For nearly two decades, the wives of Kyrgyz leaders have largely shunned the spotlight. President Sadyr Japarov’s wife, Aigul, looks reluctant to follow suit.
Last week, Japarova, who also goes by her maiden surname Asanbayeva, joined her husband on his official visit to Turkey. It was her first such foreign outing.
But it is her growing prominence on the domestic front that is generating chatter and drawing comparisons with Mayram Akayeva, the wife of the first post-independence president, Askar Akayev.
Japarova has worked her way into the news a couple of times in recent weeks.
During a minibus driver strike in Bishkek this month, her charity organized buses to ferry commuters around the city. The intervention was well advertised. Buses were emblazoned with her foundation’s name, Umut Bulagi (Source of Hope).
In May, a scandal fueled gossip about the role Japarova may be playing in decision-making.
The object of discussion was a leaked screen recording of a WhatsApp conversation, purportedly between Japarova and the brother of a jailed former Japarov supporter called Melis Aspekov.
When Japarov was – before the uprising in October that brought him to power – enduring harder times and languishing behind bars, Aspekov was an ardent champion for the politician. Later, Aspekov played what he says was a pivotal role in Japarov’s election campaign.
But in January, shortly after Japarov secured his presidency at the polling station, Aspekov was arrested for allegedly attempting to extort $250,000 from the state railway company. He denies the charges.
The purported WhatsApp conversation shows Japarova criticizing Aspekov for excessive greed and love of publicity while recalling that he had been warned several times to tone down his behavior: “Happiness loves quiet, it is said.”
Japarova moreover suggested to Azamat Aspekov that his brother could be released “if he returns those funds.”
News website Kaktus Media used GetContact – a snooping app – to verify the phone number shown in the recording did indeed belong to Japarova.
Japarov’s office has not commented on the episode.
The first lady’s potential role as conduit to the president seems all the more plausible against a backdrop of instability within Japarov’s inner circle.
The president’s former press chief Nurgazy Anarkulov was arrested the same month that Aspekov was taken into custody. The bribery charges leveled at Anarkulov raised the specter of tensions between Japarov and his long-time ally and security services chief, Kamchybek Tashiyev.
Comparisons between Japarova and Mayram Akayeva appear premature, though.
There is no indication yet that the first lady has any real influence over staffing. Akayeva was popularly known as “the cadres department” on account of her alleged habit of doling out government posts for cash and to kinfolk. Akayeva’s foundation, Meerim, was viewed as being as much about family enrichment as philanthropy.
Scrutiny of the Umut Bulagi charity does raise some curious details, though. The foundation’s driver strike-busting initiative would have been impossible without the company that provided the replacement buses: Shydyr Jol KG. The company told Kaktus Media that Umut Bulagi’s role was limited to covering fuel costs and that it paid for drivers’ salaries.
Shydyr Jol KG happens to be the same company that shuttled around Japarov supporters during the turbulent season of politics in October that ramrodded him into power by dint of rowdiness on the streets. The company is registered under the name of a Chinese-born Kyrgyz citizen called Orgalcha Toktobubu and works out of the same building as Japarova’s foundation.