You may be entitled to receive social benefits – but in Kyrgyzstan, sometimes you'll have to pay for them.
After longstanding complaints, Kyrgyz officials have recently acknowledged that bribery is widespread in the country's social-welfare system, with some Kyrgyz officials being accused of extorting money from the benefit recipients as a kickback for "enabling" them to receive the cash.
According to one local lawmaker in the southwestern Toktogul district, people are often reluctant to speak up against the corrupt officials because they fear possible retaliation and risk losing the money.
"Officials at the social-welfare departments apparently threaten people that if they complain the officials would find out and would no longer give them monthly benefits," Syimyk Bekmirzaev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on February 19.
Citing "many people" who told him they were affected by the bribery, Bekmurzaev claimed that officials usually demand benefit recipients to give them the first month's payment.
"I often hear people saying, 'Yes, we had to give them the first and even the second month's payments but, most importantly, we now are receiving benefits,'" the local lawmaker said.
In Kara-Zhygach, a village in the Toktogul district, a father of three, Rustambek Tashtanbek-uulu, said that he had to pay a 1,000 soms ($15) bribe to an official at the social-welfare department that registered his three children for child-benefit payments.
'Too Afraid To Talk'
"[Nurilya] Borbieva, a Toktogul social-welfare department official told me to pay 1,000 soms and she explained to me that 'I need to give this money to other [officials].' After receiving the money, she put my three children on the list of those eligible for benefits," he said.
"The officials usually tell people that: "You give the first payment to me, and receive the rest yourself,'" Tashtanbek-uulu said.
He said that while everyone is aware of the ongoing practice, they are too "afraid to talk about it."
When RFE/RL contacted Borbieva for comment, she rejected the bribery claim and said she has never received any money from Tashtanbek-uulu.
In the capital, Bishkek, Labor and Social Development Minister Ulukbek agrees that some employees in the social-welfare system are suspected of involvement in bribery.
To fight the corruption, the ministry is trying to raise awareness among people and has set up a complaints hotline, the minister told RFE/RL on February 19.
"I have also received the information that when someone becomes eligible for receiving social benefits, employees take the first month's money," Kochkorov said. "I'm [explaining to people] how to prevent such situations when I go live on Facebook and other social media."
Kochkorov said his department will "certainly take measures" against corruption in the system and the minister recently traveled to the provinces to hear people's complaints "first hand," the ministry told Kyrgyz media.
Kumar Ergasheva, an expert from the Bishkek-based Center for Children's Rights, suggests that part of the problem is that many recipients of benefits have a poor understanding of their country's laws and their own rights.
Ergasheva says that people's lack of awareness leads them to believe that claiming state benefits is a kind of "tacit agreement" between a benefit recipient and officials in the social-welfare department.
"We can only defeat [corruption] when we start talking about everything openly. Therefore, we need to deliver full and truthful information to the residents of the provinces," Ergasheva told RFE/RL.
After two years of debates and delays, an updated social-welfare law came into effect in 2018 in Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.
It stipulates that social benefits should be paid to the most vulnerable people, whose eligibility is determined by social-welfare departments.
"If the total family income doesn't exceed 900 soms per person per month, the family is considered poor," minister Kochkorov explained.
The number of livestock the family owns also affects their eligibility to claim benefits.
"If the family owns at least four domestic animals per person, they won't be registered as poor," Kochkorov said. "For example, if a family of eight has at least 32 animals, they are not deemed impoverished."
The amount of the benefits is calculated annually depending on the so-called subsistence monthly minimum per person.
In 2018, benefits for children from low-income families was about 875 soms per child a month. The average salary in Kyrgyzstan is around 17,000 soms.