Governments in Kyrgyzstan often project an image of chaos, particularly as they enter their twilight. Now, thanks to an all-consuming drama at the Labor and Social Development Ministry, this one has become a veritable soap opera.
Over the past two weeks, the ministry has shed three top-ranking officials amid a upswell of public anger over foreign trips, related expenses and poor civil service etiquette.
The latest to resign, on October 11, was the minister herself. Documents obtained by member of parliament Aida Kasymalieva showed that Taalaikul Isakunova had used her diplomatic passport to travel abroad on holiday — a violation of protocol.
Isakunova also brought relatives and in-laws along on work-trips and upgraded to larger hotel rooms in order to cram them all in, Kasymaliyeva claimed.
The image of a minister whose portfolio consists of serving the neediest in society subsidizing her family holidays on government time did not sit well with the public, even though the trips were actually donor-supported.
And neither did advice proffered to commoners by Isakunova’s well-heeled 33-year-old deputy Lunara Mamytova, whose own trips came under similar scrutiny from Kasymalieva.
When people began asking how a deputy minister could afford to travel to so many destinations — Mamytova helpfully kept people abreast of her holidays on Instagram — she suggested they stop gossiping and start saving up instead.
These two might even have survived were it not for the shenanigans of yet another colleague at the same department. In a September 21 incident whose details have yet to be fully clarified, deputy minister Zuurukan Kadenova caused a flight out of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to be delayed.
According to two separate accounts — one from an MP who was also on the plane and Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador in Seoul — Kadenova got onboard in a state of advanced inebriation and proceeded to get into an altercation with a stewardess. (The ambassador in question has, in yet another bewildering turn of events, reportedly requested political asylum in South Korea).
Kadenova, who had just attended a Seoul-funded training gig, does admit to vomiting into bags provided by flight attendants. But she say this only happened because she had taken medication on an empty stomach. There was no disagreement with the airline staff, except for when they tried to prevent her from going to the bathroom, she said.
As gossip about this episode gathered steam on September 22, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s press service released a statement noting that Prime Minister Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev had been ordered to sort out the mess.
The same statement also refuted a rumor doing the rounds that Kadenova was Jeenbekov’s niece. She was fired that same evening.
It was after Kadenova’s firing that former journalist Kasymaliyeva sprang into action, filing official requests for information about the foreign trips of the ministry’s leadership as a whole.
Among the details that emerged was a 12-day World Bank “study tour” for Mamytova in Washington earlier this year. This trip cost more than $7,000, according to government documents. Kasymaliyeva said money for the trip had been drawn from a World Bank loan. Mamytova said this was not entirely true, given that it had been part of qualifications-raising component in a World Bank project that consisted of both grants and loans.
Just to add an element of cattiness to this story, Mamytova revealed that she and Kasymaliyeva had gone to the same school. Her former class president was probably just envious of her political rise, she concluded waspishly, shortly before resigning.
While the unfolding mess proved compulsive viewing for many, Abylgaziyev, the prime minister, might well have been hiding under his bedsheets.
It is Kyrgyz premiers that tend to get it in the neck when politics spiral out of control. And it usually happens around a year into their tenure. Abylgaziyev has only been in the saddle since April, but for the moment, he appears to be ahead of schedule.