By Natasha Yefimov
After 18 years on the police force, Major A. has a good relationship with his superiors: If he slips his supervisor a little cash, he says, he is excused from work and free to earn money at his second job, driving a taxi around Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
A monthly salary of about $200 is not enough to support a family of four and “not all jobs [on the force] bring in bread,” said the detective. “Traffic police — yes. Economic crimes unit — yes. Criminal investigations — no. Besides, I can’t go completely wild, like some people do.”
Major A., who asked that his name be concealed to prevent retribution by fellow officers, did not mean that different positions pay radically different salaries, only that they offer varying opportunities for extortion and bribe-taking. His assessment provides crucial context as authorities ponder ways to improve the performance of law-enforcement agencies and the justice system.
Since coming to power last year, Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have been calling for a reform of law enforcement, citing Georgia’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign of 2004 as a possible model. But prospects for success look dim.
“In Kyrgyzstan, organized crime groups have a ‘roof’ [protection] in the Interior Ministry, prosecutors’ offices, State Committee for National Security and courts,” Deputy Interior Minister Melis Turganbayev told reporters February 18, according to the 24.kg news service. Since graft is prevalent throughout Kyrgyz governmental structures, stiff resistance to any efforts at change can be expected, an opposition parliament deputy told EurasiaNet.org.
Corruption and the chronic under-funding of public services consumed many former Soviet republics after independence in 1991. But the newly sovereign states also inherited a slew of problems from their totalitarian past, when law-enforcement agencies used repressive measures without much concern for individuals’ rights or even the rule of law.
“To this day, according to opinion polls and public perception, the police still stand sentinel for the bodies of state, rather than to protect human rights,” said Evgeny Cherenkov, operational manager of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s police reform program, which has been working in Kyrgyzstan since 2003. “The fundamental change in priorities has not happened – not in terms of mentality, not on paper, not in legislation, in no way at all.”
Today, the justice system is plagued not only by venality and a lack of funding, but by systemic deficiencies, including abuses against detainees, pervasive political interference, low morale and weak oversight. “Illegal detentions and illegally filed criminal charges are commonplace,” President Roza Otunbayeva told senior prosecutors February 12, noting a particularly dire situation in and around Osh, the scene of deadly interethnic violence last summer. Within days, the Prosecutor General’s Office suspended 4,210 of 5,334 criminal investigations into the June clashes, citing shoddy police work and poor oversight by local prosecutors.
The government’s search for solutions is just beginning. In late February, complaining that earlier reform efforts had lacked coordination, Otunbayeva created a working group to design a comprehensive justice-reform policy. The group’s head, Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Atakhanov, is a political appointee, liable to lose his job if the rickety government crumbles.
Nonetheless, the group has begun its work and Atakhanov is expected this week to present findings from a March 1-3 trip to Georgia, whose achievements he has lauded. “That country was able to overcome organized crime and corruption, which had overrun practically all government bodies,” Atakhanov said in a statement, also praising Tbilisi for revising police procedures to better protect human rights.
But while Georgia’s multi-faceted reform has won wide acclaim for combatting street-level corruption, it has been criticized for failing to fix deeper structural problems, including some that are also common to Kyrgyzstan, like poor accountability and rights violations.
And officials in Bishkek have expressed doubts about one of its key elements: the dismissal of thousands of officers. Soon after taking office in December, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev assured senior security officials that there would be no mass lay-offs.
“Imagine what might happen if you fire throngs of people accustomed to using firearms without giving them any [financial] support,” an official close to Atambayev told EurasiaNet.org. Cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan would need heaps of aid money to ensure ex-officers don’t turn to crime, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he had not been authorized to comment on the topic.
Indeed, one thing that’s clear is that the justice reform initiative will need significant funding, and it will have to come from foreign donors, some of whom have already pumped millions of dollars into Kyrgyzstan’s law-enforcement system.
“Democracy is very expensive,” Atakhanov told reporters March 11, after visits to Tbilisi and Washington. “Where is funding for reforms to be found? Whose interest can be piqued? … The Kyrgyz Republic will seek help from various donor organizations.”
Georgia’s reform was likewise bankrolled from abroad, and followed the overthrow of a government seen as exceedingly corrupt, much like the regime of Kyrgyzstan’s ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted last April. But Tbilisi’s reform – which, according to the OSCE’s Cherenkov, took at least 18 months to design – proceeded at a time of relative political stability. Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to restore a sense of stability after almost a year of constant turmoil.
Another challenge for Kyrgyzstan will be achieving greater transparency. Interior Ministry spokesman Rakhmatillo Akhmedov said the number of police in the country is a state secret; his press service did not grant EurasiaNet.org an interview with officials or answer questions submitted in writing, as requested, despite having more than a week to do so. Asked about the reform by phone, Akhmedov waxed philosophical: “A reform is impossible to complete,” he said. It consists of “endless transformations,” whose results “will only be seen by our descendants.”
Natasha Yefimov is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.