Kyrgyzstan: Notorious High-Ranking Customs Official Fired
A notorious high-ranking customs official in Kyrgyzstan has been fired in a dramatic personnel reshuffle that comes weeks after Kazakhstan complained about the volume of contraband goods flooding in from its southern neighbor.
Prime Minister Sapar Isakov signed the order to dismiss Customs Service deputy chairman Rayimbek Matraimov on November 23, noting that the official’s action did not comply with government policies.
Matraimov, who is known popularly (and tellingly) by his nickname “Rayim Million,” has long wielded substantial influence in the south of the country, which is a conduit for vast amounts of imported wares arriving from China.
From 2005 to 2015, he held multiple positions in Customs Service’s southern offices. Over the course of his career, he repeatedly faced accusations of corruption, including from members of parliament.
Matraimov’s life in customs began in the mid-1990s, when he worked as a driver for the former deputy head of the service, Muratbek Malabayev. From there, he quickly made his way up the greasy pole.
Following the 2010 revolution, he was booted out of the Customs Service by the then-governor of the southern Osh region, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who is to be inaugurated as president on November 24. But he was reinstated very shortly afterward. Former General Prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov, who has fallen out with the elite now running the country, claims Matraimov paid $400,000 to regain his job. In 2015, Matraimov was promoted to the post from which he has now been fired.
Kyrgyz politicians routinely trade accusations of financial wrongdoing, although hard evidence is typically in short supply. But in 2016, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, ran a compelling video report showing the impressive array of real estate properties and businesses owned by Matraimov. The latter included two branches of the Narodny supermarket chain and a sports complex. Furthermore, there are even more riches registered to his immediate relatives. One of his sons was reported to own a watch costing $43,000, while other offspring posted pictures online showing them training at the exclusive academy of the north London-based Arsenal football club.
For all that, Matraimov’s stated official annual income was $8,500.
There is no immediate evidence there is any link between this firing and the ongoing trade dispute with Kazakhstan, but the timing is curious.
Late last month, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev accused Kyrgyzstan of acting as a substantial conduit for Chinese-sourced contraband and thereby causing huge financial losses to the Eurasian Economic Union, or EEU, a Moscow-led trade bloc. Failure to properly enforce import tariffs, which are apportioned among bloc members at pre-agreed rates, cost the EEU around $2.7 billion in the first eight months of 2017 alone, Sagintayev asserted.
As accusations flew hither and thither, Kazakhstan upped the stakes by stepping up checks on goods crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan, thereby in effect nullifying the entire point of a customs union. Astana has also banned the import of a range of Kyrgyz dairy goods, citing sanitary shortcomings.
Kyrgyzstan has appealed to the EEU’s permanent secretariat to help sort out the standoff — so far to no avail — but the flagrant abuses said to be occurring at its borders crossings with China will hardly assist its cause. That said, even if Matraimov’s dismissal were somehow linked with this diplomatic spat, it would be unwise to assume that removing one official would be enough to address the problem.
In another high-level dismissal on November 23, Iskakov gave the chairman of the State Assets Management Fund, Bolsunbek Kazakov, his marching orders. That body, which administers the sale of state assets subject to privatization, is also widely reputed to be riddled with corruption.
The most recent scandal to hit the fund involved the planned sale of a stake in the partly government-controlled Megacom cellular communications company at well below market rates. The transaction was cancelled following — but not as a result of, officially at least — a wave of public anger.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.