Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Thieves Threaten Economy

Theft of non-ferrous metal plays havoc with business and industry.
By Gulnura Toralieva

One of Bishkek's most famous landmarks, a monument of the famous Kyrgyz writer Dzhoomart Bokonbaev, disappeared last month.

Several days later, there were electricity cuts right across the Jalalabad region when cables were torn off the Kurpsay power station.

Both crimes formed part of a new boom in Kyrgyzstan, the theft of non-ferrous metals, which are then sold on to China.

Makhmadzhan Usmanov, director of the Kurpsay station in the Mayluusuu district, said, "Those who did this caused damage estimated at millions of soms. This station was supplying electricity to the entire Jalalabad municipality and the cities of Uzgen and Karasuu. Many towns were cut off."

In his estimation, the power station has now been reduced to 40 per cent capacity.

Thefts of non-ferrous metals such as copper and bronze are rising sharply in Kyrgyzstan. In the first three months of this year, there were 135 cases in Bishkek, of which 72 involved electricity or telephone cables. There were only 90 such cases in the whole of 2002.

Melis Dzolchiev, director of the property crimes department, told IWPR that he will appeal to the authorities to review existing legislation, which imposes few restrictions on the purchase and sale of non-ferrous metals.

The three men who stole the Bokonbaev monument were caught before they could offload the metal. The damage, estimated at around 180 US dollars, is minor compared to the distress caused by the crime.

"I felt as if I had buried my father all over again," said Kulubek Bokonbaev, who received many letters of support after local television companies showed pictures of sawn up parts of the statue. "It was painful to hear from the criminals themselves that this act of vandalism was carried out for a piece of metal."

The thieves apparently confessed to having stolen other monuments including that of Soviet civil war commander Mikhail Frunze, and works by renowned sculpture Turgunbay Sadykov.

Distressing though the theft of monuments has been, it is the attacks on power stations that are of particular concern as they threaten the economy.

A government decree issued in April 2001 bans the collection and purchase of cable products and parts from transformer sub-stations without accompanying documentation.

Another decree issued in July 2001 stipulated that the Temir iron company should be in charge of issuing licenses for scrap yards.

However, the thieves, usually poor and unemployed, continue to sell their wares to unlicensed yards, which pay them between 30 and 100 soms, or one to two US dollars per kilo of metal, depending on its quality. A blind eye is turned to stolen material, and at 55 dollars, the fine for unlicensed scrap collection is small compared to the profits that can be made. The metal is sold on to China, where there is an insatiable demand for non-ferrous metals of all kinds.

Until the government finds an effective way of cracking down on this kind of crime, ordinary Kyrgyz will continue to suffer as business and industry are brought to a standstill.

At the end of March, there was another daring thief at the construction joint-stock company Azat, in which robbers managed to steal 40 metres of cable. "I cannot use the machinery. The pneumatic crane which is crucial for work, needs repairing. For that we need an expert from Russia, but we don't have the money," said Zaynidin Shekhov, the company's chief technician.

The theft will cost an estimated 200,000 soms or 4,500 dollars in lost profits, he said, while workers will not receive any wages until the machines start working again.

Gulnura Toralieva is an independent journalist