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Kyrgyzstan 2019 Crime & Safety Report

Kyrgyzstan 2019 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

 

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Kyrgyzstan at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions.

 

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

 

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizens’ Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

 

Review OSAC’s Kyrgyzstan-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

 

Crime Threats

 

There is considerable risk from crime in Bishkek. Although relatively uncommon, there have been reports of muggings and assaults on foreigners in downtown Bishkek at night. Many reports center on bars, clubs, and other drinking establishments where inebriated patrons (regardless of nationality) make for tempting targets; local criminals perceive foreigners to have more money than local residents. Other non-violent crimes occur regularly. In 2017, Bishkek reported 9,901 crimes. At the time of this report, 2018 crime statistics are pending public release.

 

Foreigners have reported having their drinks drugged. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad.

 

There is a high incidence of petty theft and pickpocketing in local open-air markets, bazaars, and other crowded places. There is particular need to pay close attention to one’s surroundings and belongings while in crowded public places, walking on crowded streets and underground crosswalks, and traveling on public transportation.

 

Criminals have impersonated police officers, using fraudulent credentials to extort money from foreign tourists and expatriates.

 

Organized crime and narco-trafficking are widespread in the south, particularly in Batken and Osh provinces. While potentially dangerous, these criminal activities typically do not target or affect foreigners.

 

Cybersecurity Issues

 

Reports of credit card, internet, and ATM fraud are rare but do occur. For more information, review OSAC’s report, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.

 

In the last few years, there have been significant incidents of cyberattacks on host government websites, infecting servers with malware as a result. Local media outlets occasionally report foreign government hacking attacks. Exercise caution with your electronic devices; try to keep them in your possession, keep firewalls and antivirus software active and updated, and use virtual private networks (VPNs) to protect your devices from unauthorized access.

 

Other Areas of Concern

 

Exercise caution near the southern borders. The U.S. Embassy reviews travel of its employees to Batken Oblast because ill-defined and porous borders allow for the relatively free movement of people and illicit goods, rendering the region vulnerable to transnational threats. Ambiguous borders, particularly around six enclaves in the Batken Oblast, can give rise to skirmishes over water and grazing rights. Some of these skirmishes can turn violent. While foreigners are not the target of this violence, they should exercise caution around these ambiguous borders so as not to become collateral victims. Rugged terrain and a lack of resources prevent authorities from controlling the borders adequately. Along the Batken Oblast border, there were 8 border conflicts and 16 cases of illegal border crossings in 2018.

 

Kyrgyz law restricts movements by foreigners in some border areas considered vital to national security or otherwise sensitive. For example, foreign investors owning or operating mineral mines must submit the names of foreign visitors to the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) in order to visit their mines.

There have been reports of detention and harassment by local law enforcement and other security forces of U.S. citizens working as journalists and individuals hunting or trekking in border regions, even if they are on guided tours, have permission, and possess the proper documentation.

Border crossings for foreigners who do not carry Central Asian passports are often difficult. Factor unexpected border closures into travel plans. Many land borders crossings do not permit non-Central Asians to cross.

It is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. Ask before taking pictures of anything of possible military or security interest, including government buildings, people in police or military uniforms, and food markets. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Transportation-Safety Situation

 

For more information, review OSAC’s report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

 

Road Safety and Road Conditions

 

Road safety is the number one safety concern throughout Kyrgyzstan. Road conditions often make driving difficult and dangerous. Insufficient street lighting, dangerous driving habits, and free roaming livestock on rural roads make intercity driving hazardous. The local habit of driving at night without headlights adds to the already dangerous conditions at night. Guardrails and other safety barriers are often absent from rural streets.

 

City roads are hazardous due to potholes, uncovered manholes, poor lighting, and pedestrians ignoring oncoming traffic. Exercise great care while walking, as vehicles often fail to yield to pedestrians. There is no roadside assistance infrastructure.

 

Kyrgyzstan has invested in many road improvement projects, including a massive citywide project in Bishkek in 2018. However, it still lacks adequate snow removal and road treatment equipment to protect the roads from harsh winter conditions. Despite the improvements, winter damage results in the formation of numerous potholes along many streets, but especially side streets. Aggressive drivers routinely make sudden unexpected lane changes without signaling or checking other lanes, making collisions common.

