Kyrgyz Premier Orders Mafia Clampdown

Government agrees measures to take out serious criminals, a day after a prominent public figure is attacked.

Kyrgyz Premier Orders Mafia Clampdown

Government agrees measures to take out serious criminals, a day after a prominent public figure is attacked.

Under normal circumstances a by-election in Balykchi, a town on Kyrgyzstan's picturesque Lake Issykkul, would have passed virtually unnoticed. But the April 9 vote has been surrounded by a series of dramatic protests both for and against the candidate, Rysbek Akmatbaev, creating something of a national crisis.

Most disturbingly, a key organiser of an anti-Akmatbaev demonstration held the day before the election is now in hospital. Edil Baisalov, who heads the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, is lucky to have survived what supporters say was a deliberate attempt to kill him on April 12 – by forces as yet unknown – in retaliation for his vocal allegations of links between the government and organised crime.

The incident may have created a watershed in the way the Kyrgyz authorities have dealt with the rise of organised crime. Prime Minister Felix Kulov convened a cabinet meeting the day after the attack, resulting in a raft of tough policing measures designed to identify, hunt down and jail serious criminals.

The measures should please those members of the public who have been pleading with the government to tighten up law enforcement.

The April 8 demonstration, in which Baisalov played a key role and which was attended by about 2,000 people in the capital Bishkek, was described by organisers as a peace march for a country “free from criminals”.

The rally was deliberately scheduled a day ahead of the Balykchi by-election, which Akmatbaev, a controversial, high-profile figure, won easily with 79 per cent of the vote.

Akmatbaev had earlier been disbarred as a candidate after election officials ruled on March 30 that he was disqualified on two counts: he had a standing criminal record, and he had failed to disclose the fact that he had not lived in Kyrgyzstan for the past five years continuously, a condition of election to parliament.

The following day, his supporters held a rally in central Bishkek to protest against the decision – and to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Felix Kulov, who Akmatbaev said had ordered his disqualification.

In a surprise decision the apparently cast-iron ruling against Akmatbaev was overturned, first by a district court in Bishkek and subsequently by the Supreme Court. Judges ruled that a conviction dating from 1998 had long passed and was therefore not a bar to Akmatbaev standing for office. Secondly, they said, that the transcript of a formal interview last year in which Akmatbaev told prosecutors he had been out of the country for some time was not admissible as evidence, and so he could be considered to have met the five-year requirement because he had the appropriate residence permit stamped in his passport

Once Akmatbaev was reinstated, the political stand-off continued.

The April 8 march was attended by members of the People’s Coalition of Democratic Forces, which includes 25 political parties, movements and public organisations, and other activists and politicians.

The marchers gathered in Victory Park, holding brightly-coloured balloons, yellow banners, and posters with slogans reading, “we want law and order”, “the people united against the criminals”, and “let’s defend the achievements of the popular revolution”. They then formed a long column and marched through the city, their numbers swelling along the way. People unable to leave their workplace stood at windows and applauded, while passing cars flashed their lights in support.

“Everyone who cares about our country's fate came out today," Bolot Sherniyazov, a member of parliament taking part in the protest march, told IWPR. "Bishkek residents are against criminals coming into power, with the support of high-ranking officials.”

Sherniyazov's remarks reflected a general feeling that the administration of President Kurmanbek Bakiev – which rode into power in last year's March revolution in an atmosphere of euphoria – has not lived up to the hopes people invested in it. Persistent allegations that some senior politicians are mixed up with a flourishing organised crime world – to the extent that sometimes hard to hard to tell one from the other – have added an acute sense of worry to the disappointment.

As Melis Eshimkanov, another member of parliament who was on the demonstration, put it, "everyone is sick of this mess, this chaos”.

Another concern voiced by protesters was that President Bakiev has not made a clear statement about what he is going to do either to clean up his administration, if the rumours of corruption are true – or to offer more transparent governance if the stories are based on a misunderstanding.

A statement distributed by Baisalov's NGO Coalition summed up the protest rally's demands to Bakiev: “Stop associating with criminal bosses; live up to your oath and take measures to ensure the public safety; place everyone facing criminal charges in custody; take tough measures against people who encroach on private property; provide guarantees to all businessmen that they will be protected from rackets and banditry.”

When the marchers reached Bishkek's central square they were addressed by speakers including Baisalov, who urged the president to come out and talk to the protestors. His call was taken up by the crowd, who began chanting, “Bakiev, Bakiev, come out.”

The president did not appear, although Kyrgyzstan's chief prosecutor Kambaraly Kongantiev did come out and address the crowd.

State Secretary Dastan Sarygulov, who also came out and talked to protestors, told IWPR that their demands were right, but added that the Bakiev team was doing its best to restore law and order.

“We have not had justice here for the last ten years,” he said. “We all need law and order. I can say with confidence that the new regime is also striving for order and stability in society.”

Four days later, Baisalov was hospitalised after a brutal assault. At about 5:30 pm on April 12, he was coming out of his NGO coalition's office and was about to get into his car when he was struck down with an injury to the back of his head.

Recovering later in hospital, Baisalov said he was hit by a young man in a leather jacket. His driver recalled hearing a "sudden loud noise".

In the neurosurgery department of Bishkek's National Hospital, doctors found he had concussion and a five-centimetre cut to the head.

The interior ministry said that according to eyewitnesses, the attacker used a blunt instrument concealed inside a rolled-up newspaper. Deputy interior minister Omurbek Suvanaliev told a cabinet meeting the next day that until forensic results came in, it was unclear whether the injury was caused by a blow from a heavy object or by some kind of firearm.

Police set up 15 roadblocks across the city, but no one was arrested.

Prime Minister Kulov visited Baisalov in hospital the same evening, and afterwards told journalists that “the political motivation of this act is plain to see”.

In recent months, Kulov, a former security minister, has been more outspoken than Bakiev on the need to tighten law and order and battle organised crime.

Baisalov's colleagues in the non-government sector agree with Kulov's assessment, and are profoundly worried at the message the attack has sent.

“This assassination attempt is probably a response to our peaceful march against the criminals on April 8," said Asiya Sasykbaeva, head of the Interbilim organisation.

"Edil Baisalov openly tried to oppose criminals getting into parliament, and he criticised the regime for doing nothing about it…. I don't think the authorities like it, either, when civil society [groups] talk openly about the criminal situation which has arisen in Kyrgyzstan."

Parliamentary deputy Omurbek Babanov agrees that the attack on Baisalov is linked to ongoing turbulence in the country, calling it "a logical consequence of recent political events".

In an impassioned public statement, a group of non-government groups and political parties said, “Edil Baisalov is young, he has an open heart, he dearly loves his homeland, and he is our countryman….Now an attempt has been made to murder him, to silence him, to stifle the voice of truth within him.”

In a measure of the seriousness with which the attack on Baisalov is being taken in Kyrgyzstan, the government called a special meeting to discuss it on April 13.

Deputy interior minister Suvanaliev presented details of the investigation to date, and even named the individual he thought was the most likely suspect.

“The [general] crime situation in the country has been reduced, but organised crime groups are becoming more active," he told ministers. "This keeps society in a state of tension and fear. All these organised crime groups are linked to one [gang] leader alone."

Suvanaliev said the police were being hampered in their war on organised crime by the all-pervasive fear which prevents the victims of intimidation and violence from speaking out.

Even police officers were too scared to talk, the deputy minister revealed, noting, "The most recent case was on March 31 at a meeting by supporters of candidate Akmatbaev, in the course of which the head of the Balykchi police department was beaten up. Yet the police chief refused to write a statement."

Prime Minister Kulov responded that policemen must toughen up or leave the job.

"They're breaking the oath they took – it is their obligation to fight crime. If the police are scared, what effect will that have on society?" he asked. "If everyone is scared, then everyone should be fired - and if the police chiefs are scared, they should be fired too."

Kulov concluded,"This situation cannot be tolerated any further. We have become the laughing stock of the international community."

Other ministers invited to take the floor appeared to back Kulov's resolute line.

Deputy prime minister Adakhan Madumarov said the country was " on the verge of collapse", and called for emergency powers to be granted to the law-enforcement agencies. He added that if the police were to scared to the job, the same powers should be given to groups of volunteers drawn from concerned members of the public.

Another speaker, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Yevgeny Semenenko, suggested he and his colleagues were themselves at risk.

“We are all concerned by the crime situation in the country, but unfortunately there's no guarantee that any of the government members present will not be struck down in similar fashion the moment he steps out of Government House," he said.

Prime Minister Kulov finished by saying it was time for the government to go into action.

"We ourselves are feeding the rumours that the regime is linked to criminals - otherwise why wouldn’t we be doing anything?" he warned. "Any further inaction on the part of the authorities will endanger our country's future.”

Ministers approved a package of urgent measures aimed at curbing the mafia, including roving police patrols that will conduct spot-checks on individuals and vehicles, swifter processing of current criminal prosecutions against known mafia members, checks on policemen to identify any mafia links, and dismissal for those officers too fearful to testify.

Above all, the security agencies are "to identify criminal enemy number one" and deal with that individual with all due haste.

Kulov said he would be taking personal charge of seeing that the measures were enacted, and called for weekly reports from the officials responsible.

The prime minister's tough new anti-mafia regime – if it proves effective – will mark a significant shift in the authorities' handling of this rumbling crisis.

What is still unclear is whether President Bakiev will align himself with this tougher stance. At the moment he remains under pressure from critics who accuse him – at best – of letting things drift for too long.

After the attack on Baisalov, the president said he believed certain forces were seeking to create “an impression of instability and of a crime wave”, when the truth was that Kyrgyzstan's crime situation was no worse than that in other former Soviet republics.

A statement issued by the international office of Ar-Namys, a political party that Kulov headed until recently, gives a flavour of the criticism levelled at Bakiev.

“We believe the president should assume responsibility for all the negative things that are going on in the country," said the statement, issued after the attack on Baisalov.

"Kurmanbek Bakiev must finally admit that he is not in control of the situation, that he is incapable of controlling it, and that he should therefore resign."

Outside Kyrgyzstan, the international community is looking on with some alarm. On April 13, the head of the European Commission, Adrian Van der Meer, expressed concern at recent events in Kyrgyzstan and called for a thorough investigation of the assault on Baisalov.

Kyrgyz foreign minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov told cabinet colleagues the same day, he had already had a string of ambassadors coming to see him. "They are very concerned indeed about the political and criminal situation in our country," he said.

His conclusion was simple: "Measures must be taken.”

Leila Saralaeva and Gulnura Toralieva are IWPR contributors in Bishkek.

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