Kyrgyzstan: Is notorious customs boss back in business?
Critics of a court decision to reinstate him say it is a blow against anti-corruption efforts.
A decision taken this week by a court in Kyrgyzstan to reinstate a disgraced deputy customs chief is being read as a signal that the government’s anti-corruption drive is not all it’s cracked up to be.
For many observers of Kyrgyz politics, Rayimbek Matraimov -- AKA Rayim Million -- who appears fabulously wealthy despite a career consisting entirely of service to the state, is a paragon of malpractice.
The expensive watches and lifestyle habits flaunted by Matraimov’s children on Instagram were often cited by media as evidence that graft has effortlessly survived the political turmoil that it has incited over the years.
Matraimov was fired by Prime Minister Sapar Isakov in the final days of ex-President Almazbek Atambayev’s time in office last year. Isakov and the then-head of the customs service Kubanychbek Kulmatov publicly celebrated a ten-fold uptick in customs revenues months after the dismissal, which had Atambayev’s public blessing. Although Matraimov was not named when the pair revealed the latest figures, the implication was that the rot in one of the country’s most corrupted state bodies had finally been cleared out.
Plenty of other questions remained, however. Why was Matraimov able to survive so long as a top-ranking customs boss despite multiple media reports suggesting he was profiting from his position? What support might he have provided to Atambayev and the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK, which Matraimov’s brother, Iskender, represents in parliament? And what role, if any, did he play in fellow southerner Jeenbekov’s controversial but ultimately successful campaign for the presidency?
Further clouding matters, Matraimov suggested that his ouster might actually have been a direct consequence of a violent confrontation over a parking spot between one of his in-laws and Atambayev’s daughter, Dinara. Matraimov, who rarely if ever spoke in public prior to his dismissal, has also noted the role that Atambayev personally played in promoting him to the deputy customs chief position in 2015, following a long stint in charge of the service’s southern division.
Atambayev, whose team is now engaged in a bitter behind-the-scenes war with former protégé Jeenbekov, is nothing if not brazen. After the news of the July 25 court decision ruling against Matraimov’s dismissal, he crowed that authorities had been “discredited.”
The battle with corruption was nothing more than “a battle with political opponents,” he said.
But during Atambayev’s own time in office, several prominent antagonists, notably Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of the Ata-Meken party, were jailed in criminal cases that reeked of politics.
The restoration of Matraimov also hints at a fresh demarcation of the geographic fault lines that have bedeviled Kyrgyz politics since independence.
During northerner Atambayev’s time in charge, the prominence of southern families such as the Jeenbekovs and the Matraimovs provided some balance to the overall picture.
But now it would appear that southern clans are increasingly running the show. Kulmatov and Isakov both hail from Atambayev’s half of the country. Both are now imprisoned on corruption allegations.
Atambayev, for his part, is still chairman of the SDPK, which has more seats than any other party in parliament. But that position feels more nominal by the day.
The most powerful person in the party, by all accounts, is a man Atambayev is said to thoroughly revile, Jeenbekov’s younger brother Asylbek.
One potentially interesting twist in this tale is that Matraimov could still refuse to take up his post, sparing the Jeenbekovs a political headache in the short-term.
According to Elvira Surabaldiyeva, another member of parliament with the SDPK, suggested this outcome is the most likely.
“I doubt that R. Matraimov will take up his position again. It is not something he, his brothers or certainly [the president] needs. Rather, this is purely about masculine self-esteem, the egos that have driven Kyrgyzstan for 27 years, and have stopped us moving on from political games to economic [matters],” she wrote on Twitter.