Kyrgyzstan: Security services declare all-out war on criminal underworld
A wave of arrests, asset seizures, and political ties unveiled in a nationwide crackdown.
The killing of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent gangland figure at the hands of the security services earlier this month may only have been the start.
That, at least, is the narrative the authorities are striving to convey.
On October 5, one day after Kamchybek Kolbayev, a figure so notorious that he was even wanted by the U.S. government, was killed in an armed standoff in Bishkek, the chief of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, signaled what is coming next.
“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,” Kamchybek Tashiyev 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.”
A few days later, Tashiyev doubled down on his pledge and appealed to the public for their assistance.
“Businessmen, foreign investors, owners of restaurants, market owners and traders, we appeal to all of you. Anyone who has been giving money to members of the underworld, please stop. You will also be held accountable if you continue to give them funds,” he wrote on Facebook.
The words look to have been substantiated by a flurry of arrests.
On October 5, one of Kolbayev’s righthand men, known by the nickname Tyson, was arrested on extortion charges. The man, who was identified only by his initials, S. M. Zh, is said to have been Kolbayev’s overseer for the northern Talas region, which shares a border with Kazakhstan.
Three days later, it was the turn of Mars Sulaimanov, the brother of the late crime boss, Almazbek Sulaimanov, better known by his nickname Limonti, to be arrested. He is facing charges of forming and participating in a criminal organization.
That same day, a man called Baktybek Amankulov was rounded up. He is suspected of involvement in the July 2022 killing of another crime boss, Chyngyz Dzhumagulov, also known as Doo Chyngyz.
All told, well over 40 “thieves-in-law,” as members of the sprawling Eurasian organized crime fraternity are commonly known, have ended behind bars since Kolbayev’s death.
It is not just figures in Kolbayev’s orbit who are being targeted. On October 8, four associates of Kadyr Donosov, a gangland boss known as Jengo, were arrested. Donosov is widely reputed to be the criminal overseer of the Uzgen district in the southern Osh region.
Almost all of the people who have been arrested in this dragnet have been made to film confessions to camera in which they renounce their “criminal ways” and pledge to become law-abiding citizens.
The sweep has also caught up figures adjacent to the criminal underworld.
On October 9, Bishkek’s Pervomaisk district court ordered one of the country’s most prominent businesspeople, Tursuntai Salimov, to be placed in detention for at least two months pending investigations. Salimov is the owner of Madina, Kyrgyzstan’s largest textile bazaar and a hub for local textile businesses.
Investigators claim that Salimov, who was taken into custody on October 7, was not just Kolbayev’s next-door neighbor, but that he was providing him with financial and logistical support. As the GKNB has it, the businessman operated a “common fund” composed of monies generated through criminal activity and was directly involved in the bribery of law enforcement officials, judges, and other officials.
Salimov denies all the charges.
In its apparent revelations on Kolbayev made public so far, the GKNB has described a criminal enterprise worth around $1 billion.
The agency asserts that the crime boss began building his empire from 2008 onward and that he surrounded himself with a hierarchy of around 40 individuals who variously aided him in laundering illicit assets. Much of these ill-gotten gains were generated through expropriating businesses, inside Kyrgyzstan and beyond, the GKNB maintains.
This and other activities made Kolbayev wealthy enough to be able to acquire valuable overseas property for his relatives. The GKNB says it has identified 850 real estate properties – this includes 700 apartments, elite clubhouses, guest houses, stables, and restaurants – belonging to the gangster. He is said furthermore to have owned 60 luxury vehicles. One of the more intriguing items alleged to have been among his possessions was a watch that once belonged to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a crown valued at $500,000 adorned with the initials KK, for Kamchybek Kolbayev.
To protect these riches, the gangland boss created armed groups that operated under the guise of legitimate security companies, the GKNB has claimed.
In addition to laying responsibility for a criminal conspiracy at Kolbayev’s feet, the GKNB also contends that he and fellow crime bosses have used their influence to sway the country’s political scene.
This particular strand of the state’s narrative adds a noteworthy dimension to a process that is happening in parallel with the assault on the criminal underworld.
For many months now, new premises of the GKNB have been opening up around the country. Last September, Tashiyev said publicly that 50 new security services buildings had been erected. At least 25 modern offices have been built since 2021.
The GKNB’s activities are by all appearances growing more sophisticated too.
In May, President