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Kyrgyz Anger Over “Defective” Passports

Golden eagle on cover of new document resembles a chicken, claim furious deputies.
By Leila Saralaeva

Confusion surrounds the current status of Kyrgyzstan’s long awaited new passports after deputies claimed that they were riddled with errors.

Conflicting statements about the cost of the new documents from the republic’s leadership and the International Organisation for Migration, IOM - which provided technical assistance to the programme - have further angered parliamentarians, many of whom are calling for those responsible for the debacle to be prosecuted.

Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev announced on January 11 that more than 120,000 passports would be given free of charge to those citizens who needed an official identity document to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Opposition deputies and human rights activists had voiced fears that the delay in issuing new passports – which must be produced in order to place a vote – could lead to thousands of being unable to take part in the ballot.

But the IOM has reacted to Tanaev’s statement with caution. Michael Chance, manager of the passport project, denied that the documents were to be given out free.

“It’s possible that the prime minister was wrong. At the moment, there has only been consultation about this. [The IOM] did not make any promises.

“Kyrgyz citizens will have to pay nine US dollars for the foreign travel passport and one dollar for [the accompanying] identification card. That is the sum the company paid for manufacturing the documents.”

The confusion has angered several parliamentarians, who are calling for the officials responsible for the delay in the issuing of Kyrgyzstan’s new passports to be prosecuted for “negligence”.

Deputies had initially voted against the “defective” passports from being brought into circulation, and had criticised the government’s record in producing them. A parliamentary commission has since been set up to investigate the circumstances leading up to the crisis.

President Askar Akaev responded to the crisis by signing a decree removing Yury Lysogorov, head of the information resources and technology department responsible for introducing the new passports, from his job.

Lysogorov denies that there is anything wrong with the passports, and insists that there is no question of any financial irregularities.

“I decided to resign voluntarily to prevent any escalation of emotions about the agency and the project,” he said. “I am ready to answer all questions from the law enforcement agencies.

But deputies claim that there are several major faults in the new passport.

Alymbai Sultanov, the head of a government committee on law and order, told a parliamentary meeting, "On the new passport, the main symbol of Kyrgyzstan - the golden eagle - does not have a tail. Furthermore, the bird is lacking feathers around its legs and looks as if it’s wearing shorts.

“What were the members of the government commission thinking when they approved [this] design?"

Other deputies complain that the cover image looks more like a chicken than the golden eagle which symbolises the country, with others noting that the colour of the document does not match the original.

The IOM’s mission head in Kyrgyzstan, Bermet Moldobaeva, told a January 13 press conference that there was nothing wrong with the new passports.

“Even though the national emblem does not match the pattern used on state symbols, technically the new passports are perfect.

“All the watermarks and levels of protection match international standards. The document has already been recognised by other countries and Kyrgyz citizens can freely travel abroad with it,” she added.

The process of replacing the documents began a year ago at the request of the international community, which had raised concerns that the passports issued in 1994 by the newly-independent Kyrgyzstan were too easy to forge.

A Moldovan company, Registru, won the contract to produce the new passports in April 2004, and subcontracted their manufacture to the British firm DLR. Officials at first claimed that the new papers would be issued in June that year, but the date was postponed to September.

However, the documents have still not been issued, to the disquiet of the IOM.

"The IOM was concerned that in July 2004, the printing department was ready and the issue of passports could have started at the beginning of August without any problems,” Chance told IWPR.

“However, the issue of passports was delayed every time, for reasons unknown to us. [We believe that] internal conflicts and disagreements between various state structures in Kyrgyzstan and disputes on distributing the revenue from issuing the passports caused the process to be delayed.”

Tolekan Ismailova, the leader of the Civil Society Against Corruption group, alleged that self-interest was to blame for the passports crisis, "This government could not make the [process transparent] because it is used to stealing from the budget and from its own people. This shows that it has remained as corrupt as it has always been."

Ismailova added that it was highly unlikely that anyone would be punished for the fiasco, as those involved are high-ranking officials.

And opposition deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev described the crisis as “the blackest mark in the recent history of Kyrgyzstan”.

“Officials have never made money quite so blatantly on the backs of the Kyrgyz people before. Every citizen needs a passport to enrol at university, find a job, buy or sell property and travel abroad," he added.

Deputy Marat Sultanov told IWPR, "The situation with the passports is critical. For example, I don't have a passport and tried to acquire one by the usual procedures but was told there were none available.

“But then I was offered one for a bribe,” he alleged. “Naturally I refused. But I think we need to look into the dismissal of certain officials in government who were connected with this deal."

However, Kyrgyz officials have rejected these allegations. State spokesperson Nurgul Artykbaeva told IWPR that the deputies' criticism was "cheap populism and point-scoring ahead of the election".

"Their unsubstantiated accusations of corruption have no basis in fact,” she said. “We do not agree with their assessment - on the contrary the state agencies worked very efficiently."

Artykbaeva insists that the first batch of passports are not defective. "There is only one feature missing - the bird has no tail feathers,” she admitted. “But it is only a drawing, after all."

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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