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How Kyrgyzstan Is Losing its Transparency

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Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

How Kyrgyzstan Is Losing its Transparency

Kyrgyzstan’s government, long known as Central Asia’s most democratic, is becoming less and less transparent — and the country’s once-active civil society appears unconcerned.

How Kyrgyzstan Is Losing its Transparency
Credit: Pixabay

Over the last two years, under the leadership of President Sadyr Japarov, Kyrgyzstan has adopted a number of laws that restrict access to important information. Several more are on the way. As a result, the ability of journalists and ordinary citizens to keep tabs on their government is shrinking fast.

For example, take the income and asset declarations filed by politicians and civil servants. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia where, for over 15 years, this information has been openly available.

The system was imperfect: As Kloop has reported, the amount of data in the declarations kept being reduced, and officials who submitted false information faced no sanction. In some ways, the mechanism had become a mere formality. But for journalists, even the limited data was helpful in keeping officials accountable.

But earlier this year, Japarov’s office seems to have decided to make the declarations secret, proposing to remove the legal requirement that tax officials publish each declaration’s summary pages. No public explanation for the change was given. If the new law is adopted, declarations from 2021 and afterwards will not be available to Kyrgyz citizens.

The presidential administration has also proposed a mechanism that would allow officials to “legalize” any previously undocumented assets, including those obtained illegally or by criminal means.

All the owner has to do is to report them by filing a special declaration. There is no need to explain the origin of any mysterious millions or mansions — and the declarer gets automatic immunity from any possible future prosecution involving these assets. What’s more, these special declarations will also be secret, subject to destruction ten days after being filed.

The Japarov administration says that encouraging the declaration of previously hidden income and property will increase investment and reduce the shadow economy. But activists say that the secret declarations will allow people who have committed serious crimes escape responsibility.

“In the initial version of the [new] law, the only article for which you could not make a [special] declaration was terrorism,” said Cholpon Dzhakupova, head of the human rights NGO Adilet. “For the rest — arms sales, drug sales, corruption — the person wouldn’t even be inspected. And it’s impossible to institute criminal proceedings against them, now or in the future.”

At the request of the government, Adilet lawyers conducted an analysis of the new legislation and found that it contradicted Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and criminal codes. But, in response to the activists’ comments, only one change was implemented.

“In the last version, [they did make the change] that one can’t escape responsibility [if the proceeds were generated from] drug trafficking, human trafficking, and involvement in sex slavery,” Dzhakupova said.

In effect, however, the new laws legalize political corruption, Adilet argues. Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code has an article banning “illegal enrichment,” added after the country ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption. But since tax officials never developed an effective mechanism to check officials’ declarations, it never worked as an anti-corruption mechanism. Now the fight against illegal enrichment will be more difficult than ever.

Public Procurement Goes Into the Shadows

Another initiative by Japarov was to change the law on public procurement.

Since this summer, state companies are no longer required to hold tenders and publish data on their purchases. One third of all budget expenditures are made by such entities. Now they will go into the shadows, with citizens having no idea how the funds are spent.

For government bodies, the law also introduced a new “limited” mechanism of purchasing goods and services, when only “qualified” suppliers are allowed to participate in the tender. Information about what exactly was bought, and at what price, will remain secret — neither competitors nor ordinary citizens will be able to see it. Among the items that will be bought using this method will be school textbooks.

The list of conditions under which goods and services can be purchased from a single supplier, without any tender process at all, was also significantly expanded. Now, for example, the president can issue orders for a government agency to make purchases directly from whoever he wants.

Incredibly, in signing the new law, the president declared that open, competitive tenders are the main cause of corruption. The president cited construction contracts as an example. “Under the guise of a tender, [contractors] were building schools that cost $820 per square meter,” he wrote on Facebook. “At the same time, the quality did not meet the standards.”

Such shortcomings could be solved by better tender documentation and by attracting new contractors. But instead, Kyrgyzstan’s president will decide who will build what and how much profit they’ll make.

Who is Who?

Data on public procurement has never been of very high quality in Kyrgyzstan. After a tender takes place, the public procurement portal does not publish the resulting contract or any information about the work. For example, Kyrgyz citizens can see that a tender for the construction of a school was held and that a contractor was selected. But the documents don’t show whether it was ever actually built.

