence-peddling described is not specific to Central Asian regimes but rather the general modus operandi of authoritarian states around the world. Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Qatar and Gaddafi-era Libya, to name but a few, have also sought to exert their influence in Western capitals. It is now necessary to go beyond individual or regional exposés, important as they are, and understand the systemic nature of this phenomenon. [...]