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

Politician's Murder Rocks Kyrgyzstan

Dramatic scenes in parliament as deputies trade accusations of crime links with the president and his government.
By Leila Saralaeva

The shock killing of a leading businessman and member of parliament in Kyrgyzstan has underlined the continuing political instability that dogs the country six months after a revolution which was supposed to herald democracy and clean government.

Parliament met in emergency session on September 22, the day after Bayaman Erkinbaev was shot dead, to demand better security and the removal of the officials currently responsible for it.

Erkinbaev, who chaired the national Olympic committee as well as owning a hotel in his native southern Kyrgyzstan, was returning to his home in the centre of the capital Bishkek late in the evening when the attack took place.

A lone assailant concealed by the entrance to an apartment block opened fired, hitting Erkinbaev twice. Doctors said he was already dead by the time he was rushed to the neurosurgery department of the Kyrgyz National Hospital.

His driver Sabir Batyrov witnessed the attack, and told IWPR, “We stopped the car near his home. I was in front and he was in the rear passenger seat.

"Shots were fired as we were getting out of the car. I saw only a black shadow running away. I don’t remember anything else, except for Bayaman yelling 'call the hospital'."

Erkinbaev is the second member of parliament to be killed since the March revolution which brought the current government to power. Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev - seen as an ally of former president Askar Akaev - was gunned down in broad daylight on June 10, in what looked like a contract killing. Investigations into his murder are still continuing.

Erkinbaev himself survived an assassination attempt on April 28 this year, when he was slightly injured by a gunshot, also in central Bishkek. At the time, he said he was certain the attack was politically motivated, although some observers suggested it may have been linked to his business interests.

As parliament gathered to discuss the latest murder, deputies observed a minute's silence, and proceeded to launch a ferocious attack on the government.

“[Kurmanbek] Bakiev started his presidency with blood, and [acting prime minister] Felix Kulov and the entire government should resign,” said an angry Dooronbek Sadyrbaev.

“Whose turn is it now?… The National Security Service has taken the security guards and cars away from deputies. It’s not possible to work like this any more. I don’t want to live in a gangster-ridden country, and I don’t want to see young and talented politicians dying.”

After other similarly emotional speeches, parliament summoned Bakiev, Kulov and the heads of the security agencies.

Bakiev and Kulov appeared shortly afterwards, and both men seemed to lay the blame on wayward elements within the police services.

“The law-enforcement agencies have become closely associated with criminal organisations, while the honest law enforcers are too afraid to fight crime,” said Kulov.

Kulov, a leading opposition politician who was freed from jail on the day Akaev was ousted in March, went on to make the dramatic announcement that he knew who was responsible for the murder.

He told the assembled deputies that Erkinbaev had come to see him on September 18 and given him the name of a person who was planning an assassination, asking the prime minister to reveal it in the event of his death.

“I will name the murderer when the investigation takes place,” said Kulov.

In an extraordinary riposte to the criticism aimed at his government, Bakiev hit out at members of parliament themselves, hinting that many of them were mixed up in shady businesses.

“Everyone knows well who is tied up with whom," he said. "There are businessmen among you who, unfortunately, are not always in alignment with the law, starting with tax evasion. I know that many of you bribe the law-enforcement agencies, and that they take bribes from you. The agencies and the gangsters work hand in hand. I know this for a fact.

"Directly or indirectly, everyone is involved in what has happened.”

Members of parliament were unimpressed. “Now it's become dangerous not only to be a deputy, but also to speak against the new authorities,” said Kabai Karabekov. Marat Sultanov added, “The situation is very bad…. It demonstrates the weakness of the state and law enforcement agencies.”

At the end of the day, deputies passed a resolution urging the prime minister to set up a task force dedicated to rooting out organised crime. The document also pressed Kulov to sack National Security Service chief Tashtemir Aitbaev and First Deputy Interior Minister Sherkozijan Mirzakarimov.

However, a resolution that the government should also dismiss Acting Interior Minister Marat Sutalinov was rejected in two successive votes.

In the course of the debate, deputies accused the authorities of failing to provide them with adequate security.

Erkinbaev’s relatives told the media that just days before the murder, the interior ministry’s criminal investigations office arrested his bodyguards and four cars used by him.

“Throughout last week, Bayaman Erkinbaev had no car and no bodyguards," speaker Omurbek Tekebaev told parliamentarians. "He would come to me and demand I protect him. On several occasions I gave him a ride home.”