 

The number of cars exceeds Bishkek road capacity, resulting in an artificial restriction of traffic speed. Drivers tend to be impatient, and will drive through oncoming traffic to get to the front of the line during a red light, creating more congestion and encouraging accidents.

 

Kyrgyzstan continues to improve intercity roads outside of Bishkek, to include the addition of illumination in certain areas. However, local aggressive driving habits cause drivers simply to drive faster on these new surfaces. Speeding is rampant and presents its own hazards. On the open road, vehicles often pass slower automobiles at high rates of speed regardless of oncoming traffic, resulting in numerous fatal accidents. Despite the strides Kyrgyzstan is making in road improvements, the facelift operations typically involve intermittent funding and Chinese companies whose quality of materials is inconsistent. This may lead to uneven wear, potholes, and when there is no contract funding, a hazardous and sudden transfer from improved to unimproved road at a high rate of speed.

 

There are many right-side drive vehicles (with steering wheel and pedals on the right side of the car), even though traffic drives on the right side of the road. This affords drivers limited visibility on two-lane roads, and causes many accidents. In 2019, Kyrgyzstan passed legislation to block the import of right-side drive vehicles. However, vehicles imported into Kyrgyzstan before 2019 remain legal.

 

Plowing and sanding of city streets is limited. Severe winter weather (October-April) makes driving in mountain passes treacherous. Some mountain passes are impassable in winter. Avalanches and mudslides in the winter and spring make driving in high mountain passes a challenge. Mountain roads are often narrow and treacherous, and may close without notice due to snow, ice, or rockslides.

 

Aggressive driving is very common in Kyrgyzstan, and especially the over congested streets of Bishkek. Accidents may lead to violence. There were many hit-and-run accidents in 2017 and 2018, resulting in multiple pedestrian deaths. In 2017, 907 people died in car-related accidents, with 6,346 traffic accidents reported throughout the country, an 8.1% increase from 2016. Minimize most aggressive driving incidents by not escalating the situation (do not yell, curse, or give rude hand signals) and by avoiding vehicles that are driving recklessly. The Embassy strongly recommends that anyone driving purchase and use dashboard cameras. Avoid excessive speed and, when possible, do not drive at night outside of major cities. Prepare for sudden stops or lane changes without a signal. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s report, Driving Overseas: Best Practices.

 

Drivers will sometimes target other drivers in an effort to cause an accident to extort money. There have been reports of traffic police targeting out-of-town drivers to extort fines. The police and other anti-corruption departments are trying to tamp down bribery and corruption, with limited success. Roadside checkpoints are commonplace. Traffic police often use personal vehicles without police identification or special signals to set up checkpoints to extract cash bribes in the form of “fines.” Pay any traffic fines at local banks. Some police vehicles offer terminals for individuals with bankcards to pay fines immediately.

 

Due to heavy traffic and local driving habits, vehicle accidents are common. Fender benders routinely tie up traffic. Local law requires that vehicles involved in an accident remain in place until police arrive. Motorists involved in vehicle accidents may not move the vehicles unless there is a clear safety concern. Authorities may find a driver moving a vehicle at fault for the collision, regardless of any contributing factors. Prepare to wait until the police arrive and complete a report.

 

The legal blood alcohol level for driving in the Kyrgyz Republic is zero. Driving under the influence may land you immediately in jail, no matter how little you consumed.

 

Public Transportation Conditions

 

After dark, exercise caution when taking public transportation. The Embassy prohibits its employees from using unmarked taxis; use radio-dispatched taxis instead, and sit in the back seat. Buckle up, although not all taxicabs have functional seatbelts. Arrange to use a reputable, registered taxi service through your hotel. Within Bishkek, companies such as Namba and Jorgo mirror the Uber business model and feature meters and online interactive apps to secure a ride. When getting a taxi on the street, agree on the price with the driver before getting in, or insist they use the meter, or the price may be significantly higher. It is customary to negotiate a price with a taxi driver; they often quote double the metered tariff. Avoid getting into taxis that already have a passenger.

 

The Embassy prohibits employees from using marshrutka (route) buses, which make a profit by taking in as many passengers as can fit. Additionally, marshrutka drivers drive aggressively and rarely abide by traffic rules. Pickpockets are active on public transportation, and are adept at slicing through purses, backpacks, and clothing. Incidents of sexual harassment and groping while riding marshrutkas occur routinely.

