BISHKEK -- Since coming to power in Kyrgyzstan three years ago, President Sadyr Japarov has refused to be seated in the country’s historical presidential building -- known as the White House -- working instead in an old Soviet-era building nearby.
Though he hasn’t given a reason, it might be because the White House has been the epicenter of revolutions and riots in Kyrgyzstan since the country gained independence 30 years ago and where the first popular upheaval sent unwanted President Askar Akaev fleeing to Moscow in 2005.
So Japarov was certainly happy to announce that a spanking new presidential building would be constructed for him and his administration along the gorgeous mountains that partially flank Bishkek.
'Not A Single Penny Will Be Spent…'
Speaking about the construction of a new building last year, Japarov said every decision about it was made "for the benefit of the people and the state" and that “not a single penny from the budget will be spent” building the new stately structure.
The 54-year-old president said Kyrgyzstan’s new White House would be erected on the former site of the Issyk-Kul Hotel, which was being demolished after being abandoned for many years. The building will be approximately 30,000 square meters and serve as the headquarters for the presidential administration and the cabinet of ministers.
Most importantly, Japarov added that “we will only exchange 16 hectares of state land from the Presidential Property Management Department [to the builders] and they will build us a building [in return]. That is all. State land has been plundered [by officials] for 30 years [and] these 16 hectares would have also gone into private hands one day. Instead [of letting that happen], we decided to [use the land as payment in exchange for the] construction of a building for the country.”
But that might not be “all.”
In an investigation conducted by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, connections were uncovered between a top official in the government and the construction company that has now received the valuable plot of land in a coveted part of Bishkek. The ties suggest major conflicts of interest.
And it was later revealed that, instead of gifting the company -- Inshaat Stroy Building (ISB) -- the 16 hectares of state land that Japarov originally cited, the Kyrgyz government instead gave it 25.7 hectares in exchange for a new presidential building.
But no explanation was offered for the nearly 10 more hectares of extra land given to ISB. The total cost of the new presidential building has also not been made public.
Ritzy Real Estate
And the land that ISB received is not any ordinary plot of land.
According to independent experts those 25.7 hectares -- located in the picturesque southern part of the capital -- are worth an estimated $77 million.
Since that end of Bishkek is close to the mountains, it provides access to great views, nature, and fresh air -- as downtown Bishkek is one of the most-polluted cities in the world.
So real estate in that area is expensive and much sought after by construction companies.
"A hundred square meters of land above the Tushtuk Magistral (the capital’s Southern Highway) ranges from $25,000 to $35,000 in value. In this neighborhood, land is costly and its value will continue to increase yearly," Konstantin Pomykalov, director of Vash Expert Company, told RFE/RL.
Parliament deputy Dastan Bekeshev has criticized the government's decision to allocate such a large tract of state property to a private company. He says the land should be provided for constructing schools, parks, and other public facilities.
“We are currently unaware of the amount of money from the budget spent on the ongoing construction and the dismantling of the Issyk-Kul Hotel. It is best for us that we remain unaware, as the information regarding the actual costs of constructing the White House is classified, otherwise you might have a heart attack,” Bekeshev said. “It has become evident that the comfort of state officials and the profit of a private company take precedence over the public interest."
Since the total construction cost of the new presidential offices has not been made public, it is unclear if the some $77 million worth of land that ISB was given exceeds the costs of the new White House.
Link To The Company Getting The Lavish Land?
ISB was established in 2020 and has undergone nine reregistrations since then, resulting in changes to its name, its founders, and its managers. The most recent alteration occurred on July 28, just days before the company acquired the pricey state property.
Notably, three of its past managers have connections to Kanybek Tumanbaev, Kyrgyzstan's presidential affairs manager.
RFE/RL sent a letter to Tumanbaev on August 23 asking about his links to the construction company. No response had been received at the time of publication.
On September 17, Tumanbaev conducted a live stream on his Facebook page and commented on the construction works of the new presidential offices.
"In Kazakhstan, Aqorda, [the presidential palace], was built for $652 million, and ours is being built for one-tenth of the cost. It will not be like previously [in Kyrgyzstan] where someone's company or someone's interest [will be involved],” he claimed.
