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Kyrgyzstan Hobbled By Corruption, But Parties Offer Little

In what will come as a surprise to nobody, a pre-election poll conducted in Kyrgyzstan by the International Republican Institute has revealed corruption to be near the top of a list of the country’s greatest perceived burdens.

The theme has been part of the background noise during campaigning season, which will culminate with a vote on October 4.

IRI’s poll revealed that 46 of respondents saw graft as the most important problem facing Kyrgyzstan. Corruption was sandwiched between the 59 percent that see unemployment as a pressing issue and the 35 percent concerned at rising prices.

Parties vying for ballots have sought in various ways to address these concerns, albeit in often less than specific details. That has not deterred voters, however, according to the IRI survey.

IRI said its research showed 77 percent of its 1,500 respondents declared their intent to participate in the election.

IRI’s Eurasia regional director Stephen Nix said in a statement accompanying the release of the survey that the poll results indicate a strong mandate to tackle graft.

"The parliamentary elections are a great opportunity for the Kyrgyz government to demonstrate its commitment to the fight against corruption,” Nix said.

So what are all the parties offering on corruption?

President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK), which is expected to easily outpace its rivals, this past week unveiled its Taza Koom, or Clean Society, program, which it says will prevent the theft of 30 billion Som ($434 million). 

SDPK leader Chynbai Tursunbekov told a rally in Kara-Kul on September 22 that this was the amount being stolen every year. His party’s solution is to introduce technology to cut out the middle-man in providing government services.

One proposal consists of creating a population registry based on biometric data. That could, according to experts cited by SDPK, reduce fraud in the benefit payments system by between 50 percent and 70 percent. Since Kyrgyzstan’s government has a necessarily ungenerous welfare system, given the state of the state coffers, savings here are likely limited, even if the anti-fraud push could be successful.

Another SDPK idea is to ensure universal, remote access to government services through electronic terminals or websites.

The suggestions are on the thin side and could likely only consolidate charges by SDPK rivals that Atambayev administration has fared poorly in its stated “battle against corruption.”  Indeed, the annual 30 billion Som figure cited by Tursunbekov should surely be considered a startling admission of ineffectiveness from a party that has in effect been running the country for five years.

Leading figures among another strong contender for the October 4, the self-styled socialist-leaning Ata-Meken party, have also suggested reducing contact between citizenry and civil servants as a solution to corruption. Deputy parliament speaker and Ata Meken candidate Asiya Sasykbaeva earlier this month offered the “single window” system — which would streamline bureaucratic procedures — and e-government as antidotes. Another Ata Meken candidate, Talantbek Uzakbaev, promised to uproot corruption in education, but offered little detail on how that would be done.

Another prominent party, Onuguu-Progress, has similarly utopian ideas about e-government.

Lofty ideas about e-government seem to bear little potential in the main areas where people perceive corruption, however.

According to the IRI poll, the top offender is the state automobile inspection service — in other words, the widely detested traffic police, who were described as very corrupt by 60 percent of respondents and somewhat corrupt by another 33 percent. Sloppy and reckless drivers do most of the work for traffic police, who happily levy bribes on the open roads, instead of issuing fines, all out of reach of any computer.

Among the many other culprits seen as “very corrupt” there are universities (58 percent), medical institutions (56 percent), the Prosecutor General’s Office (55 percent), courts (54 percent) and the police (54 percent).

With many of these offices, not only does corruption predominate in face-to-face encounters, but the most egregious instances of bribery ostensibly favor both parties in the illicit transaction. Society at large suffers in both the short- and long-term, but that is hard for many to account for when it comes to questions of life or death, freedom and careers.

Bir Bol party suggests bolstering public control over the incomes and expenses of government officials, increasing the transparency of the state machine. The party’s electoral program argues it is necessary to increase public understanding about laws and nurture a culture of aversion to corruption in all settings — from the road to medical institutions and educational establishments.

The IRI survey indicates that this aversion actually exists already. That has not been enough, however, to stop people from paying — or being compelled to pay — bribes.

The most bland non-offer comes from the Kyrgyzstan Party, which has over the campaigning season proven strong on rhetoric and weak on substance. Other than stating that it will fight corruption, the party seems unable to articulate in its program quite how it intends to do this.

Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek — a duumvirate force led by a security establishment holdover from the pre-2010 revolution era, Adakhan Madumarov, and bazaar tycoon Askar Salymbekov — offers a similarly nebulous panacea to Bir Bol. The only solution, the party argued this week, is to be found through the joint efforts of honest state service professionals and civil society enthusiasts. This sounds distinctly like a call to do nothing at all.

Respublika-Ata Jurt — another unlikely alliance of southern nationalists and northern business types — advances one of the most bold solutions: get rid of half of the civil service. The party says in its election program that Kyrgyzstan needs nowhere near its current complement of 59,800 government employees, who include 25,000 law enforcement officials. 

“According a global model of effective state management, there should be only 5,000 government employees for every million citizens. It follows that the 6 million people in Kyrgyzstan require no more than 30,000 civil servants,” the program reads. 

That could reduce corruption tenfold, the party argues.

Kyrgyzstan Hobbled By Corruption, But Parties Offer Little

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