The mysterious death by hanging of a jailed Bishkek traffic cop has highlighted concerns that a new government campaign against corruption may be fueling a dangerous rivalry between two of the country’s most secretive and powerful agencies: its police and its secret services. In the process, skeptics worry, the anti-corruption drive could target low-level offenders while disregarding large-scale wrongdoing at much higher levels.
The detention facility where 46-year-old Captain Aibek Eshbaev was found dangling earlier this month, noosed with a woman's scarf, falls under the jurisdiction of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), the local successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. In December, the GKNB was tapped by President Almazbek Atambayev to spearhead the fight against graft and other offenses with a newly created Anti-Corruption Service. Eshbaev served as a mid-ranking officer in the traffic police, overseen by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA).
While the exact details of Eshbaev’s arrest, detention and death are unclear, local media have speculated that his offence was to demand a $100 bribe for arbitrating a conflict between two drivers involved in a collision on one of the capital’s thoroughfares. By the standards of Kyrgyzstan—rated 164th out of 183 countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruptions Perceptions Index—the alleged offense was neither unusual nor major.
On February 15, two days after Eshbaev’s body was found, pedestrians in downtown Bishkek were greeted by the unusual sight of some 150 police officers in their blue coats protesting outside GKNB headquarters. The rank-and-file traffic cops blocked a road to demand proof that their colleague – a father of five – had not been murdered or tortured to death.
While both the GKNB and the MIA publicly condemned the protest, the agencies have natural reasons for friction: their functions overlap, and rivalry between their leaderships has been known in the past, contributing to regular “confrontations” between the two, according to Arkady Gladilov, vice chairman of the GKNB’s public oversight committee. Moreover, while the GKNB is directly accountable to the president, the MIA answers to the government. The creation of the Anti-Corruption Service, he said, has certainly increased tensions.
“The anti-corruption squad has to prove itself. Otherwise it will be dissolved as quickly as it was set up,” Gladilov said, adding that poorly paid, bribe-taking police officers, who have strict quotas to fulfill at the MIA, are easy prey.
Toktayim Umetalieva, a former presidential candidate and an activist with a long history of leading protests against the GKNB, thinks the protesting police officers have good reason to be suspicious about the circumstances of their colleague’s death. She suspects “physical pressure and possibly worse” had been applied to Eshbaev during his detention. More worryingly for Kyrgyzstan’s internal stability, Umetalieva speculated that the rally could not have taken place without the “direct involvement of the MIA leadership.”
Both the GKNB and the MIA are known for their lack of transparency and unwillingness to share information.
“They don’t hold open house,” Gladilov joked of the massive GKNB, which he called a “state within a state.”
Underscoring the lack of transparency at the MIA, Internal Affairs Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev appeared before parliament on February 7 and asked for his ministry’s budget to be doubled to improve staff salaries. When MPs asked how many staff were on the payroll, he responded, “It’s a secret.”
Press officers at both the GKNB and the MIA refused EurasiaNet.org’s requests for comment; the MIA said the ministry would “release a statement when the investigation [into Eshbaev’s death] is complete.”
Central to the public uproar over the death is the feeling that the state’s war on corruption is beginning in the wrong place, using low-level public servants as cannon fodder on the frontlines.
"Unfortunately, it seems to me, the state uses people in uniforms, then discards them,” a former deputy prosecutor general, Kubatbek Kozhonaliev, told the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper on February 17. Two other recent law-enforcement initiatives – to combat drug trafficking and organized crime – have come up against similar criticism: that prosecutions are selective and do not target high-level perpetrators.
Miroslav Niyazov, a former chairman of the GKNB, is also skeptical about the government’s anti-corruption campaign, calling it “no more than a show.” While the folks at the bottom take the hits, Niyazov says, impunity reigns at the top.
Perennial restructuring and personnel changes, along with insufficient or inefficiently used funds, have irrevocably damaged morale in the country’s security and law-enforcement services. In such a situation, says Niyazov, “Law enforcement, and the country as a whole, finds itself in a situation of perpetual revolution.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.