Kyrgyz authorities attempt to seize influential newspaper ahead of election

By bne IntelliNews August 12, 2015
bne IntelliNews
Naubet Bisenov in Bishkek

In a further troubling sign of Kyrgyzstan’s descent from democracy to autocracy, the authorities there have launched an attack on an influential independent newspaper using dubious commercial disputes in an attempt to seize control of it, bne IntelliNews can reveal.

The owner of the country’s biggest Russian-language newspaper believes President Almazbek Atambayev and his entourage need to silence critical voices ahead of October’s parliamentary election, which they regard as crucial for securing their future in a country that has seen two bloody revolutions in the past decade.

Alexander Kim, the owner and general director of Vecherniy Bishkek Publishers [sometimes transliterated as Vecherny] – a vast media empire that includes the Vecherniy Bishkek (The Evening Bishkek) daily, the weekly MSN and Kyrgyz-language Zhany Agym, as well as the second most-visited news and current affairs website and the Rubikon advertising agency – says the authorities are trying to use the former co-owner of the media group, who lost his stake in 2000 when former president Askar Akayev’s administration tried to take control of the newspaper in the run-up to the presidential election in 2000.

“I am having a feeling of déjà vu,” Kim tells bne IntelliNews in his plush office in the group’s headquarters in central Bishkek. He explains that in 1999 ahead of the election, Akayev, who was overthrown in March 2005 in what has become known as the first Kyrgyz revolution or “Tulip Revolution”, needed a powerful media resource to create favourable public opinion and chose Vecherniy Bishkek, whose Friday edition sold 80,000 copies at the time. “That was the first time in Kyrgyzstan’s media history when the authorities applied methods of blatantly illegal seizure of a media outlet.”

Alexander Ryabushkin and his wife, then co-owners of the Vecherniy Bishkek group, ended up selling their stake to a company controlled by Akayev’s son-in-law Adil Toiganbayev. Following the ouster of Akayev, a court in Bishkek ruled to remove Toiganbayev’s company as a shareholder of the group because the absence of its representative at the group’s shareholder meetings hindered the adoption of business decisions, Kim explains. As a result, Toiganbayev’s share was handed over to Kim and his wife, making them the sole owners of the group.

Now, Kim explains, the authorities decided to involve Ryabushkin in reclaiming half of the ownership of the group from August 2014 despite the expiration of statutes of limitations on a deal concluded in 2000. On August 10 this year, the newspaper's editorial office received a June 17 ruling from Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court that upheld the rulings of two lower courts on handing over a 50% stake in the Rubikon advertising agency, a legal parent of the media group, to Ryabushkin and his wife Galina. “In our understanding this is nothing but the raiding of a successful business. Given the procedural violations and the absence of the substance to bring a legal case, the courts should have dismissed the case,” he says, referring to trials held without the presence of newspaper officials or its lawyers.

This has given rise to the notion that the case had been orchestrated by the president’s administration. “I don’t believe such a [Supreme] court ruling could be passed without the president’s involvement,” Kim posits. “This is a political case because everything relating to a major outlet cannot be a purely commercial case.”


Poll plays

The October 4 parliamentary election is key for Atambayev and, above all, his associates to secure their personal security and business interests; previous experience shows that a change of president in Kyrgyzstan has led to the redistribution of businesses and assets.

Atambayev has got two years of his presidency left and already announced he would not stay in politics when his term ends. The Kyrgyz constitution, adopted after the violent overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, sets a one-term, six-year limit on presidents. As a result, the incumbent Atambayev cannot stay in power without changing the constitution or going the Putin way of becoming prime minister by securing a majority in a 120-strong unilateral parliament and then being re-elected president after his close associate serves a term.

Despite the incumbent’s announcement about leaving politics after his term ends in 2017 for health reasons, “Atambayev’s departure from power is absolutely unbeneficial to his entourage and it started trying to clear up the media field from outlets critical of the government last year,” Kim argues. “Their main goal is very simple: that is Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party to win over a half of the vote and the government’s media and punitive resources were thrown at destroying all his opponents.”

