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The Deep Roots Of Nepotism In Central Asia

Poster children for nepotism? Central Asia's leaders on a Bishkek billboard ahead of an SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan in 2007
Poster children for nepotism? Central Asia's leaders on a Bishkek billboard ahead of an SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan in 2007
All five post-Soviet Central Asian states are characterized by rampant nepotism, which has arguably become the main obstacle hampering their economic and political development. Kyrgyzstan's two post-Soviet leaders -- Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev -- were both undone by the favoritism they showed their children and close relatives, a lesson that should not be lost on the heads of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors.

Bakiev, who was ousted as president in April, appointed his son and brothers to high state positions. His son, Maksim, and his brother, Janysh, in fact, became some of the most influential political figures in the country. Leading opposition figure Azimbek Beknazarov went so far in 2007 as to say that Janysh and Maksim were actually running Kyrgyzstan. While politician Omurbek Tekebaev said Kyrgyzstan had established a system of medieval nepotism in which power is distributed solely on the basis of consanguinity.

Nepotism became a great danger for Kyrgyzstan, menacing its very integrity whenever the clans that emerged around Maksim and Janysh found themselves at odds over some prize or other.

Between them, they pretty well divided Kyrgyzstan into fiefdoms. Maksim, dubbed "The Prince," controlled key businesses, including the gems of the banking system, the media, and the financial sector. Janysh was originally the deputy head of the National Security Service. Later he headed the State Protection Service, which provides security for the president, government officials, members of parliament, and the justices of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court. In fact, he controlled all the country's law enforcement organs, including the prosecutor's office, the criminal investigations units, and the judiciary.

Two more presidential brothers -- Marat and Adil -- were ensconced in Kyrgyz embassies abroad. One is ambassador to Germany, while the other is a senior official in the embassy in Beijing.

Another brother, Kanybek, headed a village administration, while another, Akhmat, is a successful businessman and the "unofficial governor" of the family's native Jalalabad Oblast. Another brother, Jusupbek, served as deputy director of Kyrgyzstan's Agency for Community Development and Investment before his death in early 2006.

The End Of An Era

But this corrupt system ended in a bloody uprising in which 87 people were killed by gunfire from state security agents. I doubt Kurmanbek Bakiev foresaw the dangerous, deadly dynamic he was unleashing when he named his son to the second-highest position in a rigid vertical of power.

And how could he? Having surrounded himself with sons, brothers, and other relatives, Bakiev had no reliable circle of politicians and professionals to advise him. The political allies who helped him oust Akaev all abandoned him. Gradually, his only thought came to be how to hold on to the position his whole clan relied on despite the country's increasingly unstable, untenable political environment. The logic of this system became fatally self-perpetuating; as his political companions abandoned him, he became increasingly dependent on his network of powerful family members.

Looking back at Akaev's presidency, it is clear that his wife was really calling the shots. Mairam Akaeva made most key personnel decisions. A graduate of Leningrad State University, she was a professor of mechanics and president of the Meerim charity foundation. All businesspeople or officials who sought her favor would transfer funds to the foundation. After Akaev was ousted, prosecutors began looking into several cases in which state ministries allegedly illegally transferred budget funds to Meerim.

Experts have estimated that as much as 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP ended up in the pockets of Akaev's family and close allies. Mairam and Akaev's son, Aidar, were notorious for "selling" state posts. In 2006, prosecutors opened and investigated 106 criminal cases connected to Akaev's relatives or members of his inner circle.

Akaev and his wife used to say, "all the riches we have are our books and paintings." But in reality, his children and relatives impudently seized everything in Kyrgyzstan that glittered. Akaev installed his daughter, Bermet, as a parliament deputy and his son, Aidar, as adviser to the finance minister and parliament deputy. When both Bermet and Aidar ran for parliament in 2005, there was impudent falsification on their behalf and in favor of other members of the pro-presidential Alga Kyrgyzstan party.

But it was Akaev's son-in-law, Adil Tojgonbaev (a Kazakh citizen and the husband of Bermet), who was the most irritating. Some journalists estimated that Tojgonbaev oversaw virtually every profitable industry in Kyrgyzstan, controlling in particular the market for alcohol. He also purportedly owned several broadcasting companies and several popular newspapers, including "Evening Bishkek."

