How a privatized public park revealed epic corruption in Kyrgyzstan

Atatürk Park, Kyrgyzstan (Photo credit: Ollios/Wikimedia Commons)
Atatürk Park, Kyrgyzstan (Photo credit: Ollios/Wikimedia Commons)

Ataturk Park, a point of civic pride in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of Bishkek, has mysteriously been ending up in private hands. 

Now, a year-long investigation has revealed that for years, the Bishkek mayor’s office across succeeding administrations had been illegally parceling out the locally beloved “people’s park” to private individuals, who then fenced it off from the public.

Giveaways by elected officials

Over the course of a year, Metin Dzhumagulov, a journalist posing as a potential buyer, and his colleagues at the Kloop investigative journalism center, delved into the complex, subterranean web of corruption underpinning the tragedy.

What they found was a huge giveaway project by elected officials over the course of four mayoral administrations stretching back to the late 1990s.

One-third of the park has ended up in private hands, including numerous members of the local elite.

Lavish villas now occupy what was once public land, while other park regions lay vacant—but no longer accessible to the people.

Local elites implicated

Most of the 173 recipients of political largesse resold the plots they had been gifted at a substantial profit. 

Bishkek’s rich and powerful have scrambled to respond to the allegations in Kloop’s story.

The most notable recipient was Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the current president of Kyrgyzstan. who received his gift in 2003, as his political star was rising.

The investigation has revealed that the land he received had a mansion built on it, which was then resold.

President Jeenbekov denied any wrongdoing, and said had no real knowledge of what had taken place.

A study in corruption

Yet some of the mayors and other powerful figures named by the investigation have fled Kyrgyzstan ahead of corruption allegations.

The scandal has even ensnared prominent academics.

Architecture professor Jumabek Tentiev claims the Kyrgyz Architecture and Construction Institute never had any money to build its new campus on land granted by the Bishkek mayor.

So he and his academic colleagues, along with several wealthy local businessmen and politicians, ended up building their own villas on the site. 

The power of the press

Investigative journalism is still in its infancy in Kyrgyzstan, but it’s starting to get attention — not all of it good.

Right after the story broke, the news agency Kloop’s website went dark, hit by a DDOS — a “distributed denial of service” attack — apparently linked to the serious revelations of corruption targeting Kyrgyzstan’s most powerful citizens.

Many of those named have denied the evidence or are pinning the blame on others and asserting their own innocence.

Yet at a November 2 meeting with the press, Jeenbekov promised that he would provide Kloop with legal documents to prove he had not profited significantly from the plot he received.

A Kloop reporter said his organization would verify the claim.

Sources: Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project, The Diplomat, Eurasianet

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