Kyrgyzstan is in the grip of a major wave of arrests of prominent politicians. The head of the security services vows that more are to come.
In most cases, the giant Kumtor gold mine, which has for now been wrested from the hands of its Canada-based operator, is being used as a cudgel.
Various theories are circulating as to what accounts for the flurry of corruption-related arrests, with the strongest being political expediency and the need to drum up revenue. It is not evident that many are persuaded that fighting graft is the true goal.
Medet Tiulegenov, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, argues that the battle being waged against Kumtor is merely a simulation of corruption-busting. This is all about image, he said.
“The fight against corruption is needed for the population. For presidents, the fight with corruption has always been a priority,” he told Eurasianet.
Matters reached their peak to date on May 31, when the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, arrested multimillionaire former prime minister Omurbek Babanov on charges related to Kumtor. Babanov denies he has done anything wrong.
Members of parliament Asylbek Jeenbekov and Torobai Zulpukarov – the former being the once-influential brother of a former president – were detained on similar grounds. The courts have ordered all of them to be placed in custody for two months pending investigations.
Former MPs are in the crosshairs too. On May 31, Iskhak Pirmatov and Talantbek Uzakbaev were detained. Another colleague Maksat Sabirov, meanwhile, was questioned by the GKNB over his work in a state commission on Kumtor in 2012-13. The list of people likewise subjected to interrogations grows all the time.
That Kumtor is being used as the battering ram in this campaign is a two-for-one for President Sadyr Japarov, who has been in power since his supporters precipitated a swell of street unrest in October. The mine, and his ambition to nationalize it, has been a through line of Japarov’s brand ever since he emerged on the political scene in the early 2000s.
Although Japarov initially backed away from earlier promises on nationalization, his intent to act on Kumtor started to become evident in February, when the government created a commission to study the mine’s activities. MP Akylbek Japarov (no relation) was made its head.
Last month, a conveniently timed flurry of decisions descended like a doomsday cloud on Centerra, the partially Kyrgyz government-owned, Toronto-listed company operating the mine. On May 7, a court ruled that the miner had committed environmental violations, supposedly causing the state damages worth an eye-watering $3 billion. Ten days later, lawmakers gave unanimous backing to a proposal out of Japarov’s commission for Kumtor to be taken over by state-appointed managers for an interim three-month period.
But an implied question still lingered: Who had allowed the violations to happen in the first place?
Centerra was to be prosecuted for alleged environmental offenses. Former officials are to be pursued for the economic ones. Hence the arrests.
Speaking to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Russian political analyst Natalya Kharitonova speculated that Japarov’s government is partly motivated by the desire to mitigate negative press caused by the fallout of recent deadly unrest on the border with Tajikistan. Kumtor serves this purpose well.
“Japarov and his inner circle want to maintain their hold on power, and for that they need high-profile successes to create [the impression of] a positive domestic political agenda,” Kharitonova said.
Shortly after seizing power, Japarov immediately struck a populist note, vowing that he would root out corruption and force officials “to vomit back up the money they have eaten.”
“My aim is to establish fairness in the country,” he said. “From now on, corruption will cease to be an instrument with which to marginalize political opponents.”
Spurious criminal cases had indeed been used by several of Japarov’s predecessors to eliminate competition.
Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the man Japarov toppled, jailed his own predecessor and one-time mentor, Almazbek Atambayev. Atambayev in turn had many people imprisoned, including Omurbek Tekebayev, one former fair-weather ally that had helped him rise to office follow the mass revolts of 2010. Kyrgyz political history is littered with countless such examples of convenient arrests and betrayals.
That Japarov has now resorted to similar measures should probably undermine his claim that this ongoing spate of arrests is not inherently political. There is some reason to believe his agenda is slightly broader, however.
Tiulegenov says Japarov is operating a catch-and-release approach – arresting monied figures, getting cash from them and then letting them go. The state’s coffers have endured particularly lean times in the era of COVID-19 and smash-and-grab tactics may help slightly ease cashflow problems.
In March, the GKNB reportedly agreed to drop eight criminal cases against Babanov in return for the businessman-politician paying 100 million som ($1.2 million). This has not stopped the GKNB from going after Babanov again now, though.
Another contentious figure, corrupt former customs boss Rayimbek Matraimov, was arrested last year and then purportedly paid $24 million – a fraction of the hundreds of millions that journalists claim he defrauded the state through his smuggling operations.
The arrests are unlikely to stop soon. On June 2, GKNB chief Kamchybek Tashiev told reporters that Kyrgyzstan could expect to see more detentions, including of former presidents – and again, Kumtor would be the reason.
“We are obliged to prosecute all those involved in crimes. We are doing our job. We’re talking about prime ministers, [parliament] speakers, MPs, big officials. Moreover, we will probably look at some former presidents, as they are directly related to this,” he said.
It is does not appear for the time being that this indiscriminate series of detentions is having serious political consequences for Japarov, who enjoys strong levels of popularity, or at least tolerance, among the population.
Denis Berdakov, a Bishkek-based analyst, said the attention of investigators is focused specifically on what he deems to be superannuated elite figures of questionable influence. That seriously diminishes the probability of any rowdy street unrest of the type that brought Japarov to power, he said.
“They [the people arrested] have authority, but their favorability figures are around 1-2 percent, Babanov might have 3 percent. They are prominent representatives of oligarchic, family-clan elites from the mid-1990s and early 2000s. They can get support from their regional kin, but they are not politicians with a major stature,” Berdakov said. “[Japarov] understands this. He realizes that his credibility has a short expiry date. And to maintain his support, he needs to adopt tough reforms and take difficult steps.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.