Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The Kolbaev Connection

By RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, Kloop, and Bellingcat

December 14, 2020

A private resort village on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul is among the clues that connect former Kyrgyz customs boss Raimbek Matraimov and notorious criminal leader Kamchy Kolbaev.

Raimbek Matraimov, a shadowy Kyrgyz power broker and former customs official, is an intensely private person. But his wife, Uulkan Turgunova, is not — and finding her social-media presence was a gold mine for journalists investigating the family.

Many of her posts contained clues that enabled reporters to pinpoint the well-known resorts and hotels she visited across the world, even as her husband earned an official salary of just over $1,000 per month.

For years, Turgunova had a penchant for exotic locales far from her native Kyrgyzstan. But this summer, reporters noticed she appeared to be holidaying closer to home.

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In August, she posted several images showing her posing on a well-manicured path, in a dining room with a view outside, in a garden, and on a boardwalk by the water. Reporters were able to use geolocation techniques to track her location to the Kaganat resort on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s premier tourist destination.

Kaganat is an unusual place. It doesn’t appear on Google Maps. It has no website and does not advertise. The territory is guarded and protected by a fence. Its two dozen villas cannot be rented, a manager told journalists. Instead, they can only be purchased, and only with the approval of the owners. None are currently available.

Turgunova’s photos of her vacation in Kaganat enabled reporters to identify the specific villa where she stayed. That house, land records show, is one of several in the resort that are formally owned by Imidzhstroi, the construction company that built it, suggesting either a secret purchase or some kind of special arrangement.

Imidzhstroi’s owner, former legislator Sergei Ibragimov, declined to comment. But the Matraimovs’ mysterious stay in Kaganat is significant because the resort has a more controversial backer. It is said to be operated by Kamchibek “Kamchy” Kolbaev, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most notorious criminal figures.

Multiple locals have pointed to the mob boss as the man behind the development. And a senior Imidzhstroi representative, contacted by a reporter posing as a potential buyer, described Kolbaev as its “owner.”

With no documents linking either Matraimov or Kolbaev to the resort, or to each other, the facts surrounding the Matraimov family’s stay at Kaganat remain elusive. Neither has responded to requests for comment.

But this is only the latest piece of evidence linking the two men.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, Kloop, and Bellingcat have spent nearly two years investigating Matraimov. In the course of our reporting, three separate sources spoke of a relationship between him and Kolbaev. One of them — a professional money launderer who was deeply enmeshed in Matraimov’s business and was later murdered in Istanbul — described Kolbaev as Matraimov’s “partner and protector.”

At the time, the information was not published out of consideration for the safety of those involved. But Kolbaev is now in jail in the aftermath of an October uprising fueled by disgust with rampant corruption and vote-buying, while Matraimov was briefly arrested and remains under investigation for corruption. With the emergence of even more evidence of personal ties between the country’s most-powerful mob boss and one of its biggest political operators, the story can now be told.

Turgunova’s Instagram photo shows her enjoying Lake Issyk-Kul at the Kaganat resort. CREDIT: Turgunova/Instagram

It’s one that raises important questions about the role of organized crime in the country’s government.

Matraimov and Kolbaev did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Kolya Kyrgyz’

Framed by dramatic mountain peaks, Lake Issyk-Kul is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most striking natural wonders. The villages that dot its shores earn income from hotels, resorts, and restaurants that attract visitors from the country’s capital, Bishkek, or from further afield in Kazakhstan and Russia.

But the area and its tourism sector are plagued by organized crime.

In the early hours of January 7, 2018, a restaurant called Osminog (“Octopus”) in the lakeside village of Bosteri was destroyed in a fire. In a TV interview, owner Askat Asankadyrov didn’t mince words about what he thought had happened. “In July when I was working, some unknown people came and extorted money from me,” he said. “They presented themselves as members of the organized criminal group of Kamchy Kolbaev.”

After refusing their demand for $500 in “protection” money, Asankadyrov said, he went to the police. But the case made no progress, and an anonymous caller later told him he would regret going to authorities. A few months later, his restaurant went up in flames.

Kolbaev, the criminal boss blamed by Asankadyrov, is known for extracting money from local businesses. He has also long been seen as a dominant force in Kyrgyz organized crime. In 2007, the U.S. State Department described him as “the leader of the most influential criminal group” in the country.

Many of his activities are connected to the international drug trade. In part, he is credited with streamlining the so-called “northern route” for smuggling heroin out of Afghanistan via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Eurasian security issues, has told OCCRP, Kolbaev forged links between some of the major players on the route in return for a cut, turning an inefficient, ad hoc process into one that could accommodate industrial-scale loads.

In a reflection of high-level concern about his activities, Kolbaev was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department under two separate programs: first as a “foreign narcotics kingpin” in 2011, and again as a member of a “transnational criminal organization” in 2012. The latter designation, then being used for the first time, identified him as a member of the Brothers’ Circle, a term used by the U.S. government to describe a group of high-level criminals from the former Soviet republics. To this day, the U.S. State Department offers a reward of up to $1 million for information that could help disrupt Kolbaev’s network.

