Next week, on February 3, the trial of former deputy Kyrgyz customs chief Raimbek Matraimov is set to begin in Bishkek.
Matraimov was detained in late October 2020, in a strangely swift but also belated turn of events. October 2020 was a political whirlwind in Kyrgyzstan: a parliamentary election on October 4 triggered protests that saw the annulling of the results, the rise of Sadyr Japarov from prisoner to prime minister, the ouster of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov by mid-month and then the arrest of Matraimov and the announcement, by Japarov, of an economic amnesty program that would enable the corrupt to pay back what they stole and go on their way.
Matraimov was swiftly released to house arrest, with the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) stating that Matraimov was ready to compensate the state for damages, to the tune of 2 billion Kyrgyz soms ($24.6 million).
Two billion might sound like a significant sum of som to some, but investigative reports that began rolling out in November 2019 — orchestrated by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and Kloop, a Kyrgyz news site — alleged that Matraimov had a hand in a $700 million (something in the realm of 59 billion Kyrgyz som) smuggling scheme. It wasn’t for nothing that Raimbek earned the nickname “Raim Millionaire.”
Despite the damning reports, the Jeenbekov government took a lax approach to pursuing Matraimov even as Kyrgyz took to the streets to protest corruption.
Matraimov’s October 20 detention was both surprising and suspicious. At the time Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University, told The Diplomat, “Matraimov’s arrest seems suspicious to many in Kyrgyzstan.” As one of the wealthiest people in Kyrgyzstan, he “could have easily fled abroad seeing security structures investigating his corruption schemes,” Marat said, but he didn’t.
Japarov’s economic amnesty plan, and Matraimov’s swift pledge to pay 2 billion soms to the state heightened suspicions even more.
In late December, Kyrgyz lawmakers approved the economic amnesty bill. As RFE/RL reported, “Economy Minister Bekbolot Aliev said on December 23 that the amnesty’s main goal was not about filling the government’s coffers but ‘to bring the shadow economy to the legal scene.’” But critics argue the amnesty is merely an attempt to let the corrupt off with what amounts to a small fine, relative to the sums stolen.
During the October political turmoil, the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan had warned of criminal elements hijacking the political arena. On October 13 — two days before Japarov saw through Jeenbekov’s resignation and became acting president — the embassy issued a statement noting “It is clear that one of the obstacles towards democratic progress [in Kyrgyzstan] is the attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections.”
In early December, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Raimbek Matraimov for sanction under the Global Magnitsky Act. And in a measured statement after Japarov was formally elected president on January 10, the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan avoided directly congratulating him and called attention, once again, to “corruption and international organized crime.”
Last week, RFE/RL reported that Matraimov and his wife, Uulkan Turgunova, had both changed their surnames. A judge overseeing Matraimov’s libel lawsuit against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service and Kloop (over the above mentioned investigations), on January 15 delayed a hearing so the Matrivmovs could submit to the court proof that their names had been changed legally. Matraimov reported changed his surname to Ismailov and his wife to Sulaimanova. The name changes may be an effort to avoid the sting of the Magnitsky sanctions.
All of this context makes Matraimov’s approaching trial particularly interesting. It would seem, that with the economic amnesty law aimed at allowing individuals to avoid prosecution by turning over assets, that Matraimov may be able to pay his way out of trouble.
But if he does avoid a jail term, Kyrgyz already furious about corruption will have a handy torch to raise in accusing the new Japarov government of playing nice with criminals. This may very well dovetail with growing concerns over the draft constitution that will reorient the Kyrgyz government from a pseudo-parliamentary system to a presidential system once again.