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Kyrgyzstan: Soldiers for Hire

Army conscripts are hired out as labour by their officers, who collect an easy but illegal profit.
By Gulnura Toralieva

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are beginning to crack down on the growing problem of soldiers being hired out as cheap labour, following the death of an 18-year-old who was killed while illegally contracted to a farmer.

Avtandil Mamashev, from the Bazar Korgon district of Jalalabad region, died of gunshot wounds on August 21. He had been hired out to a local farmer by his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bolokbaev, and was tending sheep in the mountains near Mailuusuu, southern Kyrgyzstan, when he was shot by a hunter, apparently after an argument.

The officer has been now been charged with dereliction of duty for allowing the soldier out of his control, while the hunter is accused of manslaughter and leaving Mamashev to die. Both men are expected to stand trial later in November.

Another criminal case is pending against Colonel Kamchybek Kurbanaliev, who is accused of exploiting three soldiers as free labour over the course of a year. The soldiers say they looked after cattle, tilled the land, cleaned and did building work for Kurbanaliev’s relatives. Conditions were harsh, they said, and their living quarters unheated in the winter.

Conscript soldiers are commonly rented out to civilian employers under illegal private arrangements. Some are forced to work as free labour for fear of punishment, while others go willingly because they can at least hope to get some food to supplement their poor diet in the army. In both cases the officer simply pockets the fee.

“Previously [in Soviet times], soldiers’ labour was used for the state, but now it’s being used in the interests of top military officers,” said Yrysbek Omurzakov, editor of the Tribuna newspaper. “Instead of doing military service and defending their motherland, our soldiers are doing private building and agricultural work, receiving nothing but food. And that’s just humiliating. I believe a soldier should remain a soldier.”

A sergeant who gave his name as Ilya said officers collect between 100 and 130 soms (three or four US dollars) per soldier per day, depending on the difficulty of the job they are assigned.

He recently helped build a sauna for his commander, carrying bricks and mixing cement. He’s had worse jobs – at least the squad got enough to eat and was granted some leave afterwards, “because the unit commander is a good guy”.

A private who gave his name as Yevgeny told IWPR how soldiers detailed for private jobs have no option but to comply.

“We are ordered to go and work. We don’t ask questions,” he said. “Disobeying the commander means trial by military tribunal. Right now, my friends are working at our general’s dacha [country house]. I can’t name him. You’re not supposed to snitch in the army.”

Some of the men are willing to be farmed out as labour if they can earn a little food.

Tolkun Aitikeeva from the village of Vorontsovka, 30 kilometres from the capital Bishkek, hires a soldier every weekend to work in her kitchen garden.

“I arrange it with a commander,” said Aitikeeva. “I give him 80 soms a day for one soldier. It is cheap and very convenient. And the soldier does not mind working at all - one of them always thanks me a lot and asks me to pick him again next time.”

According to Galina Afonina, who chairs an association representing the mothers of soldiers, “The truth is that this is a widespread practice in the army. If there’s an opportunity to build a house or refurbish a flat using soldiers’ labour, why hire labourers?”

Afonina’s organisation has heard of many cases, but can do little about the problem, “We constantly get phone calls on our help line from people complaining about exploitation of soldiers. The parents who call us are afraid to name names because they’re worried about their sons. The system works well - we can’t catch anybody, because in these cases the soldiers are dressed as civilians so even the neighbours can’t guess who they are.”

The military prosecutor’s office told IWPR that illegal exploitation of soldiers is so rare that no statistics are kept. In a written statement, the office said it investigated every case reported to it, including those involving accidents, and brought prosecutions where appropriate.

Illegal private arrangements are different from the generally accepted practice where army units contract out teams of soldiers to farms, in return for a share of the crop which will help feed the troops. Interviewees said this was simply a reflection on the poor provision the government makes for its conscript army.

“There are times when we don’t receive [state] funds on time, and we bring in the harvest from the fields, and use it to feed the soldiers,” said Esenbek Jumakadyrov, who heads the justice ministry department responsible for prisons, speaking as a legal expert.

Explaining the system, a civilian administrator at a military unit based in Bishkek told IWPR that “our soldiers lack food. This is the only means by which they can be fed well. The paltry amounts that the state assigns for buying foodstuffs do not provide enough for the soldier. He goes out to the fields above all for his own sake.”

Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR correspondent in Bishkek. Marina Bashmanova is an IWPR intern.

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