Skip to content

Corruption – the only constant of Kyrgyzstan’s faux democracy

Article by Shirin Aitmatova

March 1, 2021

Corruption – the only constant of Kyrgyzstan’s faux democracy

Fighting corruption ad nauseam

For more than a quarter of a century, a number of Kyrgyz politicians have been using democracy as an ideological play to bamboozle and win the support of the West. At the same time, corruption and kleptocracy grew as fast as the promises of democracy by the ruling elite. Despite the fact that accusations of corruption have implicated most of the presidents that have lead the country since its independence, decades of constant fight against corruption have brought no results.


This is despite the fact, that Kyrgyzstan joined a number of international organisations and ratified number of treaties (the UNCAC in 2005, OECD’s Istanbul Anti- Corruption Action Plan, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2007 and joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2017), Kyrgyzstan still ranks among the most corrupt states in the world (The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Kyrgyzstan 124 out of the 180 countries as per 2020. Its score is 31 out of 100).[1] The international community has been continuously reassured with promises of democratic change by the Kyrgyz authorities and it has provided and continues to provide loans to fight corruption and provide institutional recommendations, but corruption is still the only constant in Kyrgyzstan.


UMUT 2020, a people’s movement against the corrupt political elite, kleptocracy and nepotism, demanded transparency and further evolution of applied democracy in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2019. The people’s movement stormed the political discourse with a series of investigative videos that launched a powerful, viral effect, succeeding in ‘waking’ the people, despite political repressions that culminated in GKNB surveillance of activists and the unlawful detention of my husband undertaken by the secret police of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. He was consequently held in prison for close to a year in retaliation against the movement’s activism. Based on the case of UMUT 2020’s Matraimov campaign, an analysis of the political processes has localised certain hotspots that have been often overlooked and need to be reckoned with if Kyrgyzstan is to have success at restoration and sustainability of justice.


RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service (Azattyk), Kloop and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in May 2019 released an investigative piece divulging a large-scale corruption scheme in Kyrgyzstan that facilitated money-laundering, providing access to a legitimate financial system for dirty money coming out of Kyrgyzstan (Annex 1: ‘The 700-Million Dollar Man’) in May, 2019. UMUT 2020 demanded that the authorities give a legal assessment of the information aired in this joint investigation that exposed allegations of a smuggling ring headed by Matraimov who had covertly overtaken the customs system. Despite the demands for clarification, or for any kind of reaction from our government, the authorities of Kyrgyzstan chose to ignore the demands of the public concerning the Matraimov investigations. Having exhausted all possible and legal ways to appeal to the Government with no results, UMUT 2020 decided to further the campaign by taking part in peaceful protest rallies, which took place in Bishkek in November and December 2019.


Kyrgyz authorities did finally detain Matraimov, an ally of former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, earlier in October 2020 as part of a corruption investigation, but only after the dramatic events and the fall of President Jeenbekov. He was however released the same day based due to his promises to compensate the state for his crimes. A second attempt to detain Matraimov has recently been ordered by the court of law for a period of two months after public discontent.


Matraimov’s case epitomises the failure of the anti-corruption struggle in Kyrgyzstan that has plagued the country for decades. As is reflected in the volume of the shadow economy in Kyrgyzstan in recent years, according to various estimates, is estimated from 23.6 per cent to 53.5 per cent.[2] According to the latest study of the SHADOW project, the level of the shadow economy in Kyrgyzstan is 42 per cent of GDP as per 2018.[3]


Smuggling is believed to be the largest part of the shadow economy. In recent years, according to Chinese data, Kyrgyzstan receives $5.5 billion USD a year from China’s exports. However, Kyrgyzstan’s statistics show the official volume of imports from China to be $1.9 billion. A difference of $3.6 billion is not a small discrepancy.[4] Neighbouring Kazakhstan has also announced the unreliability of customs statistics of Kyrgyzstan as well.[5] This says a lot about the shrinking possibility for building a fair society in Kyrgyzstan, as is the case in practically all developing countries.


Real democracy or ‘façade’ democracy?

Billions of US dollars of foreign aid and investments enriched the Kyrgyz ruling class that pillaged state funds and created nepotistic opportunities for illegal enrichment of their extended families, while the majority of the people were reduced to having to having someone leave behind their families in order to find employment in Russia.


Not only was democracy taken hostage and cheaply exploited by Kyrgyz government officials but they soon figured out that while half the population is employed overseas as migrant laborers and sends money for subsistence from abroad to their families, it’s very convenient to keep pillaging and letting the state run on financial aid from our democratic allies. No need to improve the economy, no need to create jobs, no need to create tolerable living conditions for Kyrgyz citizens when all you need to do is present yourself correctly before the West and call yourself a ‘democrat’.


A surprisingly overlooked political analyst by the international academia is Alymbek Biialinov, who had warned of the superficiality of the Kyrgyz variant of democratisation, describing the process as the “coloring in” of the existing Soviet system of management and governance with insignificant additions of hollow democratic institutions such as the free market institutions.[6] All too often Kyrgyz democratisation was limited to renaming or changing signs on existing ministries and government departments which at closer look had very little to do with switching to a true market economy.


Under the veneer of a façade democracy, Kyrgyzstan was left with ghost institutions of a bygone Soviet system with the same centralised management in which the state strictly controls the economy and the life of citizens and where the courts and law enforcement agencies are punitive bodies in the hands of the state that gladly wreck lives instead of defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens. The state administration apparatus interferes in the activities of private businesses in order to extort money and seize property. And to this day, our government agencies refuse to recognise the inviolability of private property rights.


