Kyrgyz leaders are facing off with a weak judiciary and other obstacles in an anti-corruption campaign that has some independent analysts cautiously optimistic.by Askar Erkebaev 18 July 2012
BISHKEK | On 30 January, Kyrgyzstan's new Anti-Corruption Service raided the offices of MegaCom, a large mobile operator, on reports of dirty dealings at the company's Alfa Telecom subsidiary.
Appointed in 2011 by the government, which owns 49 percent of Alfa, Director General Azamat Murzaliev and his adviser Almazbek Abekov were arrested during the search on suspicion of fraud, embezzlement, and related charges. The Anti-Corruption Service accused the executives of abusing their positions to steal millions of dollars from company and government coffers.
“Corruption in Kyrgyzstan has reached astronomical rates," Atambaev, who created the Anti-Corruption Service upon taking office in December, told the council. "It has actually become a way of state rule. Therefore, we must declare a war on corruption, and we will go until the very end. We have to overcome corruption because it prevents the country’s development and efforts by the state and citizens to improve our way of life."
Today, the government calls coincidental the timing of the MegaCom raid and the Defense Council meeting. But 30 January could be considered the start of a nationwide campaign against graft and public misconduct in a country that has scraped the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index since being included in 2003.
The campaign faces myriad challenges, from an anemic judiciary to parliamentary resistance. But it is reportedly paying early dividends in higher tax revenues and has even impressed some political analysts as it's gained traction since May.
ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN, OR PR CAMPAIGN?
Indeed, Bishkek's "war on corruption" initially seemed like a public relations stunt, as politicians trumpeted it publicly while the same old culture of impunity reigned. In February, for instance, authorities began to investigate Iskhak Pirmatov, a member of parliament, for allegedly selling oil at below market prices to companies linked to him when he was board chairman of the state oil distributor from 2008 to 2010. The case was quickly dropped, though, after Pirmatov's colleagues challenged the accusations and cited a constitutional prohibition on investigating legislators without parliamentary permission in all but grave crimes like murder.
But signs of a serious fight emerged in May, when the Anti-Corruption Service presented new evidence in the Alfa Telecom investigation. It reported that Abekov, the director general's adviser, had transferred 282 million soms ($6 million) from corporate coffers to Europe through offshore accounts in 2011. Liechtenstein authorities froze $2 million in a local account, Abekov's relatives spent $1.7 million, and the rest was routed to an offshore company, according to the service. Abekov and former Alfa General Director Murzaliev are in pretrial detention in Bishkek.
Then came a series of high-profile arrests. On 21 June, the Anti-Corruption Service detained Nariman Tuleev, a member of parliament and former mayor of Bishkek. After initially being released on the same loophole that sprung Pirmatov, Tuleev was charged with corruption for allegedly inflating the price of a no-bid contract to buy buses from a Chinese company. Prosecutors say not all of the money went to the company, and the deal cost Bishkek an extra $1.4 million.
On 4 July, authorities detained and charged Tilek Alibaev, chief of the Criminal Investigation Division at the Interior Ministry, and his deputy Bazarbek Abdraimov with abuse of office and drug trafficking and distribution. The most sensational arrest followed two days later, when the Anti-Corruption Service arrested Social Development Minister Ravshan Sabirov and his assistant for allegedly extorting a $20,000 bribe from a foreign company seeking accreditation as an international adoption agency.
The arrests of these officials, in pretrial detention all, got the public talking because politicians rarely faced justice for corruption in the past. Mars Sariev, a prominent analyst of Kyrgyz politics, said they could signal a new stage in the anti-corruption campaign.
“In fact, the struggle with corruption was fake until now," Sariev said. "But it's possible to talk about a step forward in this campaign, which seems to be becoming serious."
In public, Atambaev has been clear that no one is above the law now. Sariev and other analysts say the war on corruption stems of necessity from mounting public dissatisfaction with a political elite whose actions have gone unchecked for years.
"However, it is too early to talk about any real results,” Sariev said. “It's only beginning. It is unclear whether Nariman Tuleev and Tilek Alibaev will be judged. They might not be convicted, and it is even possible that the criminal proceedings against them won't go forward.”
CATCH AND RELEASE
Sariev has reason to be cautious. Last month the Anti-Corruption Service said it had launched 152 criminal cases since January, but only seven convictions have followed, according to a report by the independent 24.kg news agency. Of those, four suspects received suspended sentences, while the others were fined between $70 and $110.
Nuripa Mukanova, head of the Bishkek-based Anti-Corruption Business Council, puts much of the blame on a dysfunctional judicial system.
"Even if a criminal case is initiated under the article 'corruption' [in the criminal code]," she said by way of example, "during legal proceedings it can be requalified under other articles – 'abuse of power,' for instance," which can carry a less severe penalty.
Mukanova said investigators often classify a range of crimes under the umbrella of "corruption" when they should distinguish among fraud, theft, bribery, abuse of office, and so on. As a result, judges – compromised or otherwise – have latitude to downgrade criminal corruption cases to lesser offenses that may only carry fines, for instance.