Nevertheless, the portal helped investigative journalists identify various corrupt schemes. For example, a database developed by the Kloop data department enabled reporters to uncover the owner of the companies that kept winning the country’s most profitable tenders. As it turned out, the son of former legislator Abdimuktar Mamatov made over 1 billion soms ($13 million) from selling fuel and lubricants to the state — at a time when his father was a member of the parliamentary fuel committee.

But even with modern tools, it is not easy to investigate such cases, because there may be multiple people in the country with the same name. Under the pretext of protecting personal data, Kyrgyzstan’s database of legal entities does not publish the individual tax numbers of company owners, and the tax database has no information about taxpayers’ addresses.

Previously, journalists could find out how many people in the country had the same last name by filing a request to the State Registration Service. But the agency recently stopped responding to such inquiries.

Secrecy in Lawmaking

Since Japarov became president, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has adopted many laws, including new codes: the tax code, the criminal code, the criminal procedure code, and the code of offenses have all been fully updated.

But the laws were adopted practically without public participation. Initially, the new draft codes were posted on the parliament’s website, after which they received many comments from citizens. But it was impossible to check whether this feedback was taken into account before they were adopted, since the final versions of the codes were not published before being sent to the president for signature.

In fact, the bills section of the parliament’s website hasn’t been functioning for over a year. It stopped working in October 2020, when, after a controversial election, a mob stormed the White House in Bishkek and trashed the parliament’s server.

Citizens learned about the adoption of new laws from newspapers, but even there the information was published with a delay. This contradicts the Law on Normative-Legal Acts, which explicitly states that the public must have access to information about the creation and amendment of laws.

Broken Databases

Other databases formerly available online have also disappeared. In February 2021, a month after Japarov’s election, the Prosecutor General’s Office updated its official site. All the old press releases disappeared.

At the same time, the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan was updated — and the news news and press release archive disappeared. As a result, citizens have lost access to the most comprehensive and reliable database on crimes committed in the country. (The prosecutor’s office explained that these materials could not be restored for technical reasons.)

Court verdicts in Kyrgyzstan are supposed to be public, but decisions on many sensitive cases, such as those involving corruption, don’t appear in the database of judicial acts. Courts refuse to provide them even on request. When Kloop lawyers tried to appeal these refusals, they found that, under Kyrgyz law, citizens cannot file lawsuits against the judicial system.

Moreover, court hearings on high-profile cases are increasingly held in secret. Recently, in Bishkek, a case involving the rape of a 13-year-old girl was heard behind closed doors. Not even the ombudsman was not allowed into the courtroom.

Other databases have also stopped functioning. For several years, the database of dissertations on the site of the Higher Attestation Commission hasn’t been working. Curiously, it broke down after the international project Dissernet released a series of investigations pointing to apparent plagiarism in academic papers by many Kyrgyz officials and legislators.

And last year, Kloop journalists could not find a single source of information on the distribution of humanitarian aid streaming into the country to fight COVID-19. The sites either failed to open or contained outdated information.

Limited Election Observation

In previous election campaigns, Kloop sent thousands of observers to polling stations across the country who documented hundreds of violations ranging from minor to very serious, such as bribery or pressure on voters. Kloop tried to appeal most of these violations, up to and including going to court.

But in September 2021, the Central Election Commission changed the registration procedure for election observers. Since then, only organizations whose statutes explicitly state that they are engaged in elections, electoral legislation, and human rights can observe them.

On the basis of the new procedure, the commission refused to register Kloop observers for the 2021 parliamentary elections. As a result, a contentious recent election lost a number of potential observers. Limiting the rights of citizens and organizations to observe the voting process contradicts Kyrgyzstan’s elections law.

Journalists’ Requests Ignored

The right to freely receive information is enshrined in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. In addition, there is a media law that says journalists must be able to receive data from government agencies within two weeks, a shorter period of time than a normal request from citizens.

In practice, government officials increasingly ignore requests or do not offer substantive answers, citing commercial secrets or the personal data law.