Ultimately, five criminal cases were initiated against him, accusing him of causing damages in the amount of $18.8 million. But Astana refused to extradite him and now he lives peacefully in Kazakhstan. He and Bermet are divorced.

The fact that Bakiev so closely followed the doomed path of his predecessor demonstrates the deep roots that corruption and nepotism have in Central Asia.

Beyond Kyrgyzstan

Across the region, family is a crucial social institution and interpersonal ties among even extended-family members are exceptionally strong. Family connections are often tied to financial support and trust among family members is far higher than levels of trust in society generally. Several generations of a family will often live together, and elders are treated with noteworthy respect. Children are taught from the beginning to rely on their families.

That's why, despite the obvious negative examples from Kyrgyzstan showing that nepotism and the corruption it engenders are key drivers of popular discontent, other Central Asian leaders continue to practice and defend similar systems.

Suhrob Sharipov, head of the presidential Strategic Research Center in Tajikistan, told Asia-Plus that President Imomali Rahmon has the right to appoint relatives to senior posts if he judges them qualified.

"Family links have always been used and will always be used in Tajikistan," Sharipov said. "We have such a mentality that relatives try to be close to each other. Family links will always be used in our country by everyone, no matter who is in power."

He argued that the main reason nepotism is less prevalent in Western democracies is because families often live scattered far apart.

As might be expected from Sharipov's analysis, several of Rahmon's children already occupy high-level post. Twenty-three-year old son Rustam has been enjoying a meteoric rise in Tajik politics and is widely viewed as a possible presidential successor. Daughter Tahmina is believed to be a cofounder of several trading networks and of the Development Bank of Tajikistan. Hasan Sadulloev, the brother of Rahmon's wife, is chairman of the board of the country's largest bank, Orienbanka. He owns dozens of factories, real-estate companies, a network of restaurants, and several mass-media outlets.

In Uzbekistan, the alleged U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks recently describe President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara, as "the most hated person in the country." According to the U.S. diplomats in those texts, she "bites off a slice" of every profitable business in the country and has earned the nickname "the queen of thieves." Gulnara has long lived in Geneva, where her Zeromax holding company is registered. She also spends considerable time in Spain.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev once joked that "my salary as president is very small, so my children are helping me." According to "Forbes" magazine, Nazarbaev's daughter, Dinara, and her husband, Timur Kulibaev, are among the world's billionaires.

In 2007, Kulibaev bought a private residence from a member of the British royal family for 15 million pounds, about 25 percent more than the market price of the property, according to Britain's "Daily Telegraph." The Kazakh newspaper "Republic" has reported that Dinara paid nearly 75 million Swiss francs earlier this year for a country house near Lake Geneva.

Nazarbaev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, amassed a great fortune before falling out of favor with his benefactor. Living now in Austria, Aliev has been sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison by an Almaty court and has had his extensive properties in the country seized -- factories, newspapers, aircraft, homes...

For his part, Aliev has penned a tell-all about Nazarbaev called "The Godfather," in which he writes that Nazarbaev has three wives and plans to hand over power to a son by his third wife who is now just five years old.

Turkmenistan also has a reputation for corruption and nepotism. Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov's son, Murat, was given a privileged access to the business world. He was entrusted with control over exports of the country's natural gas. Some media reported that the revenues were held in offshore banks in Cyprus. Murat was suspected of accepting bribes from foreign companies interested in drilling and extracting the gas. He also controlled earnings from the lucrative sale of alcohol and cigarettes.

In the three years since the death of "President-For-Life" Niyazov, Turkmenistan's government has taken some steps to dismantle the corrupt Niyazov system. However, we now see the rise of the family and inner circle of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Former dentist Berdymukhammedov used to drive an old Russian car, but has lately developed a taste for luxury. One of his daughters lives in London, another in Paris. He has been steadily installing his friends and fellow clan members in powerful state positions.

None of these leaders seems to have learned anything from the experience of Kyrgyzstan. They continue to ignore the simple truth that one day, inevitably, the patience of the people will simply run out.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Kyrgyz journalist based in Geneva. She has worked for BBC radio, RFE/RL, IWPR, and as editor in chief of independent newspaper "De Facto." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL