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Kyrgyz Press Gangs
Kyrgyz military and interior ministry officials have come under strong criticism over the use of strong-arm tactics to drum up recruits for the republic's ailing armed forces.
Despite up-beat assessments from the republic's military leaders of the army's performance during the recent campaigns against Islamic militants in the Batken region, reforming the armed forces remains one of Kyrgyzstan's most pressing problems.
Independent experts believe the army Kyrgyzstan inherited on gaining independence was, and probably still is, incapable of mounting military operations.
Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy General Ismail Isakov told IWPR he believed the armed forces had been left to "the mercy of fate" by the Kyrgyz government. "In 1992 our head of our state declared, 'we don't need an army at all'," he complained.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliev was less critical of the government, claiming that in the midst of economic crisis the authorities simply do not have enough revenue "to maintain the army at an appropriate level".
Despite the worsening economic situation, however, Kyrgyzstan has ploughed ahead with reforms to the country's army, including a scheme to re-organise the defence forces on a professional basis.
Kyrgyz Defence Minister Esen Topoev told IWPR the government planned to develop a professional army by switching to the use of volunteer contract soldiers with military experience gained from service in the Soviet armed forces.
Independent experts fear, however, that local military and police authorities are employing arbitrary and unlawful tactics in their efforts to meet their recruitment targets.
Members of the Jalal-Abad based human rights organisation Justice have reported several cases of forced recruitment into the Kyrgyz army.
Vasili Sivaev from the village of Gavrilovka near Jalal-Abad claims a military official confiscated his identity papers when he refused to sign up as a volunteer.
Sivavev had intended to leave Kyrgyzstan to go and live with his parents in Russia. The local military authorities said he would only get his papers back when he signed up to the army or produced written proof he intended to leave Kyrgyzstan for good.
Intervention by human rights activists forced the military authorities to hand over Sivavev's papers. But Justice believes the case is not unique, and that many so-called volunteers have been pressured into signing contracts against their will.
Farkhad Kambarov, 26, a former soldier in an army unit based in Isfana village in the Batken region, is one.
"In October 1999, representatives from the Bazar-Kurgan district military commissariat came to my home one night and took me to the commissariat," he said.
"There were about 50 other guys. We were told that we were being conscripted for military service. Many refused, but the officers didn't listen. Young people from relatively wealthy families reached agreement with them and simply paid them off.
"Finally, we - the remaining 23 of us - were taken to the Osh motorized infantry brigade and locked up in the guardhouse.
"We were told that they would let us out if we signed a contract for two-to-three months of service. They promised us a salary of 3,500 soms ($75). We had to think about the offer while sat in a guardhouse cell. On the eighth day, two other guys and I agreed. The rest were kept locked up for about two weeks before being sent home."
Kambarov served with distinction, receiving a medal from Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev. But the ex-soldier claims conditions in the army were dreadful. He said he had to use his own shoes because the boots issued to the unit were of such poor quality they fell to bits in weeks.
"The only time we felt like real people, were fed well and wore new uniforms was during Akaev's visit," Karambarov said. "The day after he left the new uniform was taken away and everything returned to normal."
Worst of all, he said, was the fact that the contract soldiers were never paid. Kambarov was given a bonus of 500 soms ($11) and ten days leave for his good service. He thought his salary was being paid directly to his family.
"When I arrived home, I was very surprised to find out that this was not the case," Kambarov said. "My father was seriously ill and was in the hospital. His and my mother's pension were not enough to buy anything, and my entire family, including my wife and children, were virtually starving."
Kambarov took the view his contract had therefore expired and went to work on construction sites to earn money for his family. But on October 1, interior ministry officials turned up at the building site and arrested him for desertion. He was tried in December and sentenced to one year imprisonment, although the start of the sentence was postponed.
Ikram Babaev and Ulan Kokonov - two fellow "volunteer" contract soldiers - were also handed 12 month jail sentences for similar reasons. One had received word his mother was seriously ill, the other his wife. When they asked permission to visit their families their superiors refused. The two men then left their units without permission.
Legally, having signed the contract for military service, soldiers who leave their units without permission are guilty of desertion. But some blame must lie with the local military authorities for creating a situation where recruits feel they have no option but to desert.
Colonel Mirbek Koluibaev, head of the education department in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Defence, was deeply critical of the situation in Jalal-Abad.
"It's a plain outrage!" Koluibaev said. "Overzealous officials are upsetting the reforms of the republic's armed forces. They shall be rooted out and punished. The defence ministry does not need to meet conscription by such methods.
"We need volunteers, the best of the best. For military contracts we should only select people who can clearly articulate the reasons for their decision."
According to Koluibaev, a contract soldier should be paid 2,000-2,500 soms per month (about $50). This figure is to double in 2001. Clothing too is expected to improve thanks to military assistance from fellow signatories to the Agreement on Collective Security.
Koluibaev said a special task force was dealing with the problems of selecting army recruits and ensuring their "psychological compatibility" for military service. He said 78 per cent of soldiers involved in "counter-terrorist" operations were contract soldiers.
When asked what might happen to the three "deserters", Koluibaev said the task force would be conducting a thorough investigation. "Certain vigorous military officials who abuse their position will be punished," the colonel said.
"After the investigation, each of the victims will be provided with assistance, maybe even at the expense of the guilty officials. At the same time, we must take measures to ensure that similar things do not happen again."
Koluibaev said the defence ministry was considering opening up telephone "hotlines" so people can inform the authorities of abuses perpetrated by overzealous local officials.
Ulugbek Babakulov and Svetlana Suslova are IWPR contributors
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