Andrew Osborn








The Bakiyev millions

22nd May 2010 16:18

How much illicit wealth can the president of one of the planet’s poorest countries amass in just five years? In the case of the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the answer appears to be a staggering amount.

Gold bars, a private zoo, two spare wives, and tens of millions of dollars in hidden bank accounts - if his detractors are to be believed.   

As the dust settles on a violent April uprising that forced Bakiyev and his extended family to flee the arid former Soviet republic, the politicians who deposed him say they have uncovered evidence of massive fraud that shows that Bakiyev and his cronies were living high on the hog while ordinary people struggled to even subsist.

In a country where the average monthly wage is the equivalent of just 45 pounds, revelations about the “Bakiyev millions” have stirred deep anger. Officials say Bakiyev’s entourage transferred up to 200 million dollars out of the country just before they fled, leaving Kyrgyzstan’s coffers almost empty and the nation teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Strong boxes seized in banks around the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that belonged to close associates of Bakiyev allegedly threw up a further 20 million dollars and a stash of gold bars, while a search of one of the ousted president’s residences uncovered some 222,000 dollars in cash.

But perhaps the most unexpected find was made in one of his properties in the south of country where investigators stumbled across a secret private zoo stuffed with rare and endangered species. Kyrgyzstan itself cannot boast a single public zoo but Bakiyev had assembled an exotic menagerie for an audience of one.  Investigators said they found rare snow leopards, a pair of bear cubs, golden eagles, an African ostrich and peacocks.   

Then there is the question of Bakiyev’s colourful personal life. Officially married to an ethnic Russian woman named Tatyana with whom he had two sons, the new government says it has evidence that the deposed president actively practiced polygamy and had at least two “spare” wives.   

Charges of African dictator-style nepotism have also been laid at his door.  Bakiyev’s five brothers all held senior government posts as did his two sons. Indeed, one of his brothers, Zhanybek, stands accused of ordering soldiers to open fire on protestors in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the uprising that toppled Bakiyev. More than eighty people were killed.   

But perhaps the most reviled member of Bakiyev’s entourage was his youngest son Maxim. He  controlled foreign investment flows and lived an ostentatious playboy lifestyle in Bishkek, lording it in the city’s night clubs. Associates have spoken of his love of expensive Scotch, his collection of personalized playing cards inlaid with gold, and his passion for pretty women. The new government alleges that Maxim and his associates embezzled a Russian loan to Kyrgyzstan worth more than 300 million dollars. The Bakiyevs say the allegations are politically-motivated.

Yet it seems that the Bakiyevs' cavalier attitude to the Kremlin, Kyrgyzstan's former imperial master, proved their undoing. Actively courted by Russia, the United States and China, Bakiyev tried to play the big powers off against one another. It was a dangerous game. Russia operates a military air base not far from Bishkek, the capital, while the United States has established a crucial forward supply base for its operations in nearby Afghanistan at Manas, Bishkek's main civilian airport. Meanwhile, China was more interested in buying up the country's natural resources. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, is understood to have expected Bakiyev to close the US air base in exchange for a massive injection of Russian cash as Moscow tried to claw back its former influence in the region. But Bakiyev had other ideas. Having taken the Russian money, he first ordered the US base to be closed only to perform a U-turn after the Americans offered him more

money in rent. Putin was said to be furious. 

Bakiyev says today that he has no evidence the Russians instigated the coup that toppled him but many believe the Kremlin did play a role.         

His sudden fall from power, as unexpected as it was swift, left leaders across the former Soviet Union consumed by fear for the future of their own feudal regimes. Alexander Lukashenko, the neo-Stalinist leader of Belarus, appeared particularly troubled and offered Bakiyev  sanctuary.   As a result, Bakiyev currently finds himself in exile in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, apparently agitating for his own return. If the accusations against him are accurate, he is unlikely to be on his uppers.

The question now though is will Kyrgyzstan's new rulers, who have struggled to restore law and order, be any better. After all,  Bakiyev himself swept to power in a similar uprising in 2005, promising democracy and an end to corruption. The Kyrgyz know all too well how that ended.