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Kyrgyzstan: Diplomats Want Better Deal

Kyrgyz diplomatic staff say seemingly prestigious overseas postings often entail shoddy facilities and poor wages.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

Two months ago, Zamira Sydykova was named Kyrgyzstan’s new ambassador to the United States, one of her homeland’s key allies and its chief international aid donor.

She found herself posted to an embassy building in Washington, she says, where a leaky roof and the wet local climate mean staff have to sit amongst buckets and bowls positioned to catch rainwater dripping from the ceiling.

And local diplomats lack the kind of funds necessary to host meetings with important guests.

The Washington embassy, observers say, reflects conditions throughout Kyrgyzstan’s diplomatic service, in which facilities are poor and staff salaries are low and often paid late.

Some argue that it would be wrong to expect more, when some 40 per cent of their countrymen live below the poverty line. Others say the system is an embarrassment and is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Sydykova told IWPR that even a basic renovation of the Washington embassy would cost at least 200,000 US dollars. She is currently attempting to go one step further and convince members of the Kyrgyz leadership to invest in a whole new building.

But, given other indicators of the financial health of Kyrgyzstan’s diplomatic service, her chances of success seem slim.

One diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that he and his colleagues receive their salaries with a delay of three to four months. Between payments, staff apparently seek to make their funds stretch by stocking up on cheap Chinese noodles.

Ivan Popov, currently an advisor at the Kyrgyz embassy in Kazakstan, declined to discuss his current income. But he told IWPR, “Astana is a very expensive city and the salary could be reviewed. We know how our colleagues in other countries live, and quite frankly they live better.”

Medet Sadyrkulov, who recently returned to Bishkek having served as his country’s ambassador to Iran for four years, added that the pay scale within the service is also badly organised.

“According to the classification of the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, Iran is on the list of risk-zone nations,” he said. “[But] as the ambassador, I received a salary equivalent to the salary of the ambassador’s driver in Kazakstan.”

“Until the state creates worthy conditions for the ambassadors, there will be no result from their work,” said Sadyrkulov, adding that poor pay has resulted in the Kyrgyz diplomatic service losing some of its best employees.

“Good employees do not wish to be diplomats now, as the salary is low and the conditions are not appropriate. International organisations win them over by offering a salary three to four times higher.”

Alikbek Jekshenkulov, the deputy head of the presidential administration and chief of the foreign policy department, said the amount of funding allotted to each embassy depends on where it is in the world, “Most funds are allocated to the needs of embassies in countries [in the West], then to countries in the East, while embassies in CIS countries are allocated least of all.”

Jekshenkulov added that the only embassy buildings actually owned by the Kyrgyz government are those in the US, Germany, Belgium and Russia, while all other diplomatic offices are housed in rented premises.

Some staff say conditions in the diplomatic service are nothing more than an inevitable reflection of the state of their country’s economy.

Apas Jumagulov, ambassador to Russia, argued that while Kyrgyz diplomats might not be able to afford a flashy lifestyle, they get by quite comfortably. “Ambassadors in foreign countries would be wrong to complain about their lives, given the difficult conditions that the people of Kyrgyzstan live in,” he said.

And despite his misgivings about pay scales within the diplomatic service, Sadyrkulov said, “I never raised the issue of my salary.” He explained that he would have considered it immoral to do so, given the far worse living conditions of other professionals, such as doctors and teachers, back home.

“Kyrgyzstan is not America, it is a poor country,” former Kyrgyz finance minister and parliamentary deputy Marat Sultanov agreed. “The most important thing is for ambassadors to have enough money for protocol events – they’re not about to compete in a beauty contest.”

But other observers say there is a real need to overhaul the service.

Former foreign minister Muratbek Imanaliev told IWPR that one way to address the problem would simply be to reduce the number of foreign embassies.

Some say their past efforts to encourage a streamlining of the diplomatic service have come to nothing.

“When I was the minister of foreign affairs, I tried to [cut the number of staff in] the embassy in Turkmenistan, which was of little use,” said Imanaliev. “But this was opposed within the presidential administration.”

Kyrgyzstan’s former ambassador to Tajikistan Miroslav Niyazov, and now secretary of the Security Council, told IWPR he had also suggested to ex-prime minister Nikolai Tanaev that, given the condition of the Dushanbe embassy, they ought to close it “rather than disgrace [themselves], if the state cannot maintain it”.

There is some hope, however, that recent upheavals in Kyrgyz politics – which saw the authoritarian former president Askar Akaev toppled by popular uprisings in March – might allow scope for a change in the way Kyrgyz diplomacy is managed.

Under Akaev’s rule, an overseas diplomatic posting was generally regarded amongst politicians as a kind of “honorary exile” for high-ranking officials who had fallen out of favour.

“We have great hopes for the new regime,” one high-ranking official, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR. “[It] should not just review the principle for appointing ambassadors, but also the financing of embassies.”

“It is necessary for the current regime to pay attention to this problem and tackle the matter in earnest,” agreed Niyazov.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Azattyk in Bishkek.