Kyrgyzstan: Battling graft accusations, one vodka shot at a time
The security chief tried to deflect a corruption scandal by plying journalists with booze.
At a time of great stress, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security services has, like so many before him, resorted to booze.
It is not Kamchybek Tashiyev that is doing the drinking, though. Journalists were instead last week plied with spirits over the duration of a press tour designed to make them forget about allegations of nepotism and corruption.
The trouble began on January 20, when investigative journalist Bolot Temirov uploaded an 11-minute video report accusing Tashiyev’s family of enriching itself through the resale of fuel oil produced by a state-controlled refinery, Kyrgyz Petroleum Company, via a nebulous intermediary company. The plant in question, which is based in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, has been run by the young nephew of the security services chief since January 2021.
Tashiyev was indignant. His nephew, Baigazy Matisakov, 32, is a man above suspicion, he said. He even prays five times a day, Tashiyev assured journalists.
“Is it bad that the plant was turning a profit? Bolot Temirov’s investigation is false. It is aimed at slandering me and the government,” Tashiyev said. He then pledged to show journalists around the Jalal-Abad refinery to prove just how transparent operations there truly are. And he would pick up the tab for the press tour himself, he said.
And so, on January 24, at 8 a.m., two busloads of journalists were dispatched from the capital, Bishkek, on the 12-hour ride down to Jalal-Abad. A government-issued minder, Cholpon, was on hand to keep spirits up.
A short way out of the city, the minibus stopped outside a roadside store for a cigarette break. At this point, Cholpon boarded the minibuses bearing bottles of vodka and cognac.
“We still have a long way to go, drink,” she said. “We’re on the road today. We won’t be working, will we?”
Some accepted the offer, others went round the back of the store to relieve themselves.
Five hours later, the minibuses pulled up in a village called Karakul. A lavish spread had been organized at a local café for the arriving reporters. The tops of vodka and Kyrgyzstan-brand cognac bottles peeped out from the smorgasbord of salads, bread, and assorted treats. As journalists exchanged work tales, Cholpon urged the diners to drink, adding for good measure that she was sad because it was her mother’s birthday. She would rather be at home with her family than on the road, she said wistfully.
It was around this time that it dawned on everybody that Tashiyev himself would not be coming along, as he had seemed to intimate. This notable absence caused dismay among the journalists, who realized they would struggle to get their editors to take a story on what was shaping up as a largely pointless trip.
Back on the buses, Cholpon continued trying to keep the journalists cheerful, although with little success. Most were exhausted from having got so little sleep the nights before.
Just two days ahead of the press trip, armed and masked police barged into the Bishkek offices of Bolot Temirov, claiming to be following up on a drugs tip. Temirov and a colleague, well-known folk music artist Bolot Nazarov, were dragged away after police claimed to have found little bags of hashish in their pockets. The arrest, which suspiciously occurred only two days after Temirov published his video report, sparked a swell of indignation. The journalist’s supporters mounted pickets outside the Interior Ministry building where he and Nazarov were being held. Deep into the night, Tashiyev spoke at a press conference to admit that no drugs had been detected in Temirov’s blood stream, although he said Nazarov did fail a drugs test. He also denied that the raid on Temirov’s office was in any way connected to the investigation into the Jalal-Abad refinery.
The two, brand-new black minibuses wending their way south did so at great speeds. The cards on the windshields bearing the words “Office of the President” granted the drivers immunity from being stopped by traffic police. When journalists boarded the bus, the driver asked the passengers to make sure their shoes were clean because President Sadyr Japarov might be riding in the vehicle one of these days.
More alcohol awaited the journalists at the banquet laid out in Jalal-Abad. Three tables had been festively decorated with lush bouquets of artificial white maple leaves arranged in golden goblets. Bottles of Jameson were added to the array of spirits on offer, much to the delight of the whiskey drinkers.
Cholpon delivered a toast and urged the reporters to keep drinking. When asked about Tashiyev’s absence, she responded with a sigh and said: “Tashiyev cannot be here. He has nothing to do with the plant.
The morning after, journalists were delivered to waiting Kyrgyz Petroleum Company staff in protective masks. One of them stood out for his suit and shoes polished to a vivid shine: it was Tashiyev’s nephew, Baigazy Matisakov, the head of the refinery.
Reporters bombarded Matisakov with questions. He responded with a simple and consistent line: he believes in God, his conscience is clean before God and the people, he has committed no corruption, and he models himself upon his uncle.
As for Temirov’s claims – that Kyrgyz Petroleum Company had cheaply supplied fuel oil to a privately owned tolling middle company, Region Oil, which then sold the same fuel at a generous profit to buyers in Uzbekistan and Italy – that was just lies, he said.
“I did not sell a single gram, not a single kilogram [of fuel oil] to Region Oil,” he said. “If journalists had called us and asked, we would have given them all the information. I was waiting for journalists to call, so that I could tell them that we are clean. Why should we be vilified like this with this five-minute video? We will study this matter further, if this carries on, we are prepared to sue Bolot Temirov and his team.”
Temirov’s allegation is that Region Oil is run by a figure close to the Tashiyev family. The founder of the company, Nazgul Aidarova, was identified by the journalist as an accountant at Kyrgyz Petroleum Company and as having worked on the parliamentary election campaign team of Tashiyev’s brother, Shairbek, who is now a sitting MP.
Matisakov offered a more benevolent story. He said that it was Region Oil that provided crude oil to Kyrgyz Petroleum Company and that the fuel oil it received in return was simply the processed product. Region Oil delivered 7,100 tons of oil to Kyrgyz Petroleum Company in 2021, Matisakov said.
In Matisakov’s telling, Kyrgyz Petroleum Company has gone from strength to strength under his stewardship. If the company made losses of 47 million som ($554,000) in 2020, it turned a profit of 200 million som in 2021.
“I didn't pay to get this job. If someone can prove that I am engaged in theft and corruption, then I will resign,” Matisakov said. Colleagues standing nearby nodded vigorously in agreement.
As for how it was that he came to head up Kyrgyz Petroleum Company only months after the political unrest that brought his uncle and President Japarov to power, Matisakov said this was an unfair point. He was hired through a clean and transparent process, because he had acquired the necessary skills and education from his time in Russia.
With that the journalists were taken on a tour of the facilities. It emerged at this point that the whole trip had, contrary to Tashiyev’s promises, been organized on the government’s dime. The organizers declined to divulge how much money had been spent on it, though.
Just as journalists were being treated to yet more food, vodka, cognac and whiskey, a lurid clip of unknown provenance started doing the rounds on social media.
The short film was a full-throated condemnation of Temirov, whom the narrator described as an agent for shadowy foreign forces seeking to undermine Kyrgyzstan. One section included secretly filmed footage of one of Temirov’s female colleagues engaged in sexual relations. The scenes seemed intended to do little more than shame and embarrass the young woman in question, and to thereby deter others from getting involved in anti-corruption activism.
The widely held belief is that only the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, Tashiyev’s outfit, would have had the resources, or even the motivation, to create that smear attack. The video was released anonymously, however, and there is no easy to verify such assertions. The leading lights of Kyrgyzstan’s activist community reacted to the video with a fiery collective statement demanding the resignation of Tashiyev and Interior Minister Ulan Niyazbekov.
Tashiyev and Niyazbekov have “brazenly trampled on human dignity, which should under Article 29 of the Constitution, be absolute and inviolable, [they have] violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy, the right to confidentiality, the right to secrecy in conversations and communications, and the right to protection from the unlawful acquisition and dissemination of personal information,” the letter addressed to President Japarov stated.
Tashiyev denies having anything to do with the video.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.
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