On April 24, 2016, Leila Nazgul Seiitbek and her husband, Zalzar Temiraliev, were driving home with their four-year-old son after a late afternoon meeting with some friends in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Out of nowhere, a Land Cruiser almost slammed into the side of their car, forcing them to pull over. Out came four burly, armed men who tried to break into the family’s car but backed off when another vehicle approached. Fearing possible eyewitnesses, the four men shouted that they would deal with them next time, hopped into their Land Cruiser, and sped off.
“This was the last drop. It was then that I decided to leave the country, for my safety and that of my family,” Seiitbek recalls. The incident was followed by weeks in hiding at several friends’ apartments while frantically looking for a safe land route into a neighboring country, as after the botched road assault the family home was put under surveillance by unknown armed men. The three finally crossed into Tajikistan on June 8 under cover of darkness, stopped at the city of Khujand to buy flight tickets from the capital, Dushanbe, to Dubai, and then flew on to a European capital en route to Ukraine. During transit, they handed themselves in to the border police and asked for political asylum.
As an activist for the poor and marginalized via her Public Foundation Blago.kg, which she founded in 2012, Seiitbek knew well the risks associated with her line of work. Although Kyrgyzstan has long boasted the most vibrant civil society in Central Asia, which earned the country the title of “island of democracy” in the region, the last few years have witnessed a steady “shrinking [of human rights defenders’] space of action,” according to a June 2016 report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The media haven’t been spared either, as outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev has taken to suing any outlet and journalist that displeases him for tens of thousands of dollars with the clear intent of silencing criticism. In a highly publicized case during the summer, journalist Ulugbek Babakulov was the object of a public smear campaign for an article he wrote about the sensitive issue of ultra-nationalist material on Kyrgyz social media ahead of the seventh anniversary of the June 2010 Osh events. A few days after the article’s publication, Kyrgyzstan’s main television channel KTRK ran an item under the title “Instigators” describing Babakulov as an enemy of the people and the country.
Facing criminal charges and fearing for his safety, Babakulov was forced to flee Kyrgyzstan. But what has been missing from reports of the journalist’s downfall is how closely – and disturbingly – it resembles the pattern established with Seiitbek the previous year. First, Seiitbek was the subject of character assassination in a news item run by the same KTRK program, which presented her and her husband as fraudsters and members of a criminal cartel. Then came the attempted assault; two criminal cases “against me and my husband on forged documents and charges,” as she writes in her asylum application; as well as threats and intimidation, including calls from unknown people promising “reprisal against me, my relatives, and in particular my child, whom they threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill,” the document continues.
Why was Seiitbek targeted for such horrific treatment? Her transgression was trying to help Kyrgyz citizens track down vanished funds that were supposed to secure new housing plots in a village near Bishkek. It’s a complicated story, but one that has larger ramifications for the state of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy.
The Quest for Land and Housing Rights
Land and housing rights have been a contentious topic in Kyrgyzstan since the country achieved independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although under Kyrgyz law the state is supposed to provide a free plot of land to every citizen, as Eurasianet notes, “In reality, a land-allocation process thick with corruption and bureaucratic obstacles awaits anyone attempting to claim his share.” As a result, while elites and those with access to them have acquired more than their fair share of land for housing and construction projects, the majority of the population has been left to fend for themselves, vulnerable to elite power plays and manipulation.
This is especially true in and around Bishkek, where prime land is very attractive and expensive due to plot scarcity and services availability. Over the years, many poor rural residents have migrated to the capital city in search of better living conditions and work opportunities, squatting on state land in what are known as novostroiki, or new settlements, with widely varying standards of living and access to services.
In this context, land rights and housing issues have long been at the center of political controversy, particularly at times of upheaval. In the chaotic aftermath of the country’s April 2010 revolution – in which, just as during the 2005 revolution, land and housing “played a key role” – it was reported that “groups of apparently landless Kyrgyz staked out plots they wanted to lay claim to around [Bishkek]. They justified their actions by saying that previous squatters – most recently following the 2005 Tulip Revolution that brought [the country’s second President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev to power – had been allowed to hold onto the land they grabbed.”
This time around, however, “law enforcement agencies and groups of civilian vigilantes protecting the land of their family or their village largely halted the establishment of further squatter settlements on the outskirts of the city.” At Novo Pokrovka, a village about ten kilometers east of Bishkek and one of the flashpoints of attempted land grabbing, groups of citizens organized to prevent squatters from taking over unbuilt land. In exchange for their support at crunch time for the then newly installed interim government, they expected to be rewarded with the same land for housing.
Their expectations were at least partly justified by the fact that, at the end of April 2010, the local authorities in Novo Pokrovka had aired the possibility of converting 163 hectares of agricultural land into housing plots in a decree, which would be implemented under the supervision of the village head, Nurmahammat Bayakhunov. Already in 2010, hundreds of concerned citizens from among the poorest and most vulnerable strata of the population, including the disabled and mothers with multiple children, came together to found the Nur Kuch public association entrusting its head, Nurlan Usenov, with representing their demands.
According to investigative journalist Elle Alkanova, who reported on this story for the independent news portal Kloop.kg, the following year Usenov allegedly found a Chinese investor ready to build housing units in Novo Pokrovka and, on this premise, began gathering money from Nur Kuch members to secure their right to a plot. To this day, however, it has been impossible to establish exactly how many people participated in this scheme and the total sum that was collected. “More than 1,000 people gave anything between $200 and 2,000; I’ve heard that up to $ 800,000 were given in total,” Alkanova told The Diplomat. “But the figures aren’t clear, neither the full number of people nor the full amount of money.”
