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Kyrgyzstan: MPs Told to Ride the Bus

Members (MPs) of Kyrgyzstan's Jogorku Kenesh parliament are not generally associated with self-sacrificing behaviour. Nevertheless, a suggestion from within the legislature that MPs should give up their state-funded cars and take a minibus to work has moved Kyrgyz netizens towards a reappraisal of what their elected representatives should and shouldn't be entitled to.

The proposal came from within the ranks of the socialist Ata-Meken party, as part of a continuing discourse on how to shrink an alarmingly bloated and deficit ridden state budget. The reactions of MPs from other factions were then comprehensively canvassed in an excellent article by Kloop.kg's Begimai Bolotbekova.

Ata-Meken's Akunaly Dosaly outlined [ru] the “shuttle scheme” thus:

In each faction, there could be one or two custom vehicles while the majority of MPs could take a shuttle bus. They could arrive in the morning then be brought back in the evening.

This would seem a reasonable initiative, given that MPs of different factions can hardly be expected to ride the same bus. But even with that proviso, some lawmakers weren't happy with the idea.

Jyldyzkan Joldosheva of the Ata-Jurt party said [ru]:

I have a house in Bishkek – I refused a [state-funded] apartment. But the car, I cannot refuse because it is not a luxury, but a necessity

Incidentally, if the allegations of one news portal [ru] are to be believed, Zholdosheva is rather fond of state-funded “necessities”.

Although a couple of MPs supported the parliamentary shuttle plan in principle, others thought it unfeasible. Tatiyana Levina of the Ar-Namys party said she wasn't against travelling by shared transport per se, but feared that it might give off the wrong impression to the electorate:

If you give up company cars, you need to give up everything – payments, subsidies… Well, how would that look? Everyone lives in different parts of the city. I think our voters would find it more annoying [if we got a bus to work], because our pensioners cannot ride buses for free – they must pay a fee

So the knowledge that MPs get a free bus pass would be more of an irritation to the electorate than watching the same representatives cruise into work in a government-allocated Toyota Camri? Hmmm…

Nice wheels, baike

It is worth mentioning that not all of Kyrgyzstan's legislators drive a Camri to work. Some of them eschew the gift for their own flashier set of wheels, while others alternate between privately owned and publically owned automobiles.

Following the interest in Bolotbekova's article, Kloop.kg invited their posse of young journalists (all aged under 24) and readers of the portal to take snaps of deputies on their way to work. The results were displayed as follows (example):

Azamat Arapbaev, MP of the faction Ata-Jurt, goes to work in a “Lexus LX570″,  2008 model, with the registration number 0028 KG.

According to [current information], this brand of car changes hands for USD 87,000.

To afford this car – without eating anything and living on the street – would take:
– An MP on an official salary: 4.5 to 6.5 years
– The average working resident of Bishkek: from 22 to 33.5 years

The article, featuring fifteen such profiles, generated a stream of comments from netizens, who via Kloop's Facebook plugin either chose to defend specific MPs as “honest” or move in for the kill with complaints about graft and inequality.

Tynchtyk Maldybaev posted ironically:

But why do you [speak] badly of our deputies, they are the demigods, the Kyrgyz  representatives of God on earth, they only think of the people

Another reader, Isken, quoted the English historian Lord Acton:

For we know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely

But while some readers strained to calculate how long it would take them to own a Lexus, others suggested that the piece had attempted to bias the people against the ruling elite. In response to these accusations, Kloop Editor Anna Leilik replied:

We had no goals to show MPs in a positive or negative light. You probably noticed we did not have the same number of deputies from different factions – the cars were randomly selected. We wanted to compare data from different sources with the photos. With regard to the [costs of the cars] and the salaries, they are publically available online, and the same thing we did – calculate – anybody could have done.

From private armies to public transport

Views on the moral character of MPs not withstanding, the very fact that the Kyrgyz parliament is debating such changes marks a massive shift from April of last year, when former house speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov proposed legislation that would allow lawmakers and their personal bodyguards to carry weapons in and around the parliament.

Back then, a Kloop poll showed a vast majority of portal users as being opposed to the legislation, while several who supported it did so only for the bloodiest of reasons. One user, Nurbek, commented:

I am FOR this law. Let them shoot at each other in the Jogorku Kenesh

Clearly, less than 12 months down the line, the legislature is a changed place. It has a new ruling coalition, a new speaker, and its members are pondering the need to swap the “parliamentary fleet” for a communal shuttle. Somewhere in all this there is a reality TV show waiting to happen.

N.B.: Coincidentally, Akhmatbek Keldibekov left the speaker's office amidst a scandal surrounding the distribution of the special ‘KG’ registration plates. Ranging from the presidential plate (KG 001) to less prestigious registrations in the KG hundreds, these items are something of a status symbol in Kyrgyzstan and usually get you past traffic cops without any bother. What plates the proposed “faction buses” will carry is as yet unknown.

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