The entire presidential army. How state projects in Kyrgyzstan were transferred to trusted persons

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has significantly reduced the transparency of government spending, although he has launched a series of ambitious government projects designed to demonstrate the power of the government.

In fact, the projects are being implemented by companies of individuals who are apparently close to the president himself.

In April 2022, a year and a half after Sadyr Japarov became president of Kyrgyzstan, he said that he did not like the country’s public procurement system and that he would get rid of it with the help of a new law.

“Don’t worry,” he assured citizens of Kyrgyzstan on Facebook, where he announced the upcoming changes. “From now on, mechanisms will be in place to prevent corruption.”

He did not specify which ones, but cited the example of the construction of schools in Bishkek. He promised that he would save money and build schools to a higher standard by taking "personal control" of construction instead of calling for public tenders.

After coming to power, Japarov often repeated that before him, Kyrgyzstan was governed ineffectively. He called government procurement rules a “headache.” He streamlined processes, “took ownership” and demonstrated that he was getting results.

But experts and regional observers say he did so, including by introducing constitutional changes that allowed him to lead the government, appoint ministers and propose laws to parliament directly.

A veteran of Kyrgyzstan’s political scene, the president was in prison for holding a local official hostage when the revolution began in October 2020. After his supporters freed him, he quickly rose to power.

Until then, Kyrgyzstan stood out among post-Soviet Central Asian states due to its relatively open political climate, vibrant media sphere, and vibrant civil society. But Japarov concentrated so much power in his hands that he virtually destroyed it all, according to regional experts.

“He changed the constitution to weaken the role of parliament — and therefore the role of political parties — and strengthen his own power, his administration and the executive branch,” said Asel Doolotkeldieva, an expert on Kyrgyzstan and a fellow at George Washington University, in a recent episode of the Talk podcast. Eastern Europe.

“Then he decided to silence the community. Now citizens receive sentences for ridiculous things, for example, for posting information on social networks. You can get up to five years for publishing harmless news.”

Among Japarov’s initiatives are amendments to the law on public procurement, which he wrote about on Facebook in April 2022. Now state-owned enterprises are allowed to avoid tendering and purchase goods and services directly from suppliers at their own discretion. They do not need to publish data about suppliers or contractors, as they did in the past. At the same time, the government has closed access to detailed information on government spending that used to be posted on the Open Budget website, which was often used by journalists.

All these changes dramatically weakened public control over government spending. Eventually, a coalition of civil society groups and even the International Monetary Fund warned of the risk of increased corruption.

At the same time, the president strengthened the role of the government agency under his direct control—  the Presidential Administration. Officially, the department must provide “financial, logistical, transport, welfare, health resort and medical support” to the president, and some of these services also to the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. In the past, it adhered to these objectives. But under Japarov, management took on a new form, and his powers expanded.

The newly appointed head of the department, Kanybek Tumanbaev, was tasked with overseeing a number of ambitious national projects that should demonstrate how the country is developing under Japarov’s leadership: a huge new presidential palace, a new airport building and runway expansion in the city of Karakol, tourism infrastructure in the national park and housing projects .

There were no open tenders for any of the projects, with the exception of the airport, but even then Japarov stopped the tender, saying that officials offered too much money for the work.

He explained his decision in an interview with the state news agency

“In 2021, I instructed the management of the country’s airports to carry out reconstruction and repairs at the facilities and resume domestic flights. One day I decided to find out how the work was going. They said that the tender has been announced and will end tomorrow. Hearing this, I told them to suspend the process and bring me the estimate submitted for the competition. After checking the data they provided, it turned out that the amount for the reconstruction of Karakol airport alone was overstated by almost $10 million. We immediately canceled the tender […] Now we are building everything ourselves, keeping $10 million in the budget.”

But Japarov never said who would build the airport and how much it would ultimately cost.

Bakyt Satybekov, an expert on public finance in Kyrgyzstan and former chairman of the Public Council under the Ministry of Finance, believes that such a complex infrastructure project as an airport should be implemented transparently. It should be handled by experienced contractors and clear documentation should be available to the public.

“Construction work should be done by specialized construction companies... I don’t know how they do it themselves. Plus, in any case, there must be design and estimate documentation, which is developed by an external developer,” he said. “[The developer] supervises the execution of the work - this is a safety issue.” - says Satybekov. “This is not a barn for you to build.” Japarov, Tumanbaev and the Presidential Administration did not answer detailed questions from journalists about the results of this investigation. The airport management and the owners of other companies mentioned in the article also did not respond.

Sometimes the insider provided new information that reporters were able to verify, sometimes he confirmed what reporters had already found out from documents or messages on social networks.

This was the case, for example, in the case of the Karakol airport. When the president canceled the tender and said that “we will build everything ourselves,” no information was published about the company that would carry out the work.

But the insider revealed its name: “This is the Sapat Zhol company,” he said. — Temirlan works there. I forgot my last name."

He explained that Temirlan is a young relative of Tumanbaev’s close associate. “He does everything there [at the airport], he takes care of everything,” he said.

Reporters identified this man as Temirlan Zhumanazarov and began searching for his traces. Soon they noticed him in photographs next to Tumanbaev when he arrived at the airport construction site.

State television then aired an interview with one of the construction workers, and the subtitles indicated that he was an employee of the Sapat Zhol company. Having learned the name of the enterprise, journalists were able to connect it with a wider network of companies under the leadership of the Presidential Administration.

Another source, a Kyrgyz Railways insider, helped fill in the gaps in another story where a government project had disappeared from public view.

In 2021, Kyrgyz Railways announced that it was building a new railway sleeper plant to build a route that would connect the north and south of Kyrgyzstan.

The new facility was expected to be state-owned and, for the first time, provide the country with “its own production base” for railway sleepers, “to reduce dependence on third party services,” Kyrgyz Railways said.

"How much does it cost?"

During the investigation, reporters relied on open-source information, such as social media posts, because information about government contracts is no longer publicly available.

Bolot Temirov, founder of Temirov LIVE and an OCCRP partner in the investigation, says journalists are being forced to become more creative as repression intensifies and transparency plummets in Kyrgyzstan.

“A huge amount of public procurement carried out by state-owned enterprises is hidden from view, and journalists who conduct investigations, share information, write news are subject to massive harassment, which creates an atmosphere of fear,” he said.

“In such conditions, it becomes quite difficult to find and confirm information, and sources, insiders, as well as social networks and direct requests to government agencies, and so on, play an increasingly important role.”

Not only journalists turn to social networks to find answers, because there is no official information about government projects. Even members of parliament say they are embarrassed by this situation. In 2022, MP Dastan Bekeshev complained on Facebook that he could not get an answer from the government to the question of who owned the company building schools in Bishkek.

“I wonder how much it costs or what you have to become for the Department of Justice to close or distort data about a company close to you?” - Bekeshev asked on his page.

Even project builders don’t always seem to have a full understanding of the companies that pay them.

“We have prepared the self-leveling structures for all the cottages, everything is ready. Those who worked after us have already received payment. And we still can’t get our money,” the builder said in the video, standing next to his colleagues. - They continue to deceive us. What kind of company is this... We cannot reach the management. [They owed] approximately 5 million soms.”

Government contracts have become opaque, but some data still appears, for example, in the form of government decrees and regulations on official websites. One such decree, published online in August 2023, caused a public outcry when it was revealed that the company building the new presidential palace would receive three plots of land in the south of Bishkek. According to experts consulted by Radio Azattyk, the cost of the land could reach $77 million.

“You don’t yet know how much money was spent from the budget for the construction that began, and how much was spent on dismantling the Issyk-Kul hotel - you would have a heart attack,” wrote deputy activist Bekeshev on social networks after the publication of the decree. “For the sake of your health, information about the actual costs of building the White House is classified.”

The decree also helped publicly reveal the name of the company building the palace: it was Inshaat Construction Building, the same one that was already mentioned in this investigation as part of the network of the Presidential Administration.

But it is important to find out who is really behind this company. Radio Azattyk managed to connect it with figures close to Tumanbaev, but it is still not entirely clear how the company was chosen for the project. “Why don’t they make public information about how much the construction costs and on what terms the agreement was concluded with Inshaat Stroy Building?” - the journalists wrote.

Kyrgyz human rights activist Leila Seyitbek sees a connection between attempts to hide information about government spending and the government’s campaign against independent media.

“They are persecuting journalists precisely in order to prevent, as they call it, the leaking of such data that you are now writing about,” she said. - To