 

Aviation/Airport Conditions

 

As there is no direct commercial air service to the U.S. by carriers registered in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the government of Kyrgyzstan’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards.

 

Travelers arriving at Manas International Airport (FRU) should arrange transportation in advance. Foreign travelers have been the victims of extortion by airport taxi drivers who appeared to be colluding with airport personnel to identify victims.

 

Air travel within Kyrgyzstan can be problematic in the winter, as dense fog and inclement weather can cause significant delays and cancellations. Many local airports outside of Manas lack radar sophistication; as a result, if fog or inclement weather is present, airlines may not land. In 2017, a Turkish-owned CAT Airlines aircraft crashed on approach to the airport, killing four crew and 35 village residents. The reason for the crash is unclear, although weather (thick fog) and pilot error may have played a role. In a 2018 incident, a TezJet flight from Bishkek to Batken had to return to Bishkek only 13 minutes into the flight, after the left engine exploded. The pilot landed the plane safely with no injuries. Authorities opened a criminal case for negligence, which remains open.

 

Terrorism Threat

 

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

 

There is moderate risk from terrorism in Bishkek. Terrorist attacks in the country remain rare, but the 2016 suicide bombing against the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek and continued reports of terrorism-related arrests in 2018 underscore the potential threat facing the country. Reports of returning ISIS fighters continue to permeate the press; however, the government claims an active role in capturing these individuals upon their arrival to Kyrgyzstan. Actual numbers of Kyrgyz who have traveled to Iraq and Syria vary depending on the source and time of reporting. According to government statistics, approximately 850 Kyrgyz citizens have left the country to join ISIS or other extremist groups. Most experts believe the true number is higher. The outflow of Kyrgyz citizens going to fight in foreign conflict zones has decreased significantly in recent years, according to government officials. According to available information in 2018, Kyrgyzstan’s Anti-Terrorism Center reported that law enforcement agencies initiated 158 criminal cases – 60% in connection with extremism and 40% with transnational terrorism. The Center added that police arrested 78 Kyrgyz and 23 foreigners for membership in terrorist organizations and extremism. There were no reported terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan in 2018. 

 

Security forces conducted several special operations against unspecified international terrorist organizations in 2018, capturing individuals who were allegedly planning attacks or recruiting locals to fight for terrorist organizations in Syria and Afghanistan. Porous, mountainous borders, particularly in the south, make Kyrgyzstan a potential transit route for terrorists.

 

·         In October 2018, authorities reportedly uncovered a sleeper cell consisting of five foreigners and four Kyrgyz citizens recruiting locals to fight in Syria and Afghanistan, and reportedly planning to carry out attacks in the Kyrgyz Republic.

·         In March 2018, authorities detained a Kyrgyz citizen who reportedly had trained in a terrorist camp in Syria. Authorities claimed the detainee returned to the Kyrgyz Republic to carry out a terror attack using an improvised explosive device.  

·         In August 2017, during the presidential campaign season, local media reported that government forces stopped an attack planned to occur on Kyrgyz Independence Day. The interdiction resulted in the capture and death of purported militants, and seizure of explosives. This reporting is not independently confirmed.

·         In August 2016, a vehicle-borne explosive device detonated at the Chinese Embassy, less than 250 meters from the U.S. Embassy. Media reported that the attack killed the driver and injured three others. According to government statements, the attacker was an ethnic Uighur and a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

 

Anti-U.S./Anti-Western Sentiment

 

Extremist groups express anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S. government or private interests in the region, including in Kyrgyzstan.

 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

 

Civil Unrest

 

There is moderate risk from civil unrest in Bishkek. Despite a history of civil unrest and ethnic violence, recent local city council elections, a presidential election, and voting on a national constitutional referendum (supporting the adoption of constitutional amendments) have proceeded peacefully. Kyrgyzstan has the propensity for small, local, violent and nonviolent events to occur spontaneously. The 2018 failure of Bishkek’s central heating plant resulted in outrage over the perceived corruption that lead to the plant failure. Several protests occurred, but all were peaceful. Expression of outrage over social media is becoming more prevalent; the platform often serves as the tool for organizing rallies and demonstrations.

