- - Friday, April 20, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, Kyrgyzstan is eager to show its commitment in stamping out a culture of graft — and is taking some unusual steps to do so.

People applying for jobs at the new State Service for Combatting Economic Crimes earlier this month took a qualification exam on Kyrgyz law on live television. The new agency replaces the Financial Police, which was abolished due to what Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov called its “high level of corruption.”

While perhaps not making for riveting entertainment, this novel approach to hiring was aimed at demonstrating a fair and unbiased selection process for the agency as part of its fight against corruption and nepotism: Kyrgyzstan is ranked 164 out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

“There is very little human intervention in the selection process, as quizzes are electronic, and computers automatically display results at the end of the test,” said Dilbar Sabitova, a former Financial Police employee who took the quiz and scored high enough to qualify for an interview.

An opinion poll conducted in February shows that Krygyz citizens see corruption as the most important issue facing the country after unemployment.

Asiya Sasykbaeva, deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, says it is a major problem that is a legacy of previous governments.

“Today’s government is working hard to uproot the corrupt government system left from the previous regimes, when there was a symbiosis of criminal structures and the government,” Ms. Sasykbaeva said.

The current administration, headed by President Almazbek Atambayev, took office in December, replacing an interim government that had been in place for 18 months after overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010.

Mr. Atambayev has said that fighting corruption is among his top priorities, and has set up a new anti-corruption agency with official Facebook and Twitter pages where the public can lodge complaints and a 24-hour corruption hotline.

The agency says it has received 300 complaints to date, and has opened 75 criminal cases in response.

Still, Nuripa Mukanova, head of the Business Council, a Bishkek-based anti-corruption group, says that despite such highly publicized initiatives, she doubts the new government will be able to engender real change.

“The new government is not new, per se,” she said. “Mostly, it is an old [opposition] elite that took the place of the overthrown elite. Thus, it is very hard to believe they can uproot the widespread corruption in the government.”

Ms. Mukanova says that so far there have been no significant moves to address what many see as the heart of the issue - nepotism.

“The key reason for today’s problem with corruption is the favoritism in state personnel policy — when government officials appoint their families and close friends or allies in state positions,” Ms. Mukanova said. “It is so deeply rooted that it requires fundamental reforms to tackle it.”

Mr. Bakiev and his predecessor Askar Akayev, who also was removed from power by popular revolt in 2005, both installed family members in top government posts.

Others argue that nepotism is less of a problem that straightforward bribery.

“Acquiring [public] office normally requires informal monetary payments,” Johan Engvall, of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies at John Hopkins University in Maryland, said in a report on corruption in Kyrgyzstan that recently gained attention in the country.

“Instead of earning posts and titles by educational achievements, professional merits or demonstrated political skills, these are purchased.”

Toktosun Toroev, a taxi driver in Bishkek, said he agreed with Mr. Engvall’s findings.

“Unfortunately, [he] is right,” Mr. Toroev said. “Today, if you have money, you can buy friends and positions in the government. It is not a secret, everybody knows about it but it seems nobody cares — especially those in government.”