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close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart II: The Aral Sea
close this folder5. the Aral Sea and socio-economic development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe technical system of cotton monoculture
View the documentThe cotton swindle
View the documentEnvironmental problems and human health
View the documentThe problem of pesticide pollution
View the documentThe environment of the Aral Sea and international cooperation
View the documentThe future of Central Asia
View the documentRecommendations
View the documentReferences

The cotton swindle

Sharaf Rashidov, 1959 to 1983

If we are to speak about cotton and irrigation in the former Soviet Union, we must not forget Sharaf Rashidov, the late First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party Central Committee. He held the position from 1959 until his death in 1983. Before and after he became the First Secretary, internal strife was horrendous, and it was only in 1971 that Rashidov succeeded in filling the chairmanship of the Republic Council of Ministers and of the Presidium of the Uzbekistan Supreme Soviet with his followers (Carlisle, 1986). An organized state crime group, the so-called Uzbek mafia, was formed around this time. Crime usually involves a cross-section of society, but the activity of the Uzbek mafia demonstrates the real situation in contemporary Central Asia and its future. Rashidov understood clearly what was required of a republic leader, and managed to present himself in the Kremlin's corridors of power as a man personally devoted to General Secretary Brezhnev. The cotton monoculture was the creation of Rashidov himself. A sharp deterioration in irrigated land did not stop the continuous increase in the Five-Year Plan, and gave rise to report-padding. The embezzlement of federal money, acquired by reporpadding, automatically increased the annual procurement targets. Every figure went on increasing, even though it was clear that the farmers could not achieve the procurement plan. Because the plan's targets had to be met, an atmosphere was gradually created that encouraged report-padding on a massive scale.

Not quality but quantity

It was not the quantity and quality of ginned cotton (lint) but the weight of raw cotton that was inspected at the procurement centre to set the price of cotton. Report-padding was an everyday occurrence. Invoices were issued, with no goods backing them up, in order to acquire money from Moscow. The percentage of moisture or of "make weight" stones was understated. But there were still huge shortfalls in the ginning process. So it was also necessary to conceal the shortfalls in the ginning process, and this was done by any means to hand. This explains a paradox: the cotton harvest had been growing, whereas fabric production had been decreasing. Shortfalls of 0.5 to 1 million metric tons had to be produced every year on paper, for which the state paid. The money rarely went to those who toiled in the fields. It disappeared along the way, with the aid of fake work orders and paylists and fictitious persons, creating a "cash box" to fund future bribes at reception centres. In this way, a vicious circle came into being: report-padding, then embezzlement, then bribes. In Uzbekistan questions were never resolved without a bribe. Anyone offering a bribe got what they wanted. The outcome was greed, abuse of office for mercenary motives, a lack of supervision, immorality, mutual protection, graft, unscrupulousness, favouritism by geographical origin, nepotism, suppression of subordinates' initiative, and trying to please higher-ups.

The structure of the swindle

Because such matters were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Rashidov selected as his main target Mr. Churbanov, a son-in-law of Brezhnev. Churbanov rose to become First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs early in 1980. One of Brezhnev's close associates, Shchelokov, who was the USSR Minister of Internal Affairs, was also chosen as a member of the Uzbek mafia. Uzbekistan's Minister of Internal Affairs and three deputy ministers, directors of provincial internal affairs administrations, joined it too. All affairs were controlled by these actors. This was a systematic crime in the socialist state where quantity, not the quality, was the only thing that was evaluated. It was not until 1984 that quality was taken into account for payment (Juurokuhara, 1985). This explains why the formal statistics for the cotton harvest decreased suddenly in 1984. In the previous year, investigations started for the first time, and revealed that the republic's statistics before 1984 were a fiction. The investigations revealed that between 1978 and 1983 alone 4.5 million tons of raw cotton were produced on paper only. This cost the state 4 billion rubles (US$6.7 billion) in total, half of which went into the pockets of the leaders.

The start of investigations

Brezhnev died in November 1982. His successor, Andropov, who had been the Chairman of the KGB, dismissed Minister Shchelokov and began to investigate the crimes. He believed that socialism would more likely develop if scandals were exposed. Uzbekistan was the main target for Andropov and the KGB. A team from the USSR Prosecutor's Office started an investigation of Uzbek corruption in 1983. Though Rashidov was partly successful at that time in removing the leaders of the republic's KGB, thus isolating the USSR Prosecutor's team, Andropov succeeded in exposing the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. One day in 1983, First Deputy Prime Minister Aliyev, who was the chairman of the Azerbaijan KGB, from Moscow, visited Rashidov in Tashkent to pass on Andropov's tacit message. The next day, Rashidov suddenly died. Then, the Uzbek affair took a new turn, as the investigations spread through the whole country. Usmankhodzhayev, Rashidov's successor, vowed at the funeral that Uzbekistan would keep Rashidov's pledge to produce 6 million metric tons of raw cotton. He was able to do this by ordering the chairman of Uzbekistan's Council of Ministers to pad the figures by another 240,000 tons. All told, nearly 1 million tons of non-existent cotton were "produced" that year. When the cotton swindle in Uzbekistan was exposed, 18,000 people were expelled from the Party, and 330 people from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor's Office, along with 600 leaders of the government and the Party, were prosecuted. However, the social structure did not change.

The aftermath

No one ever expected to be punished for the crime. Though the Party expelled those who confessed to their crimes and removed them from their jobs, those who kept quiet continued to enjoy security and comfort. It is a contradiction for the Party to investigate itself, in that it controls everything (Tishkov, 1991). Proving bribery was almost impossible. The crude investigation, which was peculiar to the Soviet Union, was not enough to prove a swindle protected by the strong and secret organization of the Party mafia. Some key personnel were sentenced to death without the structure of the criminal activity being clarified, and some committed suicide. Every piece of criminal evidence was lost. When leading officials in the Kremlin were to be investigated, the prosecutors were ordered to stop. Some of the prosecutors had political ambitions and were standing for election. In the end, the investigation, which gave priority to confession, disintegrated completely. The decision was taken to transfer the case to Tashkent after republic President Islam Karimov appealed to the USSR Supreme Court, noting that it was necessary to take into consideration the "specific character of the republic and the existing realities." Even Churbanov, Brezhnev's former son-in-law, was released in 1993 on the decree of Yeltsin. Others involved in this crime had been released a long time ago. Nobody knows how the Russian decree was issued, who initiated it, and why. Sharaf Rashidov, whose name is increasingly heard, was also re-established in 1993 as a national hero of Uzbekistan. It means that President Karimov has to continue an Asian autocracy to keep the economy stable - as long as he keeps the old regime.