The head of the security services in Kyrgyzstan has confirmed that the corrupt and once all-powerful former deputy chief of the customs service is wanted for arrest.
The announcement by Kamchybek Tashiyev on January 27 opens a new chapter in the ruling regime’s campaign to wrest all the levers of control in the country from shadowy, behind-the-scenes operators.
Speaking at a meeting with traders at the Kara-Suu market near the southern city of Osh, Tashiyev said his agency, the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, would confiscate all assets owned by the wanted ex-customs official, Rayimbek Matraimov.
“We will take away all his property in Osh and in all of Kyrgyzstan. We will not leave him even100 square meters of land. And even if he returns, he will no longer be that once-strong Rayim Million,” Tashiev said, using Matraimov’s nickname.
The relative anonymity of Matraimov’s post in government, from which he was released in late 2017, belies the true influence he is believed to have wielded over the country’s political system.
Claims around the reputed wealth of Matraimov, which is what earned him the half-derisive and half-awed monicker Rayim Million, were exposed mostly by independent journalists and anti-graft activists. According to one series of journalistic investigations, Matraimov is said to have siphoned off up to $700 million while overseeing the customs service.
For many years, state investigators looked the other way.
When President Sadyr Japarov seized power in October 2020 in tandem with his old ally Tashiyev, tentative moves were taken to clip Matraimov’s wings. Weeks after Japarov seized the office of the presidency, security service agents briefly detained Matraimov on charges that he had operated a corrupt scheme to “extract shadow income during [his] administration of the customs system.” Matraimov was later released under house arrest after he pledged to pay back $24 million in damages owed to the state.
It appeared to many at the time like this might have been a choreographed exercise to show that Japarov would be different from his predecessors.
The question is whether this latest move against the ex-customs boss is for real.
Tashiyev did not spell out the details of the arrest order, but one independent outlet, Kaktus, has cited unnamed sources as saying that Matraimov is wanted on charges that include “forcibly depriving a person’s freedom.” No details are provided on that or any other alleged offense.
There is a further suggestion this may simply be a matter of money.
Kaktus speculates that Matraimov has been placed on the wanted list over unpaid dues. In 2023, Matraimov purportedly negotiated to contribute “several hundred millions” of soms to the state in return for immunity from arrest. In October, however, he left for Turkey and then traveled on to Dubai without respecting the terms of that deal, Kaktus reported.
Japarov has shown striking boldness in going after people formerly deemed untouchables. If Matraimov’s patronage of wide swathes of the political class once provided him safety, that magic looks to have worn off.
To date, the most notable victim of Japarov and Tashiyev’s battle against the country’s informal rulers has been Kamchybek Kolbayev, a crime boss so notorious that he was even wanted by the U.S. government. Kolbayev was killed in October in an armed standoff against GKNB special forces in Bishkek.
Shortly after that, Tashiyev delivered an ultimatum.
“I am addressing criminal elements: do not break the law. From now on, in our country there will be no thieves-in-law, no leaders of organized crime groups, no criminal organizations,” he said in a speech. “We remember those years when one crime boss would replace another. One left, and then others would take their place… This will happen no longer.”
Some weeks later, Tashiyev turned his attention to Matraimov.
“If Rayim Matraimov plans to live in this country, he must drive around in a small Matiz [car]. From now on, the Rayim Matraimov clan and their accumulated wealth should not interfere with the development of the country or influence internal political processes,” he said.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.