On July 22, 2015, Kyrgyz police arrested Daniyar Narymbaev, the head of President Almazbek Atambaev’s office, on charges of fraud. The arrest followed the revelation that ex-Bishkek mayor Nariman Tyuleev’s relatives were attempting to give Narymbaev a $100,000 bribe in exchange for an easier review of Tyuleev’s corruption case.
Narymbaev’s arrest was a drastic measure designed to highlight Atambaev’s commitment to curbing corruption in Kyrgyzstan. After the arrest, Kyrgyz authorities boldly declared their intention to imprison anyone involved in the plunder of state resources.
While the trials of senior officials like Narymbaev and Tyuleev are a positive step, the Kyrgyz government’s self-described “war on corruption” has been a bitter disappointment. Kyrgyzstan remains in 136th place on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and ranks only in the 13th percentile of countries on the criteria of government control over corruption.
The miserable failure of Kyrgyzstan’s anti-corruption campaign can be attributed to two primary factors: its inability to reverse longstanding public distrust for judicial institutions, and the campaign’s focus on prosecuting individuals rather than reforming corrupt institutions. The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. Analysts like Shairbek Juraev, Director of the Central Asian Studies Institute at the American University of Central Asia, argue that the Kyrgyz government generally targets relatively easy cases based on “who is networked and who is not,” instead of systematically trying to root out corruption in the highest places.
Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous transition process created a great deal of political alienation amongst its people. The court system remains one of Kyrgyzstan’s least trusted institutions. In 2000, 83 percent of Kyrgyz polled distrusted the court system, and successive regimes failed to rehabilitate its image.
Corruption has also tarnished the office of the presidency. Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s blatantly nepotistic October 2009 appointment of his son as the head of Kyrgyzstan’s development agency outraged reform-minded Kyrgyz. This lack of trust has weakened the credibility of subsequent state-backed anti-corruption initiatives, like the 2011 Internet anti-corruption database.
The legal proceedings against Narymbaev have confirmed public skepticism and highlighted the subservience of the court system to the political establishment. Rita Karasatova, the Director of the Institute for Public Analysis, claimed in an August 1, 2015 Institute for War and Peace Report (IWPR), that Atambaev personally requested the indictment of Narymbaev. Karasatova, and Cholpon Jakupova, Director of legal aid clinic Adilet, both believe that the politicization of the police and the court system, is too extensive for these institutions to prosecute a high official without presidential consent. The dependence of Kyrgyzstan’s legal and judicial institutions on executive approval will also deter would-be whistleblowers from reporting crimes, undermining the anti-corruption campaign further.
Public distrust is also growing due to the perception that the current trial proceedings are opportunistically timed. Karasatova believes that Atambaev willfully delayed the prosecution of Narymbaev until the scale of his crimes became so egregious that he was forced to confront them. Narymbaev’s status as a close parliamentary ally to Bakiyev, a president associated with nefarious corruption, provides contextual support for this accusation and indirectly suggests his complicity with corruption since at least 2005.
In light of these problems, Atambaev’s high-profile corruption trials appear to have backfired. The true measure of a credible anti-corruption program is active citizen participation and public confidence in the government’s willingness to prosecute crimes. Both characteristics are painfully lacking in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s anti-corruption campaign so far has been a campaign against corruption perception, rather than a campaign against the forces driving institutionalized corruption. The emphasis on creating a hardline anti-corruption image has caused high-profile elites to be indicted while many corrupt lesser-known officials have been left undisturbed.
Kyrgyzstan’s anti-corruption program has two main weaknesses. First, Kyrgyzstan has not implemented a consistently applicable regulatory framework to handle corruption cases. In December 2013, Kyrgyzstan signed the Anti-Corruption Plan to prevent bribery amongst local officials and increase political transparency.
Despite this legislation, corruption remains pervasive due to easily exploitable legal loopholes. The most significant loophole is the lack of clearly articulated conflict of interest legislation, which will prevent politicians and their families from procuring illicit financial benefits while in office. Closing this loophole and stiffening mandatory minimum sentences for fraud will greatly benefit Kyrgyzstan’s legal system.
Second, Kyrgyzstan lacks credible legislation to combat the violent crime that corruption engenders. The movement of arms and drugs across Kyrgyzstan’s borders is an especially severe problem. The imminent opening of the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border as a result of Kyrgyz membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has made this problem even more urgent. According to the GAN Business Anti-Corruption Portal, more than two-thirds of businesses bribe customs officials at the Kyrgyz border to evade inspection and punishment. A systematic overhaul and tighter regulation of customs officials is therefore an essential component of any Kyrgyz anti-corruption program.
The collaboration between corrupt law enforcement and customs officials further complicates this problem. In 2011, for example, four Kyrgyz police officers were captured in possession of more heroin than was previously believed to pass through the country in an entire year. Aziz Batukaev, a prominent Kyrgyz drug lord implicated in the 2006 murders of a parliamentary deputy and state prison official was also allowed to flee to Chechnya in 2013, halfway through his sentence. Bishkek-based journalist Anna Lelik reported in an April 7, 2015 article for EurasiaNet, that public perception of police corruption in Kyrgyzstan is so high that civic groups are being created to enforce traffic laws and carry out vigilante justice to ensure criminals are punished.
Police reform is clearly a necessary component of anti-corruption measures in Kyrgyzstan. If police non-compliance continues, Kyrgyzstan should consider overhauling its police personnel like Ukraine did following the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Why Comprehensive Legislation Will Fail
Despite the obvious benefits of sweeping institution-level anti-corruption reforms, Kyrgyzstan under Atambaev is unlikely to embark on an agenda of radical political change. Corruption has historically been and still remains an agent of presidential power projection. Bakiyev, for example, used the courts to disqualify opposition candidates in 2007. He also turned a blind eye to police involvement in the drug trade as long as police officers carried out assassinations of cartel leaders who threatened his regime.
While Atambaev’s public anti-corruption stance limits his ability to engage in such blatant violations of the rule of law, his emphasis on corruption perception rather than institutional reform demonstrates that he is highly aware of the risks of reforming too fast. As public dissatisfaction with the slow progress of anti-corruption efforts has risen, Atambaev has attempted to assuage public discontent by conducting high-profile trials. He has simultaneously adopted authoritarian legislation such as the NGO foreign agents law, which will restrict the ability of Kyrgyz citizens concerned about corruption’s progress to organize and voice their discontent.
Kyrgyzstan is at a crossroads. Atambaev should choose the option of comprehensive institution-level anti-corruption reform, which will improve Kyrgyzstan’s foreign investment climate, increase its border security, and re-instill shattered public confidence in the Kyrgyz legal system. However, the personal and political costs of adopting these measures will likely cause him to shy away from these reforms, and pursue a diluted approach that will be detrimental for Kyrgyzstan.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford in Russian and East European Studies. He is also a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Politics andWorld Post verticals, and recently to the Kyiv Post.