The Kyrgyz media holding Vechernii Bishkek (Evening Bishkek) controls three newspapers, Rubicon, an advertising company as well as the country's newest publishing house. In the past, the regimes of former presidents Askar Akayev (1990-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2005-2010) have tried to get their hands on it.
After the second Kyrgyz revolution in 2010, a new (but, for all intents and purposes, the same) elite made promises – freedom of expression, democracy and the protection of private property – to the country. President Almazbek Atambayev's assurances ahead of parliamentary elections in October, however, have so far proven hollow.
Attempts to control large-scale business (including media) were common under Askar Akayev, independent Kyrgyzstan's first president. Indeed, it was back then that Adil Toygonbayev, Akayev's son-in-law, decided to take control of Vechernii Bishkek.
Toygonbayev purchased a half stake in the media company from Alexander Ryabushkin, co-founder of the publishing house. Later, the family of the ex-president gained control of the shares of Ryabushkin's partner and co-founder Aleksandr Kim – supposedly with the aid of forged documents.
However, all good things must come to an end. After Kyrgyzstan's long-serving president was overthown during the Tulip Revolution of 2005, the courts ruled that the transfer of Kim's shares to Akayev's son-in-law was illegal. And as to Ryabushkin, there have been two court rulings on his profitable exit from Vechernii Bishkek after selling his stake in the company, and they remain in force.
Fourteen years after leaving the company, Ryabushkin has re-asserted his right to a 50% stake in the media holding – despite the fact that the sale of shares was recognised as legal, the payment was received and, it seems, has already been spent. Ryabushkin himself was unable to legally make any claim to the company: the statutes of limitations had already expired. However, contrary to the law (and all logic), two courts suddenly ruled Ryabushkin's suit legally sound, promptly handing over 50% of the company's shares.
According to Ryabushkin, he was pressured to sell his shares, and the payment was never received: 'I attempted to retrieve my shares in 2005 and 2011. In both cases, I was refused. But now I have two court decisions, both of which recognise my right to shares in Rubicon, which also owns shares in Vechernii Bishkek. These rulings are legally sound, nobody has appealed against them. The Ministry of Justice has recognised me as co-founder. This decision can be appealed in the Supreme Court. And there's no need to turn this ownership dispute into something political.'
Vechernii Bishkek's offices. Image courtesy of the author.
Thanks to the (legally) peculiar court decisions in 2014 and 2015, there are now two rulings which contradict one another. In Kyrgyzstan, representatives of the judiciary can make decisions on flagrant violations of the law without orders from above. With this in mind, employees at the holding came to the conclusion that Ryabushkin was not acting alone – he had the backing of President Atambaev's inner circle.
In a public statement in April 2015, employees from the newspapers and publishing house owned by Vechernii Bishkek named three of the people involved in this raid on the newspaper, including Farid Niyazov, communications adviser to President Atambaev, and Erkin Mambetaliev, former bodyguard to Atambaev and Akayev. Convicted on three counts of murder in 2008 (out of eight charges), in 2010, Mambetaliev was suddenly released when the new Atambaev regime came into power.
The final name – and no less strange – on the list was Ikramzhan Ilmiyanov, former driver to Atambaev and later First Deputy Chief of Staff in the Presidential Administration. Ilmiyanov quickly resigned after his name was released to the media.
As Dina Maslova, chief editor of the online version of Vechernii Bishkek, sees it: 'There was a whole series of illegal court decisions which violated dozens of procedural rules. Without the president's interference, we wouldn't have had the illegal re-registration of Rubikon's founders. Even well known politicians say this is a raid, and that high-ranking bureaucrats are behind it. Many people in the legal profession are talking about this, as are businessmen.'
According to Maslova, Ryabushkin is far from the kind of individual who could pull off this kind of operation.
Even well known politicians say this is a raid
Indeed, Maslova believes this kind of operation could only have been carried out through government channels. After all, Farid Niyazov is in charge of the country's 'information policy':
'From this, we came to the conclusion that he is one of the people behind the raid. At the same time, Ikram Ilmiyanov and Erkin Mambetaliyev are some of the most influential people in the country. If it was just some parliamentary deputies who telephoned the court, the judges wouldn't have blazed through so many laws like that. Most likely, it was these guys who pressured the courts.'
Now the president's people are putting all their efforts into convincing the public of the following: the whole story of the holding company is nothing more than a private commerical dispute; it has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Meanwhile, with a wealth of media resources obedient to the state at his fingertips, Niyazov is working overtime to shift attention away from the case.
