Public perceptions of corrupt deals involving the Manas air base outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital helped bring down President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. This week, Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov became the latest Kyrgyz leader to be tarnished by accusations of mischief at Manas.
On August 13, a member of Babanov’s parliamentary coalition charged the embattled premier with accepting a bribe from a Turkish company building a new air-traffic control tower at Manas. Joomart Saparbayev, a deputy with the Ata-Meken Party, told a party meeting that Babanov had accepted a racehorse valued at up to $1.3 million in exchange for a multi-million-dollar Pentagon contract.
Saparbayev’s argument: "We thought about how these events could be linked, and we have found a corrupt scheme. This horse was given to Babanov as a gift so that the Turkish company could carry out the construction work," Saparbayev said, adding that the English-bred horse, five-year-old Islander One, arrived on an Istanbul-Bishkek flight.
In response, Babanov has admitted a weakness for racehorses and released what he says is a contract detailing the purchase of the horse for $20,000. He's also challenged Saparbayev’s boss, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev, to purchase the horse for $20,000 and try to resell it at a profit. (The deal comes with two conditions: Tekebayev must demonstrate his $20,000 was earned legitimately; and he’s not allowed to eat the horse.) Tekebayev calls the contract a fake.
The Turkish contractor, SERKA, has denied involvement in the scandal and says it won a subcontract from a Defense Department contractor on August 5, 2011, to perform part of the tower project. The Kyrgyz government had nothing to do with selecting the company, SERKA said in a statement published by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency.
The case is receiving a lot of attention. Perhaps that’s because it involves the Manas air base, focus of endless conjecture in the local press. (After Bakiyev’s ouster, Manas was at the center of a congressional investigation into corrupt fuel supply contracts in 2010.) Or perhaps it is because Babanov has made big promises to fight corruption. Or perhaps, as Kyrgyzstanis' expectations fade that political unrest in 2010 would bring them higher living standards, it’s natural to pick on the guy in charge.
Though scant evidence has surfaced demonstrating he has broken the law, Babanov is regularly accused of venality. Few believe any businessman can become so wealthy in a country as corrupt as Kyrgyzstan without resorting to some financial sleight of hand. But the ceaseless attacks often smell like a distraction. Since he came to power at the new year, leaders of the only opposition party in parliament, Ata-Jurt, have done little more than slander Babanov and demand his resignation. More recently, for several months members of his own ruling coalition have discussed a vote of no confidence in Babanov's cabinet, though no one has managed to gather enough votes. So far.
The scandal is bad timing for Babanov no matter how it’s framed. Even if he’s telling the truth, and the horse is worth only $20,000, that’s a lot of food on the table in dirt-poor Kyrgyzstan, where the average monthly salary is around $200.
Many expect Babanov, eventually, to face a vote of no confidence, and probably be ousted, perhaps when legislative sessions resume in a few weeks. Some say President Almazbek Atambayev, who appointed Babanov after he supported Atambayev’s campaign last year, would like to see the ambitious premier’s back. Meanwhile, Tekebayev has asked the security services to open a criminal case and prevent Babanov from leaving the country.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.