Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyz Politics Still Too Close to the Mob?
Kamchybek Kolbaev in court in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. (Photo: Vb.kg)
Ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary election later this year, a former top security officer has warned of the continuing links between politics and organised crime.
Kyrgyzstan is unique among Central Asian countries as it has a range of political forces competing in a fairly democratic system, rather than having elections fixed in favour of one ruling party. But revolutions in 2005 and 2010, and enduring economic problems, have resulted in a weak state. That has created the space for organised criminals to play an exceptionally powerful role, from running protection and extortion rackets to engineering election wins for their political clients.
Artur Medetbekov is a former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Committee who works as a security analyst these days. He told IWPR that links between officials and organised crime had been a constant feature of the post-Soviet landscape, and still were.
“Criminal elements took part in both [2005 and 2010] revolutions,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, criminal structures and the government have been actively merging. Members of organised crime groups have steadily taken up positions of power under [Askar] Akaev], [Kurmanbek] Bakiev and [current president Almazbek] Atambaev.”
Akaev was ousted as president in 2005, and his successor Bakiev suffered the same fate five years later.
WINNING ELECTIONS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE
Medetbekov said that for political parties with money to spend, having criminal allies is “a way to use force, blackmail and threats to influence voters, institutions, local election commissions and businesses [in order] to get into parliament”.
He predicted that underworld gangs would perform the same role in the parliamentary election due this autumn.
“Organised crime groups will do this in exchange for guaranteed freedom of movement, material benefits, and early parole for their gang-mates,” he added.
This description was backed up by a political strategist who helps parties with their campaigning, and who asked not to be identified to avoid undermining his work.
“They [criminals] are engaged by political parties at every election. Where necessary, they can pressure people from rival parties. They operate through local people of influence, opinion-formers able to persuade people to vote a certain way. Those meetings happen a couple of months before the election,” the advisor said. “Just before election day, phase two comes in – reinforcement. Anyone who’s received payment and gifts is strongly advised to do what was agreed. Local community leaders make it clear that if the [ballot] result is unsatisfactory, there will be a lot of questions to answer.”
ORGANISED CRIME SURVIVES REGIME CHANGE
Since Bakiev’s removal five years ago, governments have sporadically acknowledged the power of the mob and announced measures to deal with it. As she stepped down in late 2011, interim president Roza Otunbaeva told IWPR her “war on crime” had been a success, with around 200 gangland leaders and members arrested.
In March 2015, a policy paper adopted by Kyrgyzstan’s interior ministry in March acknowledged that some officials and public servants maintained corrupt ties with criminal networks.
“Organised crime cannot exist without corruption, since criminal groups possessing significant financial resources use corrupt state and local government officials to achieve their goals, and try to get their members placed in elected bodies and in government,” the ministry’s paper said.
Despite this damning assessment, the interior ministry official in charge of fighting organised crime, Mirlan Kanimetov, insisted the situation was under control.
“We don’t believe that organised crime groups present any threat to business or society,” Kanimetov told IWPR. “Take Georgia, which has about 2,000 crime bosses. Now that’s a threat.
“We do have criminals, but we’re tracking them. We have a crime detection rate of about 70 per cent. The underworld doesn’t collect tribute from businesses as long as they are operating honestly and paying their taxes.”
Others disagree, and argue that the link between organised crime and government remains as close as ever.
As in other post-Soviet states, organised crime in Kyrgyzstan is dominated by a hierarchy led by bosses with the title “vor v zakone” – “thief in law”, meaning that they uphold the underworld’s strict code. In turn, these top figures are often part of international networks involved in the illegal narcotics trade, money-laundering and people-trafficking.
In Kyrgyzstan, they can also become politicians. One example is the most famous of them all, the late Ryspek Akmatbaev. With two convictions behind him, he never served time for a triple murder he was implicated in. After the 2005 revolution, he was able to get all criminal charges dropped and later became a member of parliament. In May 2006, a month after his election, he was gunned down by a contract killer. His brother, also a member of parliament, had been shot dead a year earlier while visiting a prison.
Akmatbaev was a boxer and briefly head of the national fencing federation, and was surrounded by the kind of men known as “sportsmen” – a term both accurate in that they are often athletic and wear tracksuits, but also a euphemism equivalent to the Mafia’s “footsoldier”.
