By Asyl Osmonalieva and Askar Erkebaev
Kyrgyzstan’s border guards service faces a major shake-up after an incident last month in which a conscript shot five people dead.
The 19-year-old frontier guard killed three of his fellow-servicemen, the unit commander and his wife at a guard post on Kyrgyzstan’s northern border with Kazakstan. He was subsequently tracked down, and was killed when he refused to surrender.
President Almazbek Atambaev lambasted the border guards senior command, accusing it of failing to do enough to curb bullying, seen as the reason why the conscript ran amok. After this criticism, three top border guards officials stepped down.
On September 5, President Atambaev signed a decree designating the frontier service as a separate government agency. This was the case before 2010, since when the service has come under the State National Security Committee.
Officials say the reform should improve funding arrangements for the service and thereby boost its capacity to defend the country.
The shooting incident gave new prominence to many existing concerns about Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces such as the culture of bullying, poor provision due to underfunding, and the use of conscripts as unpaid labour.
In a sign of the malaise afflicting conscript soldiers, prosecutors say six of the eight fatalities that occurred among border guards in January-August this year were not in the line of duty.
While the regular armed forces come under the defence ministry, the now autonomous border guards force accounts for about a third of the total number in uniform, about 15,000. Both army and frontier guards traditionally had professional officers and NCOs and a rank-and-file drawn from conscripts. As in other former Soviet states, the forces also hire “kontraktniki” or professional soldiers these days.
In June, a group called Women Peacemakers published a damning report on military conscription, which was still being discussed when the shooting incident hit the headlines.
The group based its findings on interviews with conscripts, parents, officers and NGOs representing soldiers’ families. It described problems at every stage on the process, from bribery by those wishing to get out of military service to the abuses endemic in the military, in some cases driving men to suicide.
The current intake of conscripts runs at about 6,000 a year. The report described the conscript selection process as a form of “poverty tax”, where only those from poor backgrounds got called up because they could not afford the bribes. To make up the numbers, the selection commissions also enlisted men who should have been deemed mentally or physically unfit.
Once in the forces, conscript soldiers were liable to be underfed and bullied and assaulted by their comrades.
The report spoke of a culture of impunity in cases where bullying led to soldiers committing suicide. In 2011 there were 13 cases of this kind. No one was jailed for contributing to these deaths, although some discharges and demotions resulted.
Last December, 15 soldiers deserted en masse after being assaulted by their officers. They turned themselves in a day later.
Other forms of abusive behaviour includes officers hiring out their men to construction companies and pocketing the money, or simply using them as domestic servants.
The report concluded that the cumulative effect of these practices left Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces in poor shape to cope with the security risks facing the country, in particular protecting the border from Islamic militants and drug smugglers.
Defence ministry spokesman Almaz Namazaliev says the authorities are already working towards a full-time army where “kontraktniki” will replace conscripts. This will eliminate the bullying problem, he said.
“Since 2010, military service has been reduced from two years to one. Even at the moment, most of those in the army are on contract,” he said.
Namazaliev said bullying was more of a problem before, when fresh conscripts were put together with those a year older.
“All conscripts are now the same age, in the same position and the same rank,” he said.
Ermuhamed Yuldashev, deputy head of the defence ministry’s department for logistics and mobilisation, said bullying was a broader societal problem, and not confined to the military.
“The whole of society needs to change,” he added.
He also rejected claims that only the poorest young men ended up as conscripts, arguing that many were keen to join up as it was a good route into a police career.
If the strategy is to recruit more professionals, the authorities may have to offer them better incentives.
Reporting to parliament on the state of the border guards on September 3, state security chief Shamil Atakhanov said at least 400 “kontraktniki” had left the service recently because they were unhappy with the pay. Contract soldiers are paid the equivalent of between 100 and 400 dollars a month.
Speaking two days later, the acting head of the border guards, Zakir Tilenov, said the service was currently receiving only one-third of the funding it needed.
Namazaliev acknowledged that underfunding made it difficult to retain officers and left the army poorly equipped.
“One simple example is that hundreds of our officers haven’t been provided with housing. There isn’t the money to equip the army with high-standard military hardware,” he said.
This problem was apparent during the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, when a shortage of vehicles prevented troops being redeployed quickly from other parts of the country.
The government budget for 2012 sets aside 54 million dollars for the armed forces, both defence ministry and frontier guards. Even taking into account that Kyrgyzstan has a smaller population and fewer resources than neighbouring Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, the Women Peacemakers report noted that its defence spending paled into insignificance compared with the 1.4 billion dollars they were each spending annually.
Artur Bukalaev of the Foundation for International Tolerance in Bishkek said the funding problems showed how defence and security issues were low on the Kyrgyz leadership’s list of priorities. In that kind of environment, people would not be lining up to serve in the military.
“Under these circumstances, the Kyrgyz army has partially lost its ability to fight, and it cannot be relied on to protect the country from external threats unless it undergoes reform,” he said.
Asyl Osmonaliev and Askar Erkebaev are IWPR-trained journalist in Kyrgyzstan. The article was published by IWPR’s RCA Issue 686.