Kolbaev’s first major known conviction came in 2000, when he received a 25-year prison term for the attempted murder of his one-time criminal boss, Rysbek Akmatbaev, and the murders of two of his men. After serving six years, Kolbaev was moved to a penal colony, from which he managed to escape.

This would not be the last time he saw the inside of a Kyrgyz prison. But he wielded powerful political leverage. A year after his getaway, the case against him was dropped. And in 2013, after being charged with several offenses in a separate case including kidnapping, weapons, and drug crimes — he received only a three-year sentence for extortion and was released after serving just 18 months.

In the meantime, according to multiple media reports, Kolbaev had been officially crowned in Moscow as a “thief in law” to replace Akmatbaev, who in the end was murdered by unknown parties in 2006. The title of “thief in law” refers to outlaws who take oaths of loyalty to each other and pledge never to cooperate with the legal government. It has endured in the countries of the former Soviet Union for many decades. Today, thieves in law are linked to illicit activity across the globe. Once “crowned,” they pledge to live exclusively off their criminal profits and to support other members.

Kolbaev’s home base is his birthplace of Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on the north side of Lake Issyk-Kul. He is known to wield significant political influence there: Two of the town’s recent mayors, including the current one, are affiliated with Kolbaev.

Local Connections

Mirlan Maratov, who was mayor of Cholpon-Ata from 2010 to 2013, is a colorful character. On the day of the 2015 parliamentary elections, he was arrested for drunkenly phoning in bomb threats to electoral precincts. He has also served as the director of a sports and recreation complex in the mountains above Cholpon-Ata that is owned by Kolbaev’s mother. Maratov did not respond to requests for comment.

Talant Sarbagyshev, a former police officer and Cholpon-Ata’s current mayor, was briefly involved in an apparent corporate raid that benefitted Matraimov’s partners.

Three knowledgeable inside sources who cannot be named to protect their safety alleged that Sarbagyshev has associations with Kolbaev. The mayor won his seat as a member of Tabylga, a local political party reportedly affiliated with Kolbaev. He was also recently a candidate for parliament with Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, a political party associated with the Matraimov family.

Asked about his connections with Kolbaev, Sarbagyshev noted that Cholpon-Ata is a small town. “Every one of us chose our own path,” he said. “Who knew who each of us would become? I’ve known him since I was seven years old. I don’t hide this.” Kolbaev had no direct influence on his work as mayor, he said.

Cholpon-Ata is also where Kolbaev built his own private real estate development — which recently attracted a familiar face.

‘We Don’t Sell To Just Anyone’

On a satellite image of Cholpon-Ata’s waterfront, the Kaganat development stands out for its lush greenery, the size of its houses, and its exclusivity.

Kaganat stands out on the Cholpon-Ata waterfront. CREDIT: Google Maps

Other nearby hotels and resorts are labeled on Google Maps. Kaganat is not. Nor is gaining access in person an easy feat. The resort is a private, fenced development protected by security guards. In addition to about two dozen villas, it hosts the exclusive Flamingo Bay restaurant, a swimming pool, a playground, a private beach, an unusual gym on the lake, a football field, and an apartment building under construction.

The Kaganat gym on Lake Issyk-Kul. CREDIT: OCCRP

According to property records, the entire territory was initially owned by Imidzhstroi, a construction firm owned by former member of parliament Sergei Ibragimov. The company, which still operates the resort and owns some of its common facilities, has sold most of the villas it built there to various buyers.

However, though his name is not connected to the development by any public documents, the true owner of Kaganat is known to be Kamchy Kolbaev. Four Cholpon-Ata locals, who are not being named for their safety, told reporters on a recent visit that the resort belongs to him.

A senior Imidzhstroi representative, speaking to a reporter who posed as a potential buyer, confirmed the connection explicitly.

The development was an exclusive one, he explained. “We’re a closed little town, and the residents are members of the club,” he said. “We don’t advertise. We come to every client individually, and plus we don’t sell to just anyone.”

Asked to clarify, he said anyone who wanted to buy a villa in Kaganat needed high-level approval. “We have an owner of this little town, an owner of the land. He’s the one who decides,” he said.

“That is, I need to speak with Kamchybek Asanbekovich [Kolbaev]?” the reporter asked.

“Not only with him,” the Imidzhstroi representative said. “He has partners, and you have to agree with all the members of the club.” However, he apologized, none of the villas in the resort were currently available for purchase.

According to land records obtained by reporters, four of the villas have not been formally sold and are still owned by Imidzhstroi, at least on paper. It is one of these homes, a larger building with a direct view of the water, that was used by the Matraimov family this summer.

The initial evidence for this came from photographs posted on Instagram by Turgunova, Matraimov’s wife, on August 2. They show her posing on the development’s well-manicured path, which — along with its distinctive streetlight — led reporters to Kaganat after searching through satellite photos of Issyk-Kul resorts. Another photo of Turgunova posing in a yard next to one of the villas shows a bed of white rocks or gravel, which helped pinpoint the family’s specific villa on satellite photos.