If and when the authorities establish control over the media group, Vecherniy Bishkek will be instrumental in shaping public opinion. With a print run of 40,000 for the Friday edition and around 16,000 for the weekday ones and 35,000 unique users a day to its website, the newspaper is a powerful machine that churned out $1.3mn in profits on $4.2mn in revenue in 2014, 80% of which came from advertisements and 20% from subscriptions.

In addition to the election, Kim suggests there is a degree of “personal enmity towards me and Vecherniy Bishkek” by Atambayev. Speaking to pro-government Kyrgyz media outlets and political analysts in late July, Atambayev blamed the newspaper for the deaths of his brother earlier this year and his mother in 1996. “My brother suffered a stroke only because he was worried about dirty articles on various websites, namely Vecherniy Bishkek. In which country does a president’s brother face a smear campaign that leads to death?” Atambayev asked rhetorically. “We haven’t got freedom of the press, but we have got uncontrolled democracy and freedom of speech.”

Kim rejects Atambayev’s allegations that the newspaper was somehow to blame for his relatives’ deaths. “It is absolutely insane that he blamed us for the death of his mother, as we didn’t have anything to do with the death of his mother in 1996. As for the death of his brother, this information was widely accessible and was released by the Interior Ministry. It was official complaints filed to the Prosecutor General’s Office by businessmen who suffered from the actions of Atambayev’s brother,” Kim explains the 20-year-old case in which Atambayev’s brother didn’t fulfil his obligations to business partners.

During that meeting President Atambayev also commented on Ryabushkin’s litigation indirectly, pointing out that he had support from on high. “All these commercial disputes sooner or later will end and you will see for yourselves what team is behind Ryabushkin.”

With the Kyrgyz presidential administration behind Ryabushkin, it effectively voids Vecherniy Bishkek’s attempts to appeal the court rulings to defend their property rights. “In the current situation there are no chances of defending our rights, because all court decisions are under full control of the authorities and we know in advance what decisions will be taken,” Kim sighs. “That’s why we don’t see any point in appealing  court rulings.”

Smear campaigns

Kim’s allegations are backed by others. Cholpon Jakupova, director of the Adilet (“Justice”) legal firm, believes that the president’s comments about the litigation against the newspaper points to the fact that he himself is orchestrating the case. “Before [the interview] the public tried to guess who from the president’s entourage might have been exerting pressure on the courts that were passing unlawful rulings one after another,” she told Vecherniy Bishkek. “And now we all of a sudden learn from the president himself that he is perfectly aware of the situation and this gives rise to question whether the president himself has ordered the case.”

Jakupova has urged the prosecutor general to respond to the president’s statement, because his comments could be seen as an instruction to courts on how to act over the case.

In a smear campaign launched by the authorities through the state-run and pro-government media, Vecherniy Bishkek has even been accused of being linked to Maxim Bakiyev, a fugitive businessman son of the former president, and of receiving money from Americans to fund another revolution in the country. Kim calls the allegations ridiculous, saying the newspaper has not even received any moral support from the West, let alone money. “We are not under any indirect influence by either Europeans or Americans, even though we would have liked to see at least some moral support from them. But there is none, as no one has made any official statement that this is a blatant attack on freedom of speech,” he complains.

Following Atambayev’s election as president, Kyrgyzstan closed the US air base at Bishkek airport in July 2014 and abrogated a 1993 assistance agreement with the US this July. Earlier this year, the country’s parliament debated bills modelled on Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” and “gay propaganda” laws. This is in line with the pro-Russian policy of Atambayev who took the country into the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union in May.

“There are objective reasons for the situation, as Atambayev has sided with Russia because it is impossible for him to make a choice between the West and Russia since he has to adhere to democratic principles and observe human rights to choose the Western path of development,” Kim says. “It is much easier, simpler and beneficial to stick to pro-Russian positions because it is all clear and tried and tested there – fighting NGOs, fighting people with non-traditional sexual orientation. It is not even worth talking about freedom of speech in Russia and Kazakhstan.”

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