“There was criticism earlier about [the houses being built in] Batken and [the Russian news agency] Sputnik was investigating the case. Dear friends, every penny of the state is under the control of our president and [the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee Kamchybek Tashiev]," Tumanbaev pledged.
Tumanbaev was previously named in an investigation by the independent media outlets Temirov LIVE and MediaHub regarding corruption within Kyrgyz Railways and affairs involving the country’s Muftiate -- the state’s Spiritual Administration of Muslims.
Another scandal emerged -- as Tumanbaev mentioned -- following an investigation on construction work after last year's Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes, when many houses and some villages were destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. The investigation alleged that the Amanat Stroy Invest company, the main contractor that won government tenders, was involved in corruption in the building of homes and public facilities in the Batken region.
The investigation said that Tumanbaev had links to Amanat Stroy Invest.
Tumanbaev denied any connection to the company and, soon after the investigation, Japarov praised Tumanbaev as a high performer who had supervised the construction work “perfectly” and "saved every ‘tyiyn’ (penny) of state money."
Japarov did not address the alleged ties between Tumanbaev and the construction company.
Friends And Partners
First established as Express-Stroy KG, ISB was acquired in 2021 by Nurdin Ravshanbekovich Sabirov and Erlan Syrgabekov. Six months later it came under the ownership of Akhmadshokh Ravshanbekovich Azatov and Ermek Atantaev.
Sabirov and Azatov are the sons of Ravshanbek Sabirov, the former director of the National Investment Agency under Japarov.
Interestingly, Ravshanbek Sabirov, Tumanbaev, and former Grand Mufti Maksatbek Toktomushev are business partners. In 2019, they attended the opening ceremony of the Black Star Burger restaurant in Bishkek. Star Russian rapper Timati was the guest of honor and was greeted by Tumanbaev.
At that time, the Black Star Burger franchise was owned by Arzygul Sabirova and Baatyrbek Jantaev -- who is a relative of Tumanbaev. Media reports said Sabirova is Ravshanbek Sabirov's wife and Jantaev is a known business confidant of Tumanbaev. Ravshanbek Sabirov denies that Sabirova is his wife.
The web of connections continues.
In 2021, Atantaev was the director and owner of the construction company BKS. Prior to him, from 2016 to 2019, Tumanbaev owned the same company, as found in data on osoo.kg.
During the 2020 parliamentary elections, Tumanbaev ran as a member of the Birimdik (Unity) party and initially indicated himself as the director of BKS. However, he later transferred the management to Jantaev.
In 2020-21, both Tumanbaev and Kyrgyz Grand Mufti Maksatbek Toktomushev owned the company RIBH, with Atantaev serving as the acting director.
The Chauffeur's Chauffeur?
Tumanbaev has long been a dodgy figure in Kyrgyz politics.
He began his ascent during Almazbek Atambaev's tenure as president from 2012 to 2017, when he served as a driver for Ikramjan Ilmiyanov -- who went from being Atambaev's driver to being deputy head of the presidential administration and a power broker under Atambaev.
That initial job has led to Tumanbaev being known colloquially as “the driver's driver."
Nobody Home At ISB 'Offices'
The legal location of ISB has also raised eyebrows.
The official address of the company leads to a modest residence on Arashan Street in Bishkek's Bakai-Ata neighborhood. When RFE/RL went to the home, the family members living in the house said they had no connection to the construction company.
A resident who identified herself as Zainura -- the daughter of the house's owner -- expressed surprise when questioned about her family's involvement in the construction of the new White House.
She said the residents of the home have been actively trading goods at a local bazaar for many years and had not heard of the ISB or taken part in any of its activities. Zainura told RFE/RL on a phone call later that she has lived in the house for more than 30 years and was unaware of any connection to ISB.
"I've lived here since the Bakai-Ata neighborhood was established. We have no relatives or acquaintances involved in the construction [of the White House]. Recently, someone else also came here looking for [ISB]. I don't know why our address was indicated [as the company’s legal address]," she said.
It is unclear why the ISB company is registered at the address of an ordinary citizen's home.
The alleged connections between the official overseeing construction of the presidential building and former managers of the company that received the land raises questions, such as on what grounds was ISB chosen as a constructor?
There is a law in Kyrgyzstan known as On Conflict Of Interest in which "personal interests may affect the performance of official duties, which leads or may lead to a violation of the rights and interests of citizens, organizations, or the state."