Independent Journalist Discovers a $150,000 Public Procurement Fraud Linked to President’s Book in Uzbekistan
As part of an assignment for EF’s Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) project’s Policy Research School, Mirzo Subkhanov, a school participant and an independent journalist from Uzbekistan, analyzed more than 300 lots on the state public procurement website. After discovering frauds totaling 1.8 billion Uzbekistani som (more than $150,000), he published an investigative article in the media, where he identified the seller and participants of the scheme. According to Mirzo, the article helped draw public attention to the shortcomings of Uzbekistan’s opaque public procurement system.
Mirzo Subkhanov is the chairman of Ezgulik, the Samarkand branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He is an experienced human rights activist and an investigative journalist. He is fascinated by Uzbekistan’s public procurement system, where all government tenders are held. To learn how to research and monitor public procurement reform in Central Asia, Mirzo enrolled in the Policy Research School.
While analyzing tender lots, Mirzo noted with surprise that between January and May 2022, approximately 300 state organizations across Uzbekistan, including universities, colleges, and the Ministry of Finance, purchased at least 378 copies of one particular item. This item was Strategy of New Uzbekistan, a book written by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of Uzbekistan, and a set of posters about the book. The book itself weighed 11 kg (24 pounds) and cost 7.8 million som (650 USD) per copy.
“It seemed unbelievable that 300 organizations [across the country] suddenly decided to buy the president’s book that costs a fortune. I thought this may suggest that someone may be forcing them to buy it,” says Mirzo.
Mirzo decided to inquire further. He discovered that the sellers were several private companies, all located at the same legal address. These sellers had an agreement with the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education regarding the purchase of the president’s book. Mirzo also learned via a whistleblower at a university that the state organizations that bought the book did so at the instruction of an official letter from the Deputy Minister of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education, who explicitly “recommended” organizations to buy Mirziyoyev’s book and the set of posters.
Upon learning that this potential corruption case involved the ministry, Mirzo was skeptical that the relevant government bodies would do anything to address the issue. So, he decided to look at the matter from a different angle.
On behalf of Gazeta.uz, where he is a writer, Mirzo prompted Uzbekistan’s Agency of Information and Mass Communications and the Department of Intellectual Property of the Ministry of Justice to study the case from the perspective of copyright infringement. “It was clear that the rights of the author, the president of Uzbekistan, have been violated, since the book and posters have been printed and distributed without his consent,” says Mirzo. “I wanted to make sure the intellectual property department [at the Justice Department] knew about this.”
To his satisfaction, the state bodies confirmed that the companies had indeed violated the law by not obtaining the consent of the copyright holder to distribute the book.
According to Mirzo, the companies have been notified of copyright infringement. Whether the case will proceed to court is still unknown. However, Mirzo says he was able to raise public awareness around this particular fraud case, which appears to be symptomatic of a public procurement corruption problem in general.
“Monitoring of public procurement is one of the main tools for fighting corruption. This is especially true for Uzbekistan, where the level of corruption is still very high,” he notes. “Unfortunately, many people do not know about the possibility of monitoring public procurement tenders. Thanks to the training I received at EF’s Policy Research School, I improved my skills in tracking the distribution of the state budget and identifying potential corruption cases.”