The recent events of October 2020, when political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan resulted in the collapse of the Government of now-former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and the rise of Sadyr Japarov, a “former convict” as the New York Times has so condescendingly labeled him, to the position of president-elect.[7]  Knowing the Kyrgyz judicial system first hand after the arrest of my husband, any one of us is literally a step away from becoming a convict in a country with no human rights and no justice. But what gave rise to these changes? And who brought the leader whom many are quick to label a populist out of a prison cell and walked him to the throne? Could it be that Kyrgyz fake democrats have unwittingly aided in their own exposure and subsequent loss of political influence?


Democracy has lost its luster in Kyrgyzstan, having become a word that resonates with irony, a word that has lost most of its meaning for our impoverished nation. Like children raised in institutions, the Kyrgyz Government has learnt no skills to succeed in this world – it simply grew used to relying on others. If before we asked Moscow for handouts, nowadays we ask all countries. Not much has changed in terms of taking on responsibility by our political leaders.


Why did façade democracy turn out to be more dangerous even than authoritarianism? Façade democracy in Kyrgyzstan did not pave the road to more democracy or better democracy – it only paved the road to authoritarianism. After all, a veneer of democracy can be easily and swiftly removed and painted over if need be. Contrary to the hopes of international allies, façade democracy did not gradually turn into true democracy if one is to analyse the failure to thrive of the seeds of democracy on Kyrgyz soil as demonstrated in the backsliding that the nation gladly chose during the recent elections.


Well, of course, those nice pseudo democratic leaders are more pleasant to deal with than complete tyrants, moreover some of them speak English and have learnt to say the right things to get more treats. And do not forget that, it’s mostly children of former government officials (like myself) who have benefitted first, studying abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union, creating a whole ‘mafia’ of local staff within international organisations, hiring their friends and relatives, deciding which local organisations are to receive financing and which do not. These international organisation royalty, for reasons unbeknownst, are never frowned upon by the Western headquarter administrations that claim to carry the bright torch of democracy into the dark of the developing world.


Speaking English sadly does not make one a better person, a better professional, nor a democrat. Façade democracy erodes the importance of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, which through inconsistent application of democratic values by fake democratic leaders, snowballed towards an ultimate crisis of complete discrediting of democracy as is demonstrative in the events that have unfolded in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020.


Since the only democracy that the people of Kyrgyzstan had experienced personally was fake, inconsistent, and useful only for the elite and their families, the majority of the people would rather accept reality as is, a familiar construct will do and the majority have chosen to embrace a less democratic and a more centralised system of governance.


Façade democracy, incites a reaction similar to the reaction of the human body to substandard antibiotics when may cause antibiotic resistance and even failure of treatment. This is especially risky in critical situations when antibiotic resistance can often be the cause of preventable mortality – façade democracy or substandard democracy has masked the infection of corruption and nepotism until this faux bubble burst. It has now been laid bare that a fairy sprinkle of democracy that landed on the surface of the existing political construct failed to transform it into a magic carriage.


What is the use of these anti-corruption, anti-kleptocratic detailed plans, programs and strategies, if their implementation is entrusted to the same ‘façade’ leaders under whom corruption flourishes in the hollow and impotent institutions entrusted to them?


Transnational criminal organisations, supported by ‘façade’ democratic leaders continue to prosper, trafficking drugs and other types of contraband across the country’s borders which goes to show that official anti-corruption efforts are often for show and are often politically motivated.


Before the eyes of the whole world, impoverished and tiny Kyrgyzstan has defied injustice once again. But, with what outcome and what cost? Developments in Kyrgyzstan in the next few years will determine whether democracy regains its footing, or whether the shift towards authoritarianism and/or Islamisation accelerates. It remains to be seen whether the new Government’s apparent political resolve to fight corruption will translate into real changes in the country.


Shirin Aitmatova is a former MP from Kyrgyzstan who lead UMUT 2020 – a people’s movement against corruption. Aitmatova is a polemicist, an investigator who has collaborated with RFE/RL,, Bellingcat and The Guardian. As a legislator and an activist her iconoclastic political work has shaken up Kyrgyzstan more than once. Aitmatova studied at Downe House School, Bryn Mawr College, The New School and Sarah Lawrence College. Currently she is working on a tell-all book about growing up as the daughter of the most famous Central Asian author, her decisive role in contemporary Kyrgyz politics and the page-turner story of leading UMUT 2020.


Image by Matthias Buehler under (CC).


[1] United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime, Signature and Ratification Status, February 2020,; OECD, CAN – Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Istanbul anti-corruption action plan: Third round of monitoring – Kyrgyzstan – Progress update, September 2017,; EITI, Kyrgyz Republic,; Open Government Partnership, Kyrgyz Republic – Member Since 2017 – Action Plan 1,; Transparency International, Anti-Corruption Research Center Transparency International Kyrgyzstan,

[2] National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, Dynamics and parameters of the non-observed economy in the Kyrgyz Republic, April 2019,; Ivallo Izvorski, et al. Kyrgyz Republic: Country Economic Memorandum, World Bank Group, 2020,

[3] IBC Members’ News, Results of a research of the international SHADOW project presented in Bishkek, December 2020,

[4] Greater Europe Archives,

[5] Ivan Zuenko, The Eurasian Gap: Winners and Losers of the Economic Union, Carnegie Moscow Center, November 2016,

[6] Alymbek Biyalinov o Mnenie Akipress,Алымбек%20биялинов&place=crosstop

[7] Andrew Higgins, A Convicted Kidnapper Is Chosen to Lead Government of Kyrgyzstan, The New York Times, October 2020,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre