Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: Raimbek Matraimov Detained, Released

The former customs official’s arrest was a suspicious surprise, though he’s long been alleged to have engaged in massive corruption in Kyrgyzstan. 

Catherine Putz
Kyrgyzstan: Raimbek Matraimov Detained, Released
Credit: Pixabay

Following up on statements made by Kamchybek Tashiev, the new head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB), the security service tasked with combatting both terrorism and criminal networks took Raimbek Matraimov into custody on October 20. Shortly thereafter, the GKNB said Matraimov was ready to compensate the state for damages, to the tune of 2 billion Kyrgyz soms ($24.6 million) — starting with 80 million soms allegedly already paid. He was then released to something short of house arrest after agreeing to cooperate with the investigation.

In an already whirlwind October, this is yet another sudden twist — one that raises suspicions.

“Matraimov is one of the wealthiest individuals in the country and could have easily fled abroad seeing security structures investigating his corruption schemes,” Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University, told The Diplomat after news of Matraimov’s arrest emerged.

“Matraimov’s arrest seems suspicious to many in Kyrgyzstan,” Marat said.

The GKNB said Matraimov had from 2016 onward operated a “corrupt scheme” to extract “shadow revenue” from the Customs Service, of which he was a deputy. The allegations will be no surprise to Central Asia watchers.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In November 2019, less than two weeks after their main source — Aierken Saimaiti, a confessed money launderer — was assassinated in Istanbul, OCCRP, RFE/RL and Kloop released the first results of their investigation into a massive corruption scheme in which Matraimov was a key player. The investigation alleged that Matraimov spearheaded the squirreling away of $700 million from the Kyrgyz state. Matraimov responded to the allegations at the time by suing the involved media organizations, alleging defamation. The Kyrgyz government responded lackadaisically, with a parliamentary committee looking into the murder of Saimaiti but not doing much beyond criticizing the media, too.

The Kyrgyz public was enraged by the report in late 2019, taking to the streets in protest against “Rayim Million,” a nickname for the former customs official and nod to his riches. 

In the October 4 parliamentary election, the results of which have been annulled, one of the two parties that came out heavily on top, allegedly by buying votes — Mekenim Kyrgyzstan — was broadly believed to be bankrolled by the Matraimov family. Raimbek’s older brother, Iskender, was No. 10 on the party’s list. After the election, there were rumors that Matraimov had fled the country, though those have turned out to be false. On the other hand, another Matraimov brother — Tilek — was arrested in October 9 trying to cross into Uzbekistan. 

Nevertheless, Kyrgyz commentators and analysis — not to mention average people — speak of the Matraimov family as “kingmakers” and in control of a broad corrupt network filtered through many Kyrgyz state bodies. It’s difficult to fathom him quickly being brought to heel.

The speed at which the government of prime minister and acting president Sadyr Japarov has detained Matraimov, and apparently gotten him to pay, is curious to say the least. Japarov, as of October 6, was in jail himself on an 11.5 year sentence. In less than a month he’s gone from prison to presidency. He’s now consolidated power in his hands while deriding as “rumors” allegations that he’s backed by criminals. 

“[Matraimov’s] arrest also seems suspicious based on how quickly the Supreme Court acquitted both Japarov and [Melis] Myrzakhmatov in the past couple of days,” Marat told The Diplomat. “Both the Supreme Court and GKNB are acting more as political instruments now to legitimize Japarov’s leadership,” she said, rather than objective judicial bodies. 

As with all political developments, what happens next will be critical.

Is Matraimov’s arrest the start of a genuine effort at anti-corruption? Will the arrest be followed by an investigation, a trial, and a conviction? Will any of that be open, transparent, and fair?

Or is this a colorful show of combatting corruption? Is it simply a populist ploy to gain more support ahead a gamut of elections — parliamentary and presidential — in the next few months?

“I’m not holding my breath that there will be a transparent investigation or a fair trial,” Marat said. “It may just be a way to campaign to win elections in December.”