Media probe links companies carrying out major Kyrgyz public spending projects to strongman Japarov

Media probe links companies carrying out major Kyrgyz public spending projects to strongman Japarov
Japarov said he was fed up with the country’s government procurement system. /, CC, Attribution, 4.0
By bne IntelliNews May 29, 2024

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has drastically decreased transparency into public spending and behind the scenes investment projects are being implemented by companies owned by people who appear to be close to him, according to an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and two Kyrgyz media outlets, Temirov Live and Kloop.

Reporters identified at least 11 major projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars that Japarov’s government has initiated that are being managed by a body controlled by the populist strongman, namely the Presidential Administrative Directorate. It has been restructured and given sweeping new powers since Japarov became president in late 2020.

The joint investigation also came up with the names of five interlinked companies that appear to have been given contracts to build these projects. All are said to have owners or directors with ties to Japarov or the head of the Presidential Administrative Directorate, Kanybek Tumanbayev.

OCCRP said sources told it that Tumanbayev retained true control over all the companies behind the scenes.

Presenting details of the probe, the media outlets recounted: “In April 2022, a year and a half after becoming president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov announced he was fed up with the country’s government procurement system and would sign a law to eliminate it.

“‘Don’t worry,’ he reassured Kyrgyz citizens in a Facebook post explaining the change. ‘From now on, mechanisms will be in place to prevent corruption.’

“He didn’t explain what those would be, but used the example of a school-building project in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, claiming he would save money and get the schools built to a higher standard by taking the construction under his ‘personal control’ instead of issuing public tenders.

“It was a frequent refrain Japarov has used since taking power: Kyrgyzstan was hopelessly inefficient. Public procurement rules were a ‘headache.’ He would streamline processes, ‘take responsibility,’ and get things done.

“But experts and regional observers say he has tried to do this through a series of anti-democratic power grabs, including ramming through constitutional changes that allowed him to lead the government, make ministerial appointments, and propose laws directly to parliament.”

Prior to the rise of Japarov, Kyrgyzstan was unique among Central Asia’s post-Soviet states given its its relatively open political climate, vibrant independent media scene and very active civil society. But critics say Japarov has centralised so much power in his own hands that he has effectively undone all this, moving to silence opponents and derail civil society and the independent media.

Under changes to the Law on Public procurement, state-owned enterprises are now permitted to entirely bypass tender procedures and purchase goods and services directly from suppliers. They no longer have to publicly advertise for suppliers or contractors.

The government, noted the investigation, also shut off access to details about public spending it previously made available on a website frequently used by journalists, Open Budget.

Tumanbayev has been put in charge of overseeing ambitious new national projects including a huge new presidential palace, new airport building and runway extension in the eastern city of Karakol, national park tourist infrastructure and social housing.

None of the projects were put out to public tender except the airport. Japarov later halted the tender, saying officials had offered too much money for the work.

Exiled Kyrgyz journalist Bolot Temirov, the founder of Temirov Live and OCCRP’s partner on this investigation, was cited as saying journalists were being forced to get more creative as repression intensified and transparency plummeted in Kyrgyzstan.

“A huge layer of government procurement carried out by state-owned enterprises has been hidden from view, while there is massive persecution of journalists who do investigations, show information, make news, creating an atmosphere of fear,” he said. “Under such conditions, finding and confirming becomes quite difficult to do, and the role of sources, insiders, and so on becomes more important, as well as social networks and making direct requests to government agencies.”

Leila Seitbek, a prominent Kyrgyz human rights activist, told the investigation that she saw a clear link between the attempt to withhold state spending information and the government’s campaign against independent media outlets.

“They’re persecuting journalists precisely in order to prevent leaks of the very same kind of data that you’re now writing about,” she said. “So that no one will write about it. So that no one will ever find out.”