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Britain is a “leading enabler” of corrupt elites and its failure to prosecute money laundering crimes in effect “constitutes facilitation” of kleptocratic regimes in central Asia, according to a report by MPs.
The UK’s failure to clamp down on Russian evasion schemes in central Asia also represented “a real and significant threat” to the economic sanctions imposed by Britain and its allies against Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine.
The report by parliament’s cross-party foreign affairs committee stressed that British engagement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was a “geopolitical imperative” and had to be “clear-eyed”.
This was especially important as Russia had used the five countries as bases from which to evade western economic sanctions and to spread disinformation about its invasion of Ukraine.
“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,” said committee chair Alicia Kearns in a statement.
But British “under-enforcement of financial crimes” had made the UK “complicit” and allowed central Asian elites to “wash the profits of their drugs trade in the offices of the City of London”, added Kearns.
The 70-page report, titled “Countries at crossroads: UK engagement in central Asia”, followed similarly scathing criticism from the foreign affairs committee last year when it reproached the government for its “complacency” about assets laundered through the City of London that were used to finance Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Enforcement has been inadequate, not least because of a lack of enforcement capacity,” the report reiterated. “[British] state agencies have been under-resourced in comparison with the wealthy individuals they are investigating.”
It cited the example of an investigation by Britain’s National Crime Agency into London homes worth more than £80mn, purchased by a former Kazakh government official, that was rejected on procedural grounds.
The committee’s non-binding report recommended that the UK government should be actively “closing off opportunities for entities involved in sanctions evasion to use the City of London and UK financial services” and this would require “political will and resources”.
The report also recommended that the government strengthen educational and cultural exchanges programmes in the region, and cited budget cuts at the BBC’s World Service that had allowed disinformation and “insidious messages spread by the Russian state” to spread.
There was a “universal feeling of bafflement” over why the UK government did not do more, the report said, citing the example of the World Service’s sole reporter in Uzbekistan who produces his own YouTube videos on a channel with more than 1.6mn subscribers.
“The focus of our engagement must be improving the lives of those in the region and making the case for democracy,” said Kearns.