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Qishloq Ovozi

Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov (left) walks with ex-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in Bishkek on October 16, the day after Japarov took over presidential powers.

In less than three weeks Sadyr Japarov went from being a prisoner to being, concurrently, Kyrgyzstan's prime minister and acting president.

Japarov has been moving rapidly -- naming new officials, pressing forward on conducting both parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming months, and pushing for changes in the constitution that would reverse Kyrgyzstan's course from moving toward a parliamentary form of government, to moving back toward a presidential one.

There have been high-profile detentions of suspected top figures in organized crime and an economic amnesty to allow those who illegally took money outside the country to bring that money back legally.

On this week's Majlis Podcast, RFE/RL's media-relations manager for South and Central Asia, Muhammad Tahir, moderates a discussion on what's been happening in Kyrgyzstan since Sadyr Japarov was freed from prison during the unrest sparked by the highly questionable results of the October 4 parliamentary elections.

This week's guests are all from Bishkek: Asel Doolotkeldieva, associate researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek; Perizat Saitburkhanova, a local TV journalist; Mursuljan Namazaaly, founder of a Bishkek-based research center, the Central Asia Free Market Institute; and Bruce Pannier, the author of the Qishloq Ovozi blog.

Majlis Podcast: Power Grab In Kyrgyzstan
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Listen to the podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

From untouchable to handcuffs: Raimbek Matraimov is detained in Bishkek on October 20.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) announced on October 20 that it had detained Raimbek Matraimov, an influential former deputy chief of the State Customs Service implicated in a massive corruption scheme but long regarded as untouchable. A few hours later he was placed under house arrest.

Matraimov had so far avoided judicial scrutiny over allegations that he used his position to enrich himself and his family in connection with hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden transactions.

Raimbek and his brothers have been the focus of several joint investigative reports by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Kyrgyzstan's independent Kloop news website, and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that allege that Matraimov had for years enabled and profited massively from a smuggling empire run by a secretive Uyghur family and used some of the proceeds to buy influence.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Matraimov Kingdom

While it represents a surprising potential turnabout in a case that has stunned Kyrgyzstan's 6 million people in its daring and magnitude, the detention of the man known to many as Raimbek "Millioni" was not entirely unexpected.

UKMK chief Kamchybek Tashiev announced within days of his appointment in the midst of a postelection crisis on October 19 that 40 or so people were wanted in connection with an alleged corruption network within the Customs Service.

"I will give [UKMK officers] the task of finding Matraimov and holding him accountable, if he is guilty," Tashiev vowed.

The next day, a UKMK statement said Matraimov had been brought to the committee's headquarters and that "it has been established" that a corruption network set up by Matraimov and other top officials in the Customs Service had functioned since 2016 "to extract shadow income...as a result of which the state budget suffered large-scale damage."

The UKMK had summoned Matraimov for questioning about many of those same allegations in November 2019, but he had immediately been released.

On October 20, Kyrgyz media outlets carried images of Matraimov being handcuffed by plainclothes security officials as he was taken into custody.

Raimbek Matraimov is detained in Bishkek on October 20.
Raimbek Matraimov is detained in Bishkek on October 20.

The UKMK statement and photos of a handcuffed Matraimov could hint at the likelihood of charges against the former deputy Customs Service chief.

Events have been tumultuous in Kyrgyzstan since the announcement of official results of the October 4 parliamentary elections sparked protests that brought down the government and ushered in Sadyr Japarov, who was freed from prison at the height of the crisis, to lead the country less than two weeks later.

They have left people inside and outside Kyrgyzstan confused as to what exactly is happening.

But the rapid-fire pace of events also raises questions about the motivation of the new Kyrgyz authorities under the leadership of Prime Minister and acting President Japarov.

After his rise to the prime minister's post following more than a week of failed efforts by the parliament to muster a quorum, Japarov quickly pledged to look into the accusations swirling around Matraimov and alleged corruption within the Customs Service.

He then appointed his longtime friend Tashiev to head the UKMK.

Japarov had been imprisoned for hostage-taking in the northeastern town of Karakol in October 2013 while he was leading protests against joint Kyrgyz-Canadian gold-mining operations at Kumtor. After fleeing the country, he was finally apprehended in 2017. He was then convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison (later reduced on appeal to 10 years).

Japarov was an unlikely choice to become prime minister, and his power base remains unclear.

There have been unsubstantiated suggestions in the media that organized-crime groups are behind Japarov's meteoric rise to power, but the Matraimov family was often named as one of the likely groups behind Japarov.

That now seems improbable, given Matraimov's detention (although it is worth noting that Matraimov was detained in Bishkek rather than his native Osh, in the south).

There are other peculiarities about the circumstances.

There were rumors that Matraimov had fled the country. Instead, initial reports suggest he was in the capital before being detained in the company of his lawyer at a gas station near the UKMK building. The two agents who detained Matraimov were reportedly Matraimov's own godsons.

Japarov's fledgling leadership could no doubt benefit from some added legitimacy, and bringing a notorious suspected gangster to justice could go some way toward achieving that aim.

But it is worth noting that Matraimov is so far merely detained, not charged.

And the news of Matraimov's detention came the day after Kyrgyzstan's new foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakbekov, reportedly phoned EU special representative for Central Asia Peter Burian to request financial help for Kyrgyzstan.

Money has been a big problem for Kyrgyzstan -- one that Japarov's government might need to urgently to address if it is to be accepted by the Kyrgyz public.

Whether that means somehow seeking to recapture some of the alleged funds at the center of years of fraud and embezzlement could provide clues to Matraimov's precarious situation, the possibility that other criminal groups might be on the rise in Kyrgyzstan, and how the Kyrgyz authorities plan to proceed.

Until Matraimov is formally charged and put on trial, questions will swirl about the nature of the UKMK's latest moves against him.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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