For example, in 2021 the Ministry of Health ignored at least five requests from Kloop about the distribution of international humanitarian aid to the country to fight COVID-19.

In 2022, Health Minister Alymkadyr Beishenaliyev, who took office at the height of the pandemic, was detained. Seven criminal cases were instigated against him for corruption, extortion of bribes, abuse of office, and entering into a knowingly unprofitable contract.

Immediately after his arrest, Japarov created a commission to look into the matter. But it soon became clear that the results of its work would not be made public.

This was not the only investigation into the health ministry. In 2020, an interagency commission was created to look into how the authorities dealt with COVID-19 in the spring and summer of 2020, when illnesses and deaths were at their peak.

The commission collected data and held a large press conference, hinting at many serious violations. Its members gave several interviews. But the final report was never published, and the commission soon dissolved itself.

The question of how the state spent money on COVID-19 was also addressed by the Accounts Chamber. In December 2021, this independent auditing body held a press conference to discuss the main conclusions of its audit on the matter.

But, in contradiction of the law, the report itself was not published on its official website. Kloop journalists were only given access to the report in the Accounts Chamber offices after promising not to photograph the document.

The report turned out to contain many interesting details and signs of violations, which were sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office. But prosecutors never responded to Kloop’s inquiry about its results and whether any criminal cases were brought.

In the past, journalists have sometimes managed to defend their right to information in court. When the Ministry of Justice refused to respond to Kloop’s requests for historical data about the founders of legal entities, journalists went to court and won the case.

But since 2017, suing the authorities has become more difficult. Now the courts accept such administrative suits only if the defendant is a ministry or an executive branch agency. Legislative and judicial authorities, the ombudsman’s office, and the national bank are considered improper defendants thanks to the administrative procedure code adopted in 2017.

Why Doesn’t Civil Society React?

Kyrgyz civil society is generally considered quite active, especially compared to other countries in the region. For example, after OCCRP, RFE/RL, and Kloop published investigations into high-level corruption in the customs service in 2019, there were several major protests in Bishkek. The same year, activists spoke out against Uranium mining in Kyrgyzstan.

However, when it comes to the country’s rapid loss of transparency, there has been little open indignation or activism.

Dzhakupova, head of Adilet, says that civil society reacted “very passively.”

“[Civil society] has been reacting to some insignificant things,” she says, pointing to a scandal about a legislator apparently violating a ban on saunas near Lake Issyk-Kul, or about Japarov’s expensive jacket.

“But when it comes to significant things, it does not react. When the [new law about legalizing unregistered assets] starts working, society will scream about those mansions, but the job will already be done,” she says. “You have to learn to work preventatively, not only when you’re faced with the consequences.”

Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of an NGO called Civil Initiatives, says that Kyrgyzstan’s human rights community is “burned out.”

People spent a lot of energy fighting Japarov’s constitutional reforms, she says, trying to defend Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary form of government.

“When the [new] constitution was passed and they announced a new effort to inventory over 300 laws, some formed coalitions and participated in the process, but I and some of my colleagues refused to participate in these discussions. …. There simply aren’t enough of us. That is why the authorities and groups around the government are beginning to introduce initiatives that will set our country back,” she says.

Opposition politician Ravshan Dzheenbekov has also observed a level of fatigue in civil society.

“Three revolutions in 30 years,” he says. “Many people — activists and journalists — are struggling, but unfortunately, there are no visible results in moving the country forward.”

Kyrgyzstan’s civil society and journalists see the government’s financial and political decisions “from afar. … as if it’s not their issue,” he says. “As if the country’s budget is not their money.”

Nevertheless, Dzheenbekov believes that society in Kyrgyzstan is beginning to revive again. “I’m sure that from autumn we will have active politics,” he concludes optimistically.

Nevertheless, activist Rita Karasartova says bluntly that she no longer sees much of a point.

“I just say, ‘Fine, if we’re sinking to the bottom, let’s go to the bottom.’ Even I’ve become skeptical. The voice of people who understand is so quiet — and the voice of the majority, which sees the problem superficially, wins out.”

This article was originally published in by OCCRP and Kloop in English, Russian and Kyrgyz