To his admirers, Akmatbaev was a firm-but-fair defender of natural justice, and he was often referred to as “Robin Hood”.
Such men have a symbiotic relationship with whoever is in power. In the period after the 2005 revolution brought President Bakiev to power, there was one main criminal boss, Kamchybek Kolbaev, who effectively took over Akmatbaev’s role.
The United States government is offering a one million dollar reward for “information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of [Kolbaev’s] criminal network.
Another figure from this period, Aziz Batukaev, was serving a long jail term in 2013 when he was released and allowed to leave the country.
According to a businessman who asked to remain anonymous, the situation changed after the second revolution of 2010, in which Bakiev was ousted and the political opposition formed a new government.
“Until 2010, Kolbaev and his ‘sportsmen’ exercised total control,” the businessman told IWPR. “The underworld was everywhere…. The whole business sector was paying tribute to it.”
Kolbaev was detained on arrival in Kyrgyzstan in 2012, but was freed last year after his sentence was cut to a term that equated to his time in pre-trial custody. He is believed to be in Dubai.
In February this year, an alleged associate of Kolbaev, Almanbet Anapiyaev, was murdered in the Belarussian capital Minsk, in what was seen as part of an ongoing turf war back in Kyrgyzstan.
With Kolbaev out of favour, there are thought to be at least five “thieves in law” vying for control in Kyrgyzstan.
Medetbekov said the five men said to run the underworld were all at liberty. But he argued that this new generation of professional criminals were not as dangerous as what he called “white-collar gangsters” – networks of corrupt officials operating within the system.
“Organised groups within institutions of power pose a threat to the state system,” he explained.
Medetbekov said the circumstances of Batukaev’s release, in which an apparently healthy convicted prisoner was deemed terminally ill, issued with a passport and put on a plane to Chechnya as a free man, indicated a high degree of official complicity.
“Everyone knew, the president knew, but no one took any action,” he said.
Felix Kulov, a former prime minister and security service chief who now leads the Ar Namys party, does not believe that crime links are systemic.
“For instance, Batukaev’s release was an example of common-or-garden corruption – some officials got paid off. But that doesn’t prove a link between state and the underworld,” he said.
“When I have met voters and business leaders, I have never once heard of anyone being in thrall to ‘thieves in law’. Nor have I heard of any ‘thief in law’ contacting and pressuring a legislator.”
Kulov said the media exaggerated the role of the underworld. “After all, no one robs the banks or the mail train here,” he said.
At the same time, Kulov said it was “possible” that politicians engaged mob “sportsmen” to protect them, and that members of parliament went into business with top gangsters.
“But that doesn’t mean these officials belong to organised crime groups. They just have economic interests. You can’t lump everyone together,” he said.
MOBSTERS THRIVE AT LOCAL LEVEL
The power of organised crime is particularly visible at local level, where government and policing are weaker. As people often mistrust the police and courts, they frequently turn to local gangsters to arbitrate in disputes.
During protests in the eastern Issyk Kul region calling for the Kumtor gold mine to be renationalised 2013, video footage showed a well-known crime boss taking a prominent role in negotiations with a deputy prime minister.
In August 2014, Interior Minister Abdulda Suranchiev was asked by the Ata Meken party to come up with a list of local councillors and officials believed to have underworld ties. He listed more than a dozen officials, including one member of parliament and a provincial governor.
One of those he named on August 20 was Altynbek Arzymbaev, who had been elected to the Kara Kul city council in 2012, only to be dismissed from the post and expelled from the Ata Meken party two years later when it emerged he had a criminal record.
Arzymbaev was shot dead in the street on August 26, six days after the interior minister named him.
Some businessmen say that when they are intimidated into paying bribes, it is not gangsters who do it, but police and other officials.
In July 2014, Chinese businessman Guang Zhuchang left a shop he owned in Bishkek and went to a meeting at a local police station. The same day, he was severely beaten by persons unknown and died 24 hours later.
Local media reported that Guang had been paying monthly bribes to the police over many years, but was unhappy about a recent demand for more money.
Anna Yalovkina is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
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