Kyrgyzstan: As net tightens around Matraimov, Japarov is clearing field of viable threats

Kyrgyzstan: As net tightens around Matraimov, Japarov is clearing field of viable threats
Matraimov speaking in an online video appeal in 2019.
By Ayzirek Imanaliyeva for Eurasianet March 1, 2024

There was a time when many in Kyrgyzstan’s political elite would have been honoured to enjoy an association with Rayimbek Matraimov.

That remained the case even after investigative journalists published a series of bombshell reports in 2019 exposing how the former deputy head of the customs services had allegedly amassed vast riches through smuggling. Officials at the time mumbled weak promises to investigate the claims. Those pledges came to nothing.

Now that the government is putting the squeeze on Matraimov, however, the fallen kingmaker’s erstwhile allies are scrambling desperately to distance themselves from him. Even his brother, a member of parliament, has got in on the act.

“By law, when a person reaches the age of 18, their parents are no longer responsible for them. A brother is likewise not responsible for their younger sibling. He can answer for his own work,” Iskender Matraimov told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk, earlier this month.

Iskender Matraimov was just one of multiple MPs to enjoy his once-powerful brother’s political patronage.

On February 15, a pro-government television station, Regionran a report detailing the alleged links between several of those MPs to the former customs boss and concluded with a demand that they all surrender their seats.

This generated the string of disavowals.

One came from Nadira Narmatova, who has sought to curry the government’s favour by casting herself as an attack dog against critics of the authorities.

Another MP, Aibek Osmonov, who is on record showering praise on Matraimov’s charitable Ismail-Ata Foundation, said he refused to give up his seat. The only reason he knew Matraimov was that they grew up in the same district in the southern city of Osh, he insisted.

“The whole area knows him. We all know each other. And if everyone knows each other, then there will be some kind of relationship, right?” he said.

Shailoobek Atazov conceded that he had organised rallies in support of Matraimov in 2021, but added that he was, after all, “elected by the people,” so there was no reason for him to resign his mandate.

These protestations have not proven sufficient.

Sensing the mounting pressure, Iskender Matraimov and another deputy, Nurlan Razhabaliyev, also an ex-customs official, eventually agreed to leave parliament. The Central Election Commission accepted their resignations on February 22. A week later, several media outlets reported that Iskender Matraimov, along with Osmonov and Atazov, had slipped out of the country. Osmonov told reporters he had gone abroad for his annual medical check-up.

As for Rayimbek Matraimov himself, he is said to be on the run overseas. This revelation emerged in January, when the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, announced that the government was poised to confiscate the former customs official’s considerable assets and properties. Matraimov is now reportedly being sought on charges that include “forcibly depriving a person of their freedom.”

“We will take away all his property in Osh and in all of Kyrgyzstan. We will not leave him even 100 square metres of land. And even if he returns, he will no longer be that once-strong Rayim Million,” Tashiyev said, deploying Matraimov’s widely used nickname.

The reference to Osh, which is the name of the eponymous region, was not incidental. The south of Kyrgyzstan was Matraimov’s stronghold and the site of many of his properties.

Multiple residential and commercial properties belonging to the Matraimov family, in Osh and Bishkek, worth around $80mn in the aggregate, according to security officials, have now been seized.

The team around President Sadyr Japarov will point to these developments as the fulfilment of promises made shortly after Japarov seized power amid protests against hotly contested parliamentary elections in October 2020.

Matraimov was, indeed, arguably a key trigger of the events that led to Japarov’s rise to office. Observers of Kyrgyzstan’s political scene universally agreed that those elections were poised to produce a chamber stuffed with Matraimov proxies and loyalists of then-president Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

An initially peaceful rally on the evening of October 5 imperceptibly graduated into turmoil. By the following morning, Japarov, a firebrand ex-MP who had been serving a prison sentence for hostage-taking, had been released and addressed his supporters in downtown Bishkek.

A couple of days later, Japarov delivered another emotion-laden speech to a boisterous crowd in which he vowed that he would throw Matraimov into prison.

“Rayim-Million will be arrested. I have not yet fully got into running state affairs. But as soon as I do, he will be arrested,” said Japarov, who was still at that stage jostling for power.

Sure enough, once Japarov had succeeded in chasing out Jeenbekov, the security services declared that they had filed corruption charges against Matraimov. This was a largely performative exercise, however. The jailed ex-customs boss consented to plead guilty to some corruption charges and was levied a paltry $3,000 fine. He also agreed on the side to hand over two billion som ($24.5mn) in cash and assets to the state in compensation for damage caused to the country’s coffers by his activities. And again he was free.

This relatively light treatment gave rise to speculation about whether Matraimov’s arrest  was simply theatre, and if he might continue to play some kind of role in backroom politics. Or at least be allowed to enjoy his ill-gotten riches in freedom.

If any deal was hatched, it was definitively nixed in January.

Political analyst Medet Tiulegenov told Eurasianet he believes that this latest assault on Matraimov stems from Japarov’s desire to be seen as keeping his word.

“Japarov has mentally drawn the line that half of his [six-year] presidential term has passed and that a second one is looming. And so this is the time to remember what promises were made and … to somehow try to fulfil them,” Tiulegenov said.

There is another, harder-edged and more pragmatic, explanation, though.

The formal political opposition to Japarov has all but been sidelined. The October 2022 arrest of dozens of activists campaigning against a land swap deal with Uzbekistan has cowed many into silence. Some figures who nevertheless insisted on being troublesome have been dealt with. The independent media scene is wilting under growing pressure. Nongovernmental groups are in the crosshairs too.

In truth, though, the elements deemed as posing the most substantial danger to the authority wielded by Japarov and his closest associate, the security services chief, Tashiyev, were those operating in the shadows.

Matraimov was one.

Another was powerful crime boss Kamchybek Kolbayev, a figure so notorious that he was even wanted by the US government. But in October, Kolbayev was cornered in a cafe in Bishkek and killed in an armed standoff with security service special forces troops.

Tashiyev declared all-out war on organised crime after that.

“From now on, in our country there will be no thieves-in-law, no leaders of organised crime groups, no criminal organisations,” Tashiyev said in a speech.

Tiulegenov said that the fight against Matraimov and the killing of Kolbayev should be seen as links in the same chain.

“This is a clearing of the field of possible competitors,” he said.

Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.