Niyazov insists otherwise. 'Someone consciously put [Aleksandr] Kim up to it. Perhaps Kim just wanted to use my resources in order to win the court ruling. So I would run off to save the reputation of the White House [the main government building in Bishkek]. These are important times for Kyrgyzstan. I do not interfere and do not intend to interfere in the actions of law enforcement or the judiciary. This dispute is about money and nothing more.'
Aleksandr Kim at press conference, April 2015. Image courtesy of the author.
In Kyrgyzstan, 2015 is an election year. By autumn, the country will have a new parliament. The negotiations between standing politicians and the authorities are going at full stretch. Moreover, in 2017, President Atambaev will have to leave his post. And so, as Kyrgyz tradition dictates, now is the best time to gain control of the country's major media resources. The regime is determined to control as many media resources as possible – to ensure its existence after Atambaev leaves.
For Aleksandr Kim, founder of Vechernii Bishkek, this is just another page in a drawn-out saga: 'The authorities have always needed Vechernii Bishkek. It was the case under Akayev when the publishing house was seized in 1999. Then they suggested that I sell – I refused. Today, the situation is exactly the same as in 1999. The state is working through [Aleksandr] Ryabushkin once again. A gangland take-over of our paper, as simple as that. There is no other way to describe what is going on and how the courts are behaving.'
According to Kim, neither the Prosecutor General's Office, nor the courts, nor any other authorities can violate the law so shamelessly. 'This is not a business venture for Atambaev. He has his eyes on the website and the newspaper. It's all very simple. His circle needs money and the President needs the newspaper.'
The old ways
Vechernii Bishkek's opponents are using tried and tested methods: state-owned television channels have been put into play. And the White House tells the stations' employees exactly what to say – and how.
In these reports and documentaries, everything is lumped together – accusations of stirring up revolution, rumours about the links between the newspaper and US spies. Particular emphasis is laid upon the newspaper's relationship to the family of ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled the country in 2010 in the course of the second revolution. One news report implied a connection between Vechernii Bishkek and 150-tonnes of unidentified diplomatic cargo landing at Bishkek airport from America.
And if this all wasn't enough, Vechernii Bishkek is facing a new lawsuit. Ryabushkin wants $15m compensation for the past 15 years. Kim is convinced that the court will also grant this. And in order to pay this compensation to Ryabushkin, the owner of the media holding would have to sell his shares. The scheme would thus come full circle: the newspaper would have a new editor and Vechernii Bishkek could no longer criticise the President, the government, or their failing reforms.
Concerned by the ownership dispute, employees at Vechernii Bishkek protest outside court. Image courtesy of the author.
As so frequently happens, the government is becoming increasingly divorced from reality: rather than solving the country's core problems, it is fighting against their consequences.
At some point, President Almazbek Atambaev ceased to notice the shortcomings of various branches of government. It's far easier blame the journalists who criticise the government and its failures.
Journalists – objectionable as always
Indeed, Atambaev has revealed his irritation with the domestic media publicly on several occasions.
In a press conference in 2014, Atambaev accused journalists who criticise the government of being unpatriotic. They damage the image of Kyrgyzstan, it seems, thereby putting off investors.
In early April, during an event dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the second revolution, Atambaev made clear his wishes to expel journalists who worked under the previous regime: 'Perhaps there is one thing we can learn from the new government in Ukraine. We should lustrate and expel the politicians, publishers and journalists who shamelessly pour filth on the events of 7 April 2010 and who still serve the family of Kurmanbek Bakiyev.'
According to Aleksandr Kim, the Presidential Administration creates certain lines and opinions on politicians, publishers and journalists for Atambaev – there simply isn't time in the day for him to take in the whole picture: 'His circle have taken advantage of this and managed to convince him that Vechernii Bishkek is an enemy.'
Kim has stated that he plans to ingore all the illegal rulings of the courts – after all, he still has the previous decisions. 'The methods being used by people close to the president are illegal. And so we have to use our own court rulings. Whatever the courts decide, we will continue to view this as legal chaos, and we have no intention of fulfiling these decisions. Next, they'll come to us with criminal cases, try to enforce the rulings, but we'll show them our our decisions.'
This isn't the first time Kyrgyzstan has had to deal with this kind of story. The rule of Askar Akayev brings back memories of total usurpation of power and control of business, including Vechernii Bishkek. Eventually, Akayev's rule was substituted for the dictatorship of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. And after Bakiyev's fall in 2010, Atambaev arrived with promises of the rule of law.
But today, when the courts violate their own laws, when the Constitution is no longer the fundamental law of the country, when criminals take government office, Kyrgyzstan finds itself, once again, faced with a choice – to become a state where the rule of law is observed or to let history repeat itself.
Standfirst image: employees of Vechernii Bishkek wait for a court session to end. Image courtesy of the author.