 

The end of 2018 saw the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment fueled by the plight of ethnic Kyrgyz in China. This sentiment is continuing into 2019. Authorities are following the activities of ultra-national groups to protect Kyrgyzstan’s economic ties to China. Travelers of Chinese ethnicity to Kyrgyzstan should maintain a keen awareness to their surroundings.

 

Authorities strive to maintain control over possible civil unrest by granting protest permits to control the time and location of protests and dedicate additional resources to keep the peace. Authorities sometimes close large public squares to traffic in order to accommodate protestors and focus security resources.

 

Religious/Ethnic Violence

 

There have been no recent large-scale inter-ethnic clashes. However, the potential for ethnic clashes, especially in the south, remains. The government has yet to investigate ethnic clashes from 2010.

 

While there is a longstanding dispute concerning sections of the Kyrgyz border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that sometimes results in skirmishes in Batken Oblast (resulting in a few deaths and casualties over the last few years), improved relations between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors have relieved tensions along the border. In 2018, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan initiated a land swap that resulted in the closure of a Kyrgyz exclave located in Uzbekistan near the border of Osh Oblast.

 

Post-specific Concerns

 

Environmental Hazards

 

Kyrgyzstan is located in an active seismic zone and is subject to frequent tremors and occasional strong earthquakes. In 2017, Kyrgyzstan recorded 66 earthquakes. Buildings and homes generally do not meet U.S. seismic standards. Store water, food, and medical supplies to last you at least three days. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Central Asia Earthquake Preparedness.

 

Critical Infrastructure

 

The Ministry of Emergency Situations notes uranium mine tailings are scattered throughout Kyrgyzstan. The uranium mine at Kara Balta (about 50 kilometers west of Bishkek) is active.

 

Privacy Concerns

 

Local security services watch foreign visitors and may place foreigners under surveillance. Authorities may monitor hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, internet use, and fax machines onsite or remotely, and search personal possessions without consent or knowledge. Business travelers should be particularly mindful that trade secrets, negotiating positions, and other business sensitive information might be vulnerable to sharing with competitors, counterparts, or regulatory and legal entities. Weigh these risks against your desire to stay connected, and take precautions to protect personal information.

 

Ensure local providers for banking, security, and medical treatment are reputable organizations. Be cautious with the information that you make available. It is not uncommon for employees of these organizations to pass sensitive personal medical, financial, and banking information to criminal or intelligence elements.

 

Personal Identity Concerns

 

Discrimination against ethnic groups, especially ethnic Uzbeks, remains a problem.

 

The Kyrgyz Republic does not recognize sexual orientation as a protected category within the context of discrimination. There are no laws that define hate crimes in the Kyrgyz Republic to include LGBTI individuals. LGBTI individuals may be subject to discrimination in the application of current laws; many report regular threats and harassment at the hands of law enforcement officials.

 

Public transportation, sidewalks and road crossings, hotels, and restaurants are rarely wheelchair accessible.

 

It is illegal to practice a religion in groups or to proselytize without first registering with the State Commission of Religious Affairs.

 

Drug-related Crimes

 

While the use of narcotics and illegal drugs is relatively low, drug trafficking is a problem. Because of porous borders and close proximity to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan is a transit country for illegal drugs, which are smuggled to Russia, Europe, and occasionally North America. In 2018, there were 24 reported drug related incidents.

 

Corruption and lack of training and equipment for law enforcement agencies hamper efforts to control the flow of drugs. In 2016, while conducting law enforcement reform, authorities disbanded the State Drug Control Service and passed its duties to three agencies: the Health Ministry, the Ministry of Interior, and the State Service for Fighting Economic Crimes. A January 2018 drug raid at a local club called “Garage 312” saw the arrest of more than 50 people related to drug use at the venue.

 

Kidnapping Threat

 

Kidnapping of foreigners is very rare.

 

The practice of bridal kidnapping is common in rural areas, although it is sometimes staged based on a pre-agreement with the bride or her family. There was a report of an attempted bridal kidnapping/sexual assault of a Polish national in 2017.

 

Express kidnapping for ransom does occur, with a reported incident in Bishkek in 2017 involving four taxi drivers and a local resident. The government cautions foreigners against traveling close to the border with Tajikistan, as kidnappings for ransom have taken place there. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

 

Police Response

 

Police and security forces lack proper salaries and equipment. Officials have solicited bribes to supplement their insufficient incomes. The quality of police service may vary significantly. Police officers rarely speak English; one must usually speak Russian or Kyrgyz to converse with local authorities. Vehicle and pedestrian stops of local nationals and foreigners are frequent.

 

Despite these hurdles, senior leadership within the police are developing and implementing programs aimed at curbing corruption. One such initiative was the procurement of handheld speed cameras with video recording capabilities. If police stop a driver, the operator of the vehicle has the right to review the footage of the violation prior to paying a fine.

 

The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has recruited more than 60 officers to form a new Tourist Police unit in Bishkek. The unit consists of officers with knowledge of numerous foreign languages, including English, receiving training to specifically deal with issues faced by visiting foreigners, such as assistance when lost, recovering lost or stolen items, and filling out police reports. The program focuses on Bishkek, and rolls out in other tourist destinations later. Tourist police will patrol around the airport, in hotel and shopping districts, and at local tourist sites.

 

Many transactions and situations require passports (e.g. hotel check-in, police inquiries). Carry the proper identity documents or a certified copy of your passport and visa with you, and cooperate with authorities if they stop you for questioning. The U.S. Embassy may assist you with making a certified copy (the fee for this service is US$50). Carry at least two photocopies of your passport’s photo page: one on your person and another in a safe location.

 

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

 

If police detain or harass you, contact the American Citizen Services unit (ACS) at the U.S. Embassy. Do not act upon police requests, whether in civilian dress or in uniform, if they have no official identification. Do not get into cars with anyone you do not know, even if the person claims to be a police officer.

 

Crime Victim Assistance

 

The local emergency number is 102. However, operators are likely to speak only Russian or Kyrgyz.

 

Police/Security Agencies

 

The MVD is the central law enforcement body. The Traffic Police (GAI) is the MVD entity responsible for the regulation of traffic and investigating traffic accidents. The MVD is essentially a national police agency in charge of investigation of all types of crimes, to include drug control function and combating violent extremism.

 

The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) is Kyrgyzstan’s main federal security agency with broad functions akin to those of an intelligence gathering and a law enforcement agency, specializing in counterintelligence and counterterrorism activities. The GKNB combines functions and powers similar to those exercised by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and National Security Agency.

 

Medical Emergencies

 

Medical care is often inadequate. There is a shortage of basic medical supplies. Health care resources are limited and often below U.S. standards. Doctors and medical industry staff rarely speak English, and prices for treatment are not fixed. Use a translator or Russian/Kyrgyz speaking friend or family member to assist with medical treatment. U.S. citizens often travel outside of Kyrgyzstan for medical treatment, including most routine procedures.

 

Call 103 for the Bishkek City Ambulance or 151 for commercial ambulance service. Operators have limited to no English language ability, and will only understand Russian or Kyrgyz.

 

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

 

Access a list of ambulance services, clinics, hospitals, dentists and pharmacies on the Embassy website.

 

Insurance Guidance

 

Doctors and hospitals often expect cash payment for health services prior to dispensing medication or providing treatment. Check what your health insurance plan covers when you are outside of the U.S. Purchase medical evacuation (medevac) insurance before traveling to Kyrgyzstan.

 

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

 

The level of air pollution in Bishkek is very high, occasionally exceeding maximum allowable concentrations several times over, especially in the city center.  

 

Food sanitation can be a problem. Travelers in the countryside should drink bottled water and avoid tap water. For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, I’m Drinking What in My Water?

 

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Kyrgyzstan.

 

OSAC Country Council Information

 

The Bishkek Country Council meets quarterly. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s South & Central Asia team with any questions.

 

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

 

U.S. Embassy Bishkek: 171 Prospect Mira, Bishkek 720016

Hours of Operation: 0830-1700

 

Embassy Contact Numbers

 

Operator:  996-312-597-000

Emergency After-Hours:  996-312-597-733

Website:  http://kg.usembassy.gov/

 

Embassy Guidance

 

Register your trip online with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). If traveling in Kyrgyzstan, consider obtaining visas for Russia, as commercial air travel out of Kyrgyzstan is limited.

 

Kyrgyzstan requires all visitors staying longer than 60 days to register with the State Registration Service. Additional information on the registration process is available on the website for the Kyrgyz State Registration Service.

 

Additional Resource: Kyrgyzstan Country Information Sheet

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