Casinos have suddenly become a hot topic in Kyrgyzstan as various factions in parliament wrestle with accusations that they use the gambling houses to launder drug money.
On September 29, parliament approved a bill banning “gambling activity” as of January 1. Outside the building, protestors lamented that thousands of citizens working in the industry will lose their jobs due to the alleged illicit activities of the country’s leaders. One protestor, who called himself Timur, told EurasiaNet.org that the new ban stinks of inequality: “We pay taxes, we contribute to society. And you see these people [lawmakers and other officials] driving around in Lexuses that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Where does the money come from?”
That is a question on a lot of people’s minds in Bishkek these days. For the past several weeks, a heretofore unheard of group has shouted allegations that the leading candidate in the next month's presidential election, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, uses casinos to launder profits from drug trafficking. Atambayev has not responded to the allegations.
In an open letter to President Roza Otunbayeva and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Association of Free Bloggers and Journalists of Kyrgyzstan accuses Interior Ministry officials allied with Atambayev of working through a holding company called M-Set Group to move vast amounts of heroin across the country and to Russia. The letter alleges that M-Set owns casinos around Kyrgyzstan with the sole purpose of laundering drug profits and funneling them into the pockets of Atambayev-allied government officials.
Twitter user @PhDSheshtash has identified himself as the head of the Association. (His profile lists a Facebook address, where he is known as Bakit Djailibaev.) His Twitter feed, peppered with facile anti-Western rhetoric and anti-Semitic cliches, indicates support for presidential candidate Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a conservative from the Ar-Namys party, which proposed the casino legislation.
In Kyrgyzstan’s rough-and-tumble political scene, it is hard to tell where the truth lies. Similar allegations have already been deployed against another presidential candidate, the head of the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, Kamchybek Tashiev. In late August, an interview by Fergananews.com featured an unnamed source, identified as a high-ranking Russian official from an unspecified security agency, saying that Tashiev was deeply involved in heroin smuggling from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. Tashiev’s office blamed Atambayev for the attack. The M-Set allegations could be a means for Ata-Jurt to even the score with Atambayev, or another game entirely.
Without a doubt, the worlds of politics and crime overlap in Kyrgyzstan. So, for now, the allegations are nothing but politics as usual.