Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: Punished by Association

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev
Watchdogs have lambasted Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev for his “dramatically worsening human-rights record” (Photo: AFP/Getty).

The small Kyrgyz village of Baitik should be like any other in this mountainous Central Asian republic: struggling, poor, and all but forgotten by the authorities. But instead, it’s found itself a target of government repression.

Baitik’s problem is that it is home to well-known Kyrgyz dissident Felix Kulov, whose imprisonment in 2001 sparked protests on the streets of the capital Bishkek.

And, as IWPR discovered on a visit in June, they’re suffering from their notoriety. Locals are afraid for their jobs and security—and all because of their famous fellow villager and the support that some in the village have given him.

“We’re scared of the authorities. We only talk about Kulov in the mosque, and then in whispers,” said one village elder.

Virtually everyone to whom IWPR talked asked to remain anonymous, except for Kulov’s close relatives.

It is an open secret that Baitik has fallen out of favor because many relatives and supporters of Kulov live here. The collective guilt apparently assigned to the whole village highlights the importance attached to family and regional ties in Kyrgyzstan.

Kulov, a one-time ally of President Askar Akaev, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2001 after being convicted of mismanaging state funds. He had previously been Kyrgyzstan’s vice president and head of the powerful National Security Service. He ran into trouble when he resigned as mayor of Bishkek in 1999 and set up the Ar-Namys Party. He was then prevented from running for the presidency the following year, and jailed shortly afterwards.

Altogether, he has spent over 1,000 days in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement.

Human-rights groups and the majority of his fellow villagers think that he is a political prisoner who has suffered unjustly for his attempts to unite opposition forces.

The legal actions brought against him sparked numerous protests and meetings in the center of Bishkek, led by villagers from Baitik and his relatives. A senior police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, made it clear that the villagers were regarded as troublemakers.

“It was a real ordeal for the law-enforcement agencies,” said the lieutenant-colonel. “The Baitik residents caused a lot of trouble for us, holding protests in the center of the capital every day.”

But Kulov’s relatives said they were prepared to fight on. “If Felix hadn’t asked us to stop the protests and rallies, we would still be fighting for him,” one said.

After the protests, Baitik came under surveillance from the secret police that Kulov once headed.

“It’s no secret to anyone that this village was, and remains, under the close scrutiny of the special services,” said Emil Aliev, head of the Ar-Namys Party’s headquarters.

One teacher from the only school in Baitik said that villagers do not trust the local authorities, as they are dependent on orders from Bishkek.

She added that if Baitik residents raise the problems of unemployment, poverty, or human-rights abuses, they will immediately lose their jobs, and their relatives will be persecuted.

“What constructive dialogue can there possibly be with the authorities if they punish us simply because we were born in the same village as Kulov?” she asked.

“Even if the village administration gathers people for a roundtable meeting on the most inoffensive of topics, participants are instructed beforehand not even to mention the name of their famous fellow villager.”

The local authorities downplay suggestions that something odd is going on. Saltanat Jumasheva, the deputy head of Baitik’s local administration, told IWPR, “We don’t have any complaints against the authorities.”

Many residents are skeptical about getting help from foreign-aid organizations, despite the fact that a U.N. pilot project for decentralization of power is under way here. Teachers blame the deplorable state of their school on the fact that donors are keen to avoid annoying the government, and do not want to help the home town of a disgraced politician.

“Over a period of four years, this school where around 600 pupils study made applications for repairs to various organizations, including international ones, but no one provided any help. The roof leaks, and some classrooms are closed because it’s dangerous to study in them,” one teacher said.

Employers are pressured to fire Kulov supporters in Baitik and even in Bishkek, where about half of the 2,500 villagers work since it is only 20 kilometers away.

“When the criminal prosecution began against Felix, a lot of our relatives lost their jobs,” said Kulov’s aunt, 70-year-old Tursun Jumakanova. “Of course, there were bosses sympathetic to Kulov who did not want to fire employees just because they were related to him, and they tried to send them on holiday so they could come back later.”

Saadat Santorova, another relative and vocal supporter of Kulov, told IWPR, “Quite a few young Baitik residents work in the law-enforcement agencies in Bishkek. Pressure is put on them to force their relatives to keep silent and not protest – and if they refuse they face losing their jobs.”

IWPR correspondents saw for themselves how the villagers live in fear of strangers.

“We initially took you for people whom the White House (the Kyrgyz presidential office) had sent out again to find out what frame of mind we were in,” said one woman.

Not all the villagers are active supporters of the former vice-president, and they feel they are being victimized for no reason.

“Of course, people’s despair is understandable. But when they say that all of Baitik is protesting, that’s not true. Not all the villagers come out to protest,” said school principal Zeinep Kojomkulova, adding that the local children are proud that their fellow villager is a well-known politician.

One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I can’t agree with the argument that Kulov has total support here—that’s far from being the case. But the shadow falls over all of us. Why should we suffer because of this?”

Saadat Santorova told a story that illustrates the pressures faced by some villagers. “I was on my way to the central shopping center [in Bishkek] when I was stopped by the police who asked where I was going. I asked them, ‘Have we Baitik residents lost the right to walk around Bishkek? Have I committed some crime?’ ” she said.

“The policeman, who evidently knew all of Baitik’s residents by sight, asked me whether we had come to protest again.”

Sultan Jumagulov and Asel Sagynbaeva are IWPR contributors in Bishkek.