An ongoing investigation by the Kyrgyz security services has revealed that dozens of officials and lawmakers might have faked their university degrees to get important posts or to run in elections, prosecutors say.
Authorities have refused to disclose the names of the accused until the three-month probe, which began on January 24, is complete. But they say the list of suspected fake-degree holders includes at least four parliament members, eight local council members, a mayor, a judge, and employees of various ministries and law enforcement agencies.
Critics say the government is using the probe to try to discredit its political opponents.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov ordered the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) to check the authenticity of the diplomas of all public-sector workers and lawmakers after several opposition politicians were caught up in fake degree scandals.
In one high-profile case, Orozaiym Narmatova, a lawmaker from the opposition Butun Kyrgyzstan party, was disqualified from parliament on January 20 due to a fraud allegation.
Narmatova, 28, was charged with fraudulently obtaining a degree from the Jalal-Abat State University in 2013. She was accused of using a forged certificate to enroll at the university and was said to have been based outside the country during the exam period.
Narmatova denied any wrongdoing and her supporters say the allegations were politically motivated. Narmatova started her political career as a Japarov ally but eventually turned into one of his staunchest critics.
The security committee said a criminal investigation has been launched into Narmatova’s case.
Another Butun Kyrgyzstan member, Kyianbek Satybaldiev, was accused by the security services of providing forged credentials in order to enroll at a university.
Satybaldiev rejected the allegation, which came during the election campaign for the November 2021 parliamentary vote.
His fellow party member Zholdoshbek Toksobaev was also accused of having a fake diploma.
A similar scandal also cast a shadow over the election campaign of Social Democrat Party member Ryskeldi Mombekov.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) barred Mombekov, 53, from running in the elections after the UKMK accused him of presenting a fake university degree in order to register as a candidate.
In Kyrgyzstan, a university degree is required to register as a candidate for parliament or to qualify for many government positions.
Mombekov denied the allegation and secured a court ruling on the eve of the November 28 vote allowing him to run in the elections. But his party failed to pass the threshold to win seats in the unicameral Jogorku Kenesh.
Meanwhile, the CEC successfully appealed the court ruling and barred Mombekov from competing in a runoff vote in February.
The probe on fake degrees has divided the public and experts. Supporters say the campaign is justified, as fraud and corruption are widespread in the country’s education sector.
But critics argue that the probe has so far selectively targeted opposition figures in a "revenge" campaign.
Some Kyrgyz politicians have suggested that requiring a university diploma for candidates should be dropped altogether.
While the allegations about opposition politicians have been made public immediately, authorities remain tight-lipped about whether the investigation has disclosed any suspected fake-degree holders among those close to the government, says Kyrgyz political affairs expert Aidanbek Akmatov.
“It’s been reported that four lawmakers have forged diplomas, but their names weren’t disclosed. I suspect they are probably close to the authorities,” Akmatov told RFE/RL.
“In the meantime, the authorities continue using the administrative resources to go after their political opponents, attempting to cast a shadow on their integrity and defame them,” the expert adds.
Prosecutors have rejected media requests to disclose the names, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
The former head of the State Personnel Department, Cholponkul Arabaev, says the probe shouldn’t be seen as a campaign against the opposition and critics.
A former university head, Arabaev calls for strict punishment for those who used fake diplomas to advance their careers.
“Only naming and shaming is not enough, they should be barred from working in the public sector so it becomes a lesson for others,” Arabaev adds.
“They also must be forced to reimburse the state for all the salaries they received from the job they got with fake diplomas.”
Authorities say that those who come forward voluntarily and resign from their positions will be spared punishment and their names will remain anonymous.
The nationwide investigation, which also includes the health-care and education sectors, had tragic consequences in one village in Naryn Province.
Local authorities said a 54-year-old teacher from the village of Ak-Chii took her own life on March 9 after a probe revealed her diploma was fake.
The teacher had voluntarily resigned from the school after speaking to authorities, local education officials said. Police have launched a probe.