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Kyrgyzstan's Latest Anti-Corruption Campaign: Is It Real Or Just For Show?


Raimbek Matraimov, the former deputy of Kyrgyzstan's Customs Service, is detained by Kyrgyz law enforcement at a gas station last month

Kyrgyzstan has a new leader who has already embarked on his own anti-corruption campaign.

All of the leaders in Central Asia have declared such campaigns, some of them several times, but it seems like an absolute necessity to do so after there is a change in leadership and someone new is in power.

Kyrgyzstan got just such a change in early October after the results of the flawed October 4 parliamentary elections were announced, leading to protests in the capital that brought the government down and saw Sadyr Japarov -- who was in prison during the elections -- unexpectedly be elevated to prime minister and, later, acting president.

Japarov, who has limited political experience and a checkered past, was in prison for kidnapping, so a good old-fashioned anti-corruption campaign was just the thing to get some popular support to swing behind him.

The people, especially in economically challenged countries like Kyrgyzstan, always enjoy watching officials and inexplicably wealthy businesspeople get taken down. It seems like justice is being served.

The current campaign in Kyrgyzstan began on October 16. That was the day Japarov appointed his longtime friend and well-known politician Kamchybek Tashiev to be head of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK).

Kamchybek Tashiev
Kamchybek Tashiev

Looking at all the news reports since then, the campaign has been an unbelievable success, at least at uncovering "corruption networks" and estimating the huge amounts of money they have siphoned off the country.

Notorious 'Kingpins' Detained

The campaign started with two of the country's most notorious alleged underworld kingpins being detained: Raimbek Matraimov on October 20 and Kamchy Kolbaev, aka Kolya Kyrgyz, two days later.

It was simple to find them. Both were in the capital, Bishkek, and Matraimov was actually at a gas station near the UKMK headquarters.

Matraimov was taken into custody as part of an investigation into corruption in the Customs Service, where he was the deputy chief from 2015 to 2017.

How A Kyrgyz Customs Chief Enabled A Secretive Smuggling Empire

He has been the subject of several lengthy investigative reports by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Kyrgyzstan's independent Kloop news website, and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service (known locally as Azattyk) in which Matraimov is alleged to have taken some $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan.

Matraimov was questioned and placed under house arrest after pledging not to leave the country and to pay 2 billion soms (about $24 million) in damages to the country.

Kamchy Kolbaev in a court in Bishkek in 2013
Kamchy Kolbaev in a court in Bishkek in 2013

Kolbaev is being held in penal colony No. 47 on suspicion of organizing and participating in a criminal group.

He has been on the U.S. Treasury's list since 2012 as a "significant foreign narcotics trafficker." Others have connected Kolbaev to murder, human trafficking, and extortion.

But the anti-corruption campaign has continued since the detention of Matraimov and Kolbaev.

A Busy Month

On October 27, the State Agency for Combating Economic Crime, the Kyrgyz financial police, said they discovered a corruption network involving employees of the Social Fund and the State Tax Service that had cost the state about 9 million soms (about $110,000).

Shortly afterwards, the financial police detained Kanat Jetenbaev, the head of the department of freight traffic and commercial work at the state railway company, Kyrgyz Temir Zholy, who had allegedly been cutting up railway wagons and selling off the scrap metal.

On October 30, the financial police announced that the company MIS, which rents buildings to universities, private schools, stores, and other enterprises had avoided paying 90 million soms (about $1.1 million) in taxes.

That same day, the UKMK announced that it had found out that the State Veterinary and Agricultural Control Inspectorate had been fabricating figures on the size of herds and the cost of vaccines, milking the country for about 31 million soms (about $370,000).

Just a few days later (November 2) the financial police said they were investigating a criminal group that had smuggled some 1.1 billion soms (about $180 million) out of Kyrgyzstan and into China by claiming the money was payment for goods. In fact, there were no goods.

On November 5, the UMKM's anti-corruption department said it discovered that from 1993 to 2002 top officials from Kyrgyzstan, in collusion with representatives of foreign banks, had a network that funneled out of the country some $1 billion of credit extended to Kyrgyzstan.

The UKMK's press center said on November 5 that since October 15 "the budget of the Kyrgyz Republic had received 575 million soms (almost $7 million) in compensation for damages."

It is interesting that the UKMK and financial police seem to be uncovering more corruption schemes in one month than previous anti-corruption campaigns ever uncovered.

But there are some things worth noting here.

Purchasing Loyalty?

Anti-corruption campaigns, most certainly in Central Asia, are often a way to redistribute the wealth and this is quite often the case when there is a leadership change.

New leaders have their own supporters and loyalty is often rewarded or purchased.

Acting Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)
Acting Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)

All of the corruption schemes that have been revealed since October 15 involved wrongdoing that occurred either before or after Kurmanbek Bakiev's term as president (2005-2010).

Japarov was a chief in the anti-corruption agency under Bakiev and the ousted president's time in office is looked upon as an era of rampant corruption in Kyrgyzstan.

Japarov has said he sees no reason to arrest Matraimov since that would not solve anything and Tashiev said it will be enough for those who illegally made money to simply return it and there is no need to put them in prison.

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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