“Unfortunately, our judicial system is also corrupt, and it is unrealistic to expect objective decisions," she added. "Even if somebody is detained with a bribe in hand, this person will be exonerated, the criminal case will be stopped, or the issue will be resolved out of court.”
Igor Shestakov, editor in chief of the Region.kg news analysis website, said authorities should focus on judicial reform.
“Our judicial system is not fully legitimate and stable," he said. As an example, Shestakov noted that the Supreme Court chairman is "acting" and thus effectively powerless.
"So without judicial reform and legitimate judges, the struggle against corruption is useless," he said. "Therefore, we must first create a new judicial establishment.”
International watchdog groups have urged reform for years. In a 2008 report, the International Crisis Group said the judiciary "requires significant reform to gain the trust of the public and to assert its role as an independent branch of government.” But it remains weak, and corruption among judges is widespread, according to Freedom in the World 2012, the Freedom House think tank's annual study of global human rights and civil liberties.
To address these concerns, former President Roza Otunbaeva initiated a judicial overhaul last year, including a new council to select independent, accountable judges for all Kyrgyz courts. The council is currently selecting 35 Supreme Court judges before moving on to the constitutional and local courts.
Kadyr Toktogulov, President Atambaev's press secretary, said anti-corruption efforts cannot wait for judicial reform – the two must happen simultaneously.
"Otherwise, it will take forever to eliminate the corruption that has been seriously undermining our country's prospеcts for democratic and economic development,” he said.
LAWMAKERS AGAINST THE RULE OF LAW?
If the judiciary is a key hurdle, so is parliament, where legislators have pushed for the release of colleagues like Pirmatov and Tuleev while seemingly trying to undermine the larger anti-corruption campaign.
After Atambaev created the Anti-Corruption Service in December, several deputies demanded its dissolution in parliamentary sessions. Ismail Isakov of Atambaev's Social-Democratic Party said it was effectively illegal, while an opposition deputy suggested withholding funding on similar grounds.
“On what [legal] basis was this service created?" Akhmatbek Keldibekov of the opposition Ata-Jurt party asked in January, according to a 24.kg report. "There is no law about this body or even mention of it in current legislation."
Legislators reacted in kind when Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov disbanded the Financial Police, which had been widely accused of corrupt practices, in March and created the State Service Against Economic Crimes last month to fight business sector misconduct. (This body falls under the auspices of the government, not the president's office, which created the Anti-Corruption Service to clean up the public sector, including state-owned companies like Alfa Telecom.)
Many lawmakers criticized Babanov, and two parliamentary factions demanded the Financial Police be reconstituted. Though Babanov has held firm, deputies can withhold funding for the new agency until fall.
The motivation behind this resistance is simple, said Sariev, the political analyst – compromised legislators want to protect their interests.
“Many deputies went to parliament in order to protect and secure their business and future from prosecution and pressure," he said. "Now they use their constitutional authority to this end. And facts prove that parliament does oppose the anti-corruption campaign.”
But Turatbek Madylbekov, head of the parliamentary Anti-Corruption Committee, said the lawmakers concerns were justified. Initially, he said, the president's new service “was actually illegal.” But a package of laws adopted in June created a legitimate legislative framework by empowering the service to fight corruption and introducing stiff new penalties, among other measures.
"Regarding the Financial Police, we disagreed with its dismissal because it had many experienced officers who can investigate corruption crimes," Madylbekov added. "But most of the staff of the State Service Against Economic Crimes is recent college graduates. It will be hard for them to fight corruption."
Sheradil Baktygulov, a public administration expert with experience in international agencies, said lawmakers are afraid the new agencies could become political weapons.
“The Anti-Corruption Service was established under the State Committee for National Security, which obeys only the president," Baktygulov wrote in an email. "So it could become a tool for political inquisition. Therefore, [it] should have been independent."
Moreover, he continued, “Prime Minister Babanov [has a reputation] as a corporate raider, and the State Service Against Economic Crimes could become his ‘strike-force’ to take on opponents.”
Toktogulov, the presidential press secretary, said the campaign will not be effective without intergovernmental cooperation.
"... There is no doubt that the fight against corruption must be backed up by cooperation among the government, parliament, and law enforcement,” he said.
Despite the challenges ahead, Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev is optimistic. Thanks to the new campaign, he said, revenues from taxes and customs fees beat projections by $43 million in the first six months of the year.
Otorbaev said he hopes the new State Service Against Economic Crimes will be more effective than the disbanded Financial Police. He also conceded the difficult road ahead.
“We must understand that corruption can't disappear in a day," Otorbaev said. "Ordinary people will see and feel real results from the anti-corruption campaign in around a year.”
A key to the fight, he stressed, will be increasing living standards in a country where per capita GDP is $2,400, or 183rd worldwide.
“Corruption in poor countries like Kyrgyzstan is always high," he said. "If people don't make a good living, they get by illegally. So citizens must be paid well, which is possible only through economic development."
But, Otorbaev continued, "at the same time, the fight against corruption in Kyrgyzstan will never end.”