Accusations of Fraud
After years of failure and frustration, Nur Kuch members’ dream of affordable housing appeared within reach when, in February 2015, Bayakhunov and Usenov signed an agreement in which the former appeared to promise half of the 163 hectares to members of Nur Kuch for the payment of 16 million Kyrgyzstani som (about $267,000 at the time). Eyewitnesses confirmed seeing Bayakhunov receive about $200,000 in cash from Usenov, count the money, and issue a receipt with an official stamp.
To date, the money is unaccounted for and Nur Kuch members aren’t any closer to securing a plot of land to build their homes. Instead, in May 2015 Usenov was first arrested and then put under house arrest for fraud in relation to the missing millions. Adamant about his innocence, members of the organization turned for help to Seiitbek, a lawyer by training. “We have heard a lot about your advocacy and social work,” they wrote in a May 5 letter to her seen by The Diplomat. “We ask for your help and legal defense against the arbitrary actions of the law enforcement agencies against us, our head and our public association.”
Seiitbek started mobilizing and organizing rallies to give visibility to Nur Kuch members’ predicament. She believed that this wasn’t an isolated case, but a typical example of how the corruption eating away at the country’s political system had deep implications for the welfare of a large swath of the country’s population too poor to afford housing. In her eyes, it would be practically impossible for local authorities, specifically Novo Pokrovka head Bayakhunov, to act independently of the top echelons of government, including outgoing President Atambayev.
More ominously, she links Nur Kuch’s problems with vote buying on the part of the president’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK), as Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections in October 2015. “At the direction of the President’s party, the competent local authorities signed an agreement with voters according to which they would be given plots of land for housing construction on very favorable terms,” read her asylum papers. “Voters also paid certain amounts of money in order to buy the land. And yet, after the elections, the authorities have refused to comply with the agreement.”
Bayakhunov himself was running for election in the SDPK list, so Seiitbek’s activism on behalf of Nur Kuch came at a very inconvenient time for the government and the president’s party, which were busy publicizing the new Affordable Housing program 2015-2020 (Seiitbek also ran for office in the Onuguu-Progress party list, but wasn’t elected). Perhaps the clearest sign that Seiitbek’s rallies had caught the authorities’ attention was the intervention of presidential advisor Ikramjan Ilmiyanov – considered by many the éminence grise of Kyrgyz politics and commonly known in the country as “voditel” (driver), as he began his career as Atambayev’s driver – to mediate in the conflict between Bayakhunov and Nur Kuch members.
Seiitbek showed The Diplomat a video she secretly filmed during a mid-September meeting between Ilmiyanov and some Nur Kuch members in which the February 2015 agreement was discussed, along with Bayakhunov’s promising land in exchange for about $400 from each of them. During the meeting, “I asked voditel if Bayakhunov used the money collected from Nur Kuch to be put on the SDPK list,” she recalls. “This really irritated him. Generally, the whole situation was having a damaging effect on the SDPK’s election and PR campaign. He was very angry that we were rallying against an SDPK candidate. And we were requesting during the protests that they take his name off the electoral list.”
That night, Seiitbek posted on her Facebook page about the altercation, wondering how long it would be before she would face serious consequences because of that. She was soon to find out how prescient her words were.
A Never-Ending Saga?
Following Alkanova’s reporting for Kloop.kg, in December 2015 Kyrgyzstan’s financial police opened a criminal investigation into the disappearance of the 16 million Kyrgyzstani som, with Bayakhunov as one of the main defendants. But nothing appeared to stop the SDPK candidate’s rising star. In April 2016, he was interviewed on the same KTRK program that discredited Seiitbek and her husband, with no mention of the ongoing investigation. The following October, he became a member of parliament after another parliamentarian for SDPK relinquished his mandate. Eventually, the criminal case against him was closed in mid-December 2016.
SDPK did not respond to requests for comment about why Bayakhunov was placed in parliament while under active investigation.
Meanwhile, the government’s Affordable Housing program has come under a barrage of criticism for failing in its stated purpose of “creating the conditions to enhance the affordability of housing.” In her asylum application, Seiitbek highlighted how the program foresees interest rates too high for most citizens to afford a loan, concluding that it “was written for a handful of people close to the authorities” and “to promote someone’s personal interests.”
A June 2015 document by the Ministry of Economy’s Public Council – a civil society advisory and supervisory body that interacts and cooperates with the ministry – on the Affordable Housing program similarly argued that it “does not provide ‘affordable housing’ for most citizens of the country.”
“[E]ven if the interest rate on [a] mortgage is 0 percent per annum,” the Public Council stated, “housing won’t be affordable for the absolute majority of citizens of the country.” It concluded that “[t]he draft program doesn’t provide for housing for all citizens, but rather for a small category of high-earning citizens, [so that] housing [isn’t] accessible to the absolute majority of the country’s population: teachers, doctors, police officers, military personnel and other categories of citizens whose earnings are below the national average.”
Unsurprisingly, some of these very categories have come out publicly against the program dubbing it “a mockery of the people.”
Nur Kuch members haven’t achieved their aim, while the head of a newly established Coalition of House-Building Cooperatives has also been accused of fraud, in the seemingly never-ending saga of ordinary people trying to be able to afford housing and a dignified living for themselves and their families. The government appears to continue serving special interests over the rights of the majority of citizens.
From their side, Seiitbek and her family have paid a heavy price for her activism. But she remains defiant.
“People are capable of doing really bad things. Very cruel, stupid, and thoughtless,” she says. “There is nothing I can do about it except fight back, stand on my feet, and not let them crush me. The only thing that gives me some relief is that I know I am on the right side. On the side of truth [and] one day I will prevail. Alone or with allies. Either way. The mere fact that I am still breathing the fresh air of freedom is already a big victory.”
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and producer specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia, where he has lived on and off since 2000.