Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyzstan's Not-So-Secret Service
A parliamentary commission in Kyrgyzstan has blown open the twilight world of the country’s secret services, accusing them of bugging its members, spying on foreign organisations, and stirring up trouble
The scandal is all the more shocking since - while secret police conduct regular surveillance of the public all across Central Asia - the topic remains taboo in most countries because no one dares question a powerful force that supports the ruling regime.
In Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, the political opposition is strong enough to wield influence in parliament
The commission – set up after bugs were found in opposition deputies’ offices in January this year – produced a report on May 21, innocuously titled “Cases of violation of the constitutional rights of Legislative Assembly deputies”.
The title belies the explosive allegations contained in the report.
The six-member commission established that the listening devices found in parliament had been in place since at least May 2001, and that they were used by the National Security Service, SNB.
But the report did not stop there. Over more than 60 pages, the document detailed what it said were covert SNB operations against opposition deputies, local and international organisations that work for human rights and political reform, and Kyrgyz universities and media.
The report concluded that the SNB operations broke Kyrgyz laws, and said in damning language, “The National Security Service exists as a state within a state, exerting great influence on politics. In fact, the SNB is turning into a second foundation of authority, where the seeds of future authoritarianism can grow.”
The focus of criticism is the SNB’s Division for Fighting Terrorism, which as its name suggests is supposed to ward off threats from violent subversives rather than sitting members of parliament.
“In practice, this division performs the same role as the KGB in the former USSR: fighting unorthodoxy,” commission member Alisher Abdimomunov noted in the report.
SNB officers gave testimony to the commission on condition of anonymity, recounting how their superiors issued them with “firm instructions to get hold of and sketch the layouts of opposition deputies’ offices, and actively collect compromising material on them”.
All “targets” were given nicknames. Thus, the local office of the United States foundation National Democratic Institute was assigned the codename “Yankee”, the OSCE office in Bishkek was “Entente”, two opposition deputies were termed “artist” and “fighter”, while Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman for human rights was dismissed as the “confessor”.
As well as simple surveillance, the report makes more serious allegations against the secret police. In one case, it quotes from an SNB internal document telling how agents foiled a parliamentary deputy’s plan to meet constituents and show them a film of an opposition demonstration. Officers simply pulled the plug on the power supply to the village clubhouse. Another deputy’s constituency meeting was subverted by recruiting local men to cause a disturbance.
In a more sinister operation, officers received instructions to fit out a sauna with secret video so that they could entice in members of parliament and film them in compromising positions. It is not clear whether they carried this through.
It also emerged that the secret service maintains extensive files on politicians and voters alike. The report describes the files created on five opposition deputies, which contain information on their relatives, friends and enemies, and contacts of these people.
In southern Kyrgyzstan, the SNB circulated questionnaires to local government to establish how many voters there were in each area, with breakdowns by ethnicity, tribe and clan, together with the names of possible candidates, their political views, business interests, and personal contacts.
There was evidence to suggest the agency had a hand in preventing “undesirables” from getting appointed to the election commissions which count the vote – important in a country where ballot-stuffing is frequently alleged.
The revelations provoked violent reactions as the report was released in parliament.
“This shame on our secret services inflicts great moral damage on Kyrgyzstan,” said Abdygany Erkebaev, the speaker of the lower house, the Legislative Assembly.
“This document is a total bombshell,” Ismail Isakov, who chairs the parliament committee that deals with matters of state security, told IWPR. “After this the SNB chiefs have no right to occupy their positions. The SNB lives and operates at the expense of the common taxpayer, [yet] it violates the constitution and human rights when it comes to deputies.”
“If such a scandal took place in a civilised country, its leadership would immediately resign,” said Adakhan Madumarov, a leading opposition figure.
Edil Baisalov, leader of the Coalition of Non-Government Organisations, pointed up the gravity of the alleged surveillance carried out on international institutions, “The SNB has retained the repressive methods of the KGB, and surpassed it in some respects. Surveillance of the OSCE is a huge international scandal, since under the Vienna convention of 1961 the OSCE enjoys international diplomatic immunity.”
The SNB is unaccustomed to being called to account in such a public manner, but its leaders defended its robustly.
SNB chairman Kalyk Imankulov told journalists, “The document is tendentious in nature. Many of the facts are equivalent to mere rumour.”
He blamed the leaks on about 50 officers who he said had been retired on age grounds and were looking to make trouble for their former chiefs out of “personal animosity”. He even suggested that the internal documents seen by the parliamentary committee were fakes.
Imankulov conceded that his men drew up the constituency profiles mentioned in the report, but he insisted this was done for the best of motives, “We conduct such an analysis in all constituencies for security reasons, so that people involved in the drug business or terrorism don’t get into parliament.”
Imankulov’s deputy Tokon Mamytov appeared at a parliamentary sitting to assure deputies that they were not being spied on, because they did not fall into the SNB’s “terrorism and extremism” mandate.
“We are conducting an internal investigation and we will come up with answers,” he said. “If we find out that any of our workers were involved in planting bugs, very serious measures will be taken against them, including criminal charges.”
In an interview with IWPR, Mamytov said, "We acknowledge that SNB has been monitoring the political situation in the country, and that some of the reports from the ground contained the names of a number of government members, including deputies. For example, when controversial social issues were discussed. But that does not mean that we put them under constant surveillance. “
Mamytov confirmed the existence of the anti-terrorism department mentioned in the report, saying it operated both within Kyrgyzstan and abroad.
"As for the so-called ‘files on deputies’ and [surveillance of] NGOs, international organisations and party leaders, these do not exist at all," he insisted.
Bolot Januzakov, first deputy chief of the presidential administration, had a different take on the scandal, telling IWPR it was wrong for confidential material to reach public eyes. “What was mentioned in the document was inappropriate, to put it mildly…. It is alarming and unacceptable that former employees of our secret services should have disclosed secret information.”
Januzakov dismissed the whole affair as a publicity stunt by parliamentary deputies.
Azimbek Beknazarov, whose SNB file was the most comprehensive of any that emerged in the investigation, defended the content of the report, saying “Everything that’s been said here is supported by facts.”
He continued, “Why is such a thing happening? The system itself is dysfunctional when the SNB works not in the interests of the state, but only in the interests of the incumbent president.”
In response to the report, the Legislative Assembly on May 24 agreed to request President Askar Akaev to rule on how the officials who sanctioned surveillance and other actions should be brought to account. They also established a standing commission to oversee the secret services, with powers to seek criminal prosecution for any abuse of mandate.
Despite this action, one leading human rights activist still blamed the parliament for issuing too soft a resolution.
“This scandal is an absurdity and a disgrace before the international community,” said Tursunbek Akunov. “Parliament showed its real face and its dependent position.”
Leila Saralaeva, independent journalist from Bishkek.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight