Raimbek Matraimov is again a wanted man.
Last week, Kyrgyz media reported sources stating that the State Committee on National Security (SCNS) had placed the infamous deputy customs head on a wanted list on suspicion of abducting and illegally incarcerating unnamed individuals.
No further details have been offered about the charges.
If anything proves that time is a flat circle, it’s Matraimov. For many outside of Kyrgyzstan, their first encounter with him was likely the investigative report released in November 2019 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, and Kloop – published soon after a key source, Aierken Saimaiti, was assassinated in Istanbul. The report unveiled a massive scheme that allegedly saw through the transfer of more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan, right under the nose and with the assistance of the customs service.
Instead of heaping thanks on the media for exposing the massive corruption, Kyrgyz authorities sat in stunned silence as Matraimov filed lawsuits against the media outlets that had published or shared the reporting, accusing them of libel in early 2020. By that summer, the SCNS was in parliament claiming that Saimaiti (the murdered money launderer-turned-informant) had actually paid the RFE/RL journalists and provided falsified documents. That accusation faded into the ether as the reporters published additional articles as well as a database of evidence.
And then the fall of 2020 saw Kyrgyzstan’s third revolution usher President Sadyr Japarov, and SCNS head Kamchybek Tashiev, into power. In a far-too-smooth chain of events, Matraimov was arrested, promised to pay 2 billion Kyrgyz som to the government, and then was released. It was the opening act of what is now called kusturizatsia, an “economic amnesty” as Japarov first described it, in which the corrupt could come clean, pay back (some) of what they’d stolen, and go merrily on their way. In December 2020 Matraimov was designated for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act by the United States, a clear signal of U.S. displeasure at how easily he had wriggled off the hook.
In February 2021, his corruption trial began and ended in a single session, with Matraimov pleading guilty and testifying against two other customs officials. He was given an embarrassingly paltry fine of 260,000 Kyrgyz soms, with the court claiming he had paid back the 2 billion soms as agreed.
The point in recounting this history is to underscore that the Kyrgyz authorities have had their chances to bring Matraimov to justice before. The long winding road to the present is necessary context.
There was a change in the wind in early October 2023, when another notorious, internationally wanted, criminal kingpin named Kamchybek Kolbaev was killed by state security officers in a shootout in a Bishkek bar. Within a month, Tashiev was railing against organized crime in Kyrgyzstan, proclaiming that “from now on there will be neither Kolbaev’s mafia, nor Matraimov’s mafia, nor other mafias in Kyrgyzstan.”
Matraimov’s brother, Iskender – a member of parliament – told media that “the Matraimov clan does not exist.”
Kaktus, a Kyrgyz media outlet, cited several unconfirmed reports that Matraimov had left the country in late October 2023 and further claimed that law enforcement sources said that while he had promised to pay “several hundred million soms” into the state budget, he’d failed to do so and thus hit the road.
When letting Matraimov off in 2021, the Kyrgyz court had claimed he had paid the state back.
One of the chief complaints about kusturizatsia is its opacity, the lack of accounting and accountability. As I wrote earlier this month when another beneficiary of the kusturizatsia system claimed that security officials had tried to extort more money from him, “The problem with paying a blackmailer is that they can always ask for more.”
While the authorities search for Matraimov and Tashiev thunders on about confiscating the family’s property, it’s worth noting that the Kyrgyz media have doggedly followed the Matraimov story over the years despite the risks and despite pressure from both criminals and the state. In light of Bishkek’s latest moves to pressure media – the arrest of 11 journalists and the sealing of 24.kg’s offices – it’s worth asking what could have been if back in 2019 Kyrgyz authorities had taken the investigative reports seriously. The 11 journalists currently in pre-trial detention all either currently, or previously, worked with Bolot Temirov – whose bailiwick of investigative reports targeting Tashiev, Japarov, and their families got him arrested on trumped-up drug charges and then stripped of citizenship and deported in 2022.
Bishkek is on the one hand pursuing an anti-corruption campaign, but at the same time cracking down on the very media that expose such corruption. Ultimately, it seems that it’s not the corruption that matters – what matters is whose corruption is politically expedient to hide, and whose it is useful to expose.