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Kazakstan: Employers Shun Former Agents

Ex-security service personnel are so distrusted that it is practically impossible for them to find work.
By Aleksei Gorodetski

They used to have immense power over people's lives and were feared and respected in equal measure, but secret servicemen who recently lost their jobs are struggling to find even menial work.


Agents who used to work for the KGB or its Kazak successor the National Security Committee, KNB, now complain that prospective employers will not even grant them a job interview. Many have drifted into lowly security work, and even there, a record as a former secret serviceman can be a handicap.


Arat Narmanbetov, manager of a security firm founded by former KNB officers, says his colleagues' reputations can make it difficult for them to attract clients. "If you say that you used to work for the KNB you're done for," he said.


This aversion is built on fear and distrust, and is certainly nothing to do with lack of skills or education. Andrei, a young KNB employee who left his post for health reasons, remains jobless in spite of being fluent in two foreign languages.


"No one will hire me," he said. "I've sent my details to all the major firms but not one has replied, let alone invited me to attend an interview. As soon as they see that I used to work for the KNB, they turn me down."


The problem of unemployed ex-KNB men is growing as the service reduces its staffing levels. More than 500 personnel were laid off in 1999 alone. Former senior officers who were once well respected by their colleagues now count themselves lucky to land a job as a security guard in the private sector.


Yuri is one such officer. A graduate of the Soviet KGB academy, he worked in the service for many years. "Now I am a security guard," he said. "With my experience I could manage a company but with my record no one would let me even get close to that level. They don't trust me."


Local firms often will not hire ex-secret policemen because they fear they will draw on old habits and skills to act as informants for their rivals. "I don't trust old KGB people," said the vice-president of an oil company. "We don't have any lack of vacancies but I don't want our competitors to know too much about us."


The director of a supermarket chain was even more direct. "I'll pick a regular university graduate over one from a KNB academy any time," he said. "I've never trusted the secret police. In fact I hate them and I'd never hire one of them."


Distrusted and disliked by their fellow countrymen, ex-spooks have even less chance of finding employment with international organisations.


Foreign embassies, the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe appear to have a simple, unwritten rule about former KNB employees - don't hire them. Instead, the jobs go to retired regular soldiers.


"We hire former paratroopers, marine guards, border guards or other defence ministry servicemen," one foreign diplomatic source said. "This isn't just our policy. The practice is widespread among foreign diplomatic missions."


But not everyone thinks this widespread prejudice against former KNB men is fair - or good company policy.


"Kazaks need to rethink their attitude towards former KGB servicemen," psychologist Natalia Fyodorova told IWPR. "Company chairmen should give them a chance, at least for a trial period. I bet they'll find people who are ideal for any job."


Andrew Sadauskas, former boss of a Kazakh-Lithuanian joint venture, said he has had no problems with the former agents he put on his team. "Retired KGB officers are some of the most honest and reliable people I've ever met," he said. "I hired an ex-counterintelligence officer and he became my closest advisor."


A personnel director of a private firm told a similar story. "We once hired the relative of an employee who really let us down," he said. "Then we replaced him with a former KNB officer. Not only was he eminently qualified for the job, he was willing to work 24 hours a day, including weekends."


In contrast to the fortunes of the former KNB men, members of its elite anti-terrorist unit, Arystan, are offered prestigious jobs everywhere when they leave. Their regular service colleagues can only dream of such opportunity.


Arat Narmanbetov, a former KNB colonel who retired in 1997, says he is mystified by the problems faced by fellow former agents. "It has been eleven years since the fall of the Soviet Union, which is not a very long time," he said. "I guess people are still afraid of the once-omnipotent secret police apparatus.


"Former servicemen will just have to fight harder to win the trust of the modern business community. I am sure we will succeed - eventually."


Aleksei Gorodetski is the pseudonym of a journalist in Almaty


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