Given the heightened security concerns, parliament voted on September 22 to allow deputies to carry firearms. Still being discussed are proposals to grant them unlimited access to transport and armed bodyguards.

After the session, a succession of parliamentarians told IWPR of the existence of a hit list, which the killers – assumed to be organised criminals with political connections - were now working through methodically.

“There's a list of deputies who are to be shot. It includes deputies who are difficult, those who create trouble in their political position, or those who don’t want to share the businesses they own," said deputy Kanybek Imanaliev. "I'm on the list too. I have already received threats.”

Tayirbek Sarpashev and Omurbek Babanov believe they are also on the list.

"I was told two months ago that an attack was being prepared on me - my name was mentioned together with Bayaman and some other deputies," said Babanov.

"After Bayaman was killed, police and National Security Service officers told my colleagues, ‘Look after Babanov, he's next’. I have been selected because I tell the truth and criticise the current authorities, and secondly because someone wants to take over my business."

Interior Minister Sutalinov told IWPR that he was unaware of the existence of any hit list, but would look into it. He also said that - contrary to the allegations made by some deputies - Erkinbaev had been adequately protected.

"Until today, I didn’t know of the existence of a list of deputies who are to be shot. We will work on it," he said. "Protection means more than a security guard with an automatic weapon; it entails a whole range of operational measures, and these were provided to Bayaman in full.”

After parliamentarians made their unsuccessful attempt to secure his resignation, Sutalinov told IWPR, “I have not resigned voluntarily because I have my staff behind me, and they believe in me."

Erkinbaev's story in some ways typifies the turbulent events of recent months – both the optimism of the March revolution, and also the emerging sense that regime change has failed to sweep away the murky underside of Kyrgyz politics, where money and power meet.

He gained prominence as one of the key figures in the wave of spring protests that centred on a controversial parliamentary election. He is said to have financed opposition activity in the heartland of the revolution, southern Kyrgyzstan, and then led around 3,000 of his supporters to Bishkek, where they joined the crowds which seized the central government building on March 24.

As the new interim administration took shape, Erkinbaev announced that he was running against Bakiev, at the time the acting president, in the July election, but he dropped out of the race.

At the same time, he was a central figure in persistent unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, which on September 19 – two days before his death – culminated in the dismissal of the country's chief prosecutor, Azimbek Beknazarov. (See Kyrgyzstan Reels at Prosecutor’s Fall)

In early June, groups of market traders opposed to Erkinbaev seized the giant wholesale market he owned in Karasuu – which served as a hub for traders from all over Central Asia and even China. When the same protesters stormed another of his properties, the Alai Hotel in the provincial capital Osh, 12 people were injured when gunmen fired into the crowd.

On September 5, Abdalim Junusov, a local businessman prominent in the anti-Erkinbaev protest movement, was shot dead at his home together with his driver. This in turn resulted in more public demonstrations, as his supporters demanded the arrest of both Erkinbaev and certain associates of his whom they blamed for the shootings.

Beknazarov was sacked this week on the grounds that prosecution officials failed to detain two men who gave themselves up after being named as key suspects in the hotel shooting incident, and who some believe used their freedom to murder Junusov.

Beknazarov’s political allies believe he was sacked for rocking the boat with his zealous pursuit of Akaev-era figures alleged to have been up to their necks in corrupt dealings.

The deputy chairman of parliament, Bolot Sherniyazov, who went to the hospital shortly after Erkinbaev's shooting together with speaker Tekebaev, is in no doubt who is to blame for the killing, “Some of the highest echelons of power made this possible. They were aware of everything, yet they did nothing to prevent his death.

"If they don’t come to their senses now, the public will show them. We need to rid ourselves of corrupt people who are in power. The quicker we're rid of them, the sooner order will be imposed.”

On a more practical note, many politicians are demanding better security measures, and a cleaned-up police force to enforce them.

“It is frightening and shocking that a second deputy has been eliminated," deputy Iskhak Masaliev told IWPR. "What does that imply for the security of ordinary citizens? You can definitely say the law-enforcement system is in crisis. I've talked with many police officers and they've lost all hope. The agencies need a major clear-out - starting at the top.”

Looking at his own safety, Masaliev said, “I reassure myself with the thought that I'm not a rich man, and I don’t talk about any particular personalities in my speeches. I think there are some others who are unpopular, either with the criminals or with the authorities.”

Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek, Aida Kasymalieva is a correspondent with Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

More IWPR's Global Voices