Kyrgyz leaders intend to reform the country’s police force, by decentralizing its organizational structure. Such reforms, if properly implemented, could create a useful additional network for gathering information designed to aid the authorities in combating terrorism. The announcement from Bishkek comes at a time when the EU has pledged €3 million to assist police forces in Central Asia. Despite continued reports of corruption among elements of the security sector, problems within the Ministry of Defense, and officers being prosecuted for treason, Bishkek is exploring new mechanisms and operational procedures to address threats from religious extremist activity within the country.
Newly appointed Kyrgyz Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev explained on January 21 that he will set achievable targets for police reform, such as empowering local district police officers. What he appeared to signal, quite apart from confidence in the reform program, is an ambitious agenda based on reducing the workforce located in the central command structure and increasing the number of district officers. Kongantiyev’s ideas were listened to with respect, given his own background as a police officer. “Today I ordered all our regional structures to cut the central staff and transfer them to … regional directorates and town police stations. We must enhance the prestige of district police officers, patrol guards, the staff members of juvenile divisions,” he explained (Kyrgyz Television 1, January 21).
Kongantiyev is particularly keen to promote safety at the local level, thereby building trust. He hopes to adapt the model used by Turkish police, using patrols and inspections to ensure security within local communities and paying special attention to businesses. Turkish police officers benefit from a public fund, through which businessmen contribute to the cost of local policing; in turn, this is also used to create additional policing jobs. Beyond budget issues, these reforms have practical targets, including protecting administrative buildings as well as encouraging each local officer to know his precinct well. The Interior Minister is serious about testing these standards, calling on local officers to be familiar with families in the area and to know numbers and names of local drug addicts. Thus far, Kongantiyev has been disappointed by the results, but he remains undeterred.
Intent on carrying out a purge of the bureaucracy, Kongantiyev has ordered the heads of police bodies to submit proposals on how the implement this task. He is also particularly interested in purging corrupt officers from the State Motor Licensing and Inspection Department, after allegedly becoming infuriated by the lack of discipline and professional standards on display at checkpoints along the Bishkek-Osh road. Police officers on this road have been seen extorting money from drivers. Oversight of these traffic officers is placed in the hands of the Interior Ministry’s security service, which has been too lax in supervising police work at checkpoints (24.Kg, January 22). Perhaps his most ambitious plan addresses housing and social support for police. In this, he has drawn attention to their plight by giving the widows of police officers killed by criminals first priority to receive police housing in Bishkek; he has also personally met with these widows and reassured them of his interest in providing help.
These efforts may not attract much publicity, since the dividends are less immediately obvious. However, such Interior Ministry plans, combined with a political desire to eradicate the culture of corruption, suggest that the Kyrgyz government recognizes that police officers will often find themselves in the “front line” in dealing with religious extremists and terrorists. In Osh, for example, on January 21 this message was reinforced by the release of details about criminal cases stemming from “religious extremism.” A total of 17 criminal cases linked to religious extremism opened in Osh during 2007; ten individuals were prosecuted and their activities were linked to the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and 61 books, 310 leaflets, 109 CDs as well as audio and video cassettes were confiscated (24.kg, January 21). Such examples confirm the popularity of extremist literature, and their message of social discontent and hatred may fuel local terrorist cells. Police officers need to know and be trusted by locals in order to further the state’s “insider” knowledge of potential domestic terrorist threats.
While Western countries consider supporting police reform in Kyrgyzstan, Kongantiyev may be looking to China for help. On January 21 in Bishkek, Kongantiyev met China’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Zhang Yannian, and representatives from China’s Ministry of Security. Both sides expressed interest in deepening bilateral cooperation between police forces, while Beijing offered practical assistance aimed at tackling religious extremism, terrorism, illegal migration, and drug trafficking, based on exchanges of operational information, investigative methodology, and other technical support (Akipress, January 21). Beijing’s security assistance is set to expand, with Bishkek anxious to maximize foreign aid for its police reform program, while also genuinely attempting to enhance its capacity to monitor Islamic extremist activity within the country.