One of Turgunova’s Instagram posts from Kaganat. CREDIT: Turgunova/Instagram
Reporters identified the villa that appears in Turgunova’s photos by comparing it to a satellite photo. CREDIT: Turgunova/Instagram, Google Maps (Collage by OCCRP)

On a visit to Kaganat, a reporter found confirmation that the family was still at the resort, seeing that Turgunova’s son Bakai was among several men playing on the football field. Unlike the other villas in the development, the villa the Matraimovs used, from which loud music was playing, is gated and surrounded by thick vegetation.

On a subsequent visit, when a reporter approached the guards to drop off a letter for Raimbek Matraimov, the guards initially agreed to pass it along. But when the reporter insisted on making the handoff personally, a guard went inside to make a phone call. When he returned, he said no one by that name lived in Kaganat.

Warnings And A Murder

The Matraimovs’ stay in a villa in Kolbaev’s exclusive property development adds to a growing body of evidence of a relationship between the former official and the underground criminal boss.

Since early 2019, reporters from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, and Kloop have published an extensive series of investigative reports about Raimbek Matraimov and his patronage of an underground smuggling empire that flourished during his time at the customs service.

Over that period, claims of Kolbaev’s involvement in Matraimov’s affairs were made on several occasions. They were not published due to safety considerations and because of the difficulty of proving them without documentation.

In particular, Kolbaev’s name was repeatedly mentioned by Aierken Saimaiti, a professional money launderer whose confessions to reporters helped unravel both the smuggling scheme and Matraimov’s involvement. Saimaiti described Kolbaev as Matraimov’s “partner and protector.”

An initial report about the scheme, which used documents provided by Saimaiti, was aired by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, in May 2019. Afterwards, Saimaiti said, he started repeatedly receiving threatening phone calls from Kolbaev. The criminal boss, Saimaiti said, asked him whether he had shared any documents with journalists and pressed him not to do so again, particularly if they would reveal any transactions related to Matraimov.

“They are very dangerous,” Saimaiti said. “One piece of paper can seal my fate.”

A story about some of the threats Saimaiti said he received was published by RFE/RL and partners in November 2019. The alleged source of the threats — Kolbaev — was not revealed at that time.

Later in the year, after a man Saimaiti had hired to smuggle cash from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey was found dead in the trunk of his car, the distraught money launderer said he feared that “Kamchy’s guys” or “Matraimov’s guys” may have been responsible.

Saimaiti was murdered just weeks later in circumstances that remain shrouded in mystery.

Emilbek Kimsanov, a man who had once worked for Matraimov but fell out with the former official, also described him and Kolbaev as “close friends.” Kimsanov was the man who warned in a public video that Matraimov had demanded a Radio Azattyk reporter be brought to him “dead or alive.”

“Kamchy does whatever [Matraimov] says,” Kimsanov said.

Iskender Matraimov, Raimbek’s older brother, has strongly denied Kimsanov’s allegation, calling it a preelection fairy tale” and saying that Kimsanov would “answer for his accusations against Raimbek not only before God, but before the law.”

Another person who cannot be named to protect his safety also said he had been threatened by Kolbaev after coming into conflict with Matraimov.

A Strange Confinement

On October 22, after mass protests destabilized Kyrgyzstan in the wake of its controversial election, Kolbaev was arrested in a high-profile raid on a Bishkek gym. The operation, which involved armored vehicles and rifle-toting troops, was captured in a dramatic video produced by Kyrgyzstan’s security service.

The acting president at the time, Sadyr Japarov, had insisted he was cracking down on the corruption that helped fuel the uprising. And the U.S. Embassy greeted Kolbaev's arrest with approval, expressing “hope that the Kyrgyz government will prosecute and continue to detain this dangerous criminal leader in the interest of public safety.”

But there are reasons to believe that Kolbaev may escape once again. Keneshbek Duyshebaev, a former senior security official, has described the president’s actions as a “show.” And Matraimov, who was also arrested, has been released in what the president has acknowledged was a political decision (though he explained that it was the best way to get the former official to return stolen assets to the treasury).

To be sure, Kolbaev remains in jail. But a video recently emerged showing the criminal boss having a festive meal and singing songs with dozens of other men in a prison colony to which he had recently been transferred.

There have also been signs that Kolbaev was involved in the behind-the-scenes machinations during the mass uprising in October.

Amid the chaos, rumors proliferated of Kolbaev and his associates moving around the capital, including one video posted on Facebook of the criminal boss’s car allegedly heading to a meeting with then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and Sadyr Japarov, the man who would temporarily replace him. (Jeenbekov denied that such a meeting had taken place.)

U.S. diplomats warned of an “attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections.” Bishkek’s acting mayor stepped down in protest at what he described as a “wave of ochlocracy,” or mob rule.

And after a controversial vote by lawmakers made Japarov prime minister, a number of them said they were threatened by a criminal group to back his appointment, with several naming Kolbaev as the person behind the threats.

On a recent trip to the Issyk-Kul region, a local said that the situation there hadn’t changed.

“The black [criminals] own all of Issyk-Kul,” he said. “Kamchy is still in jail, but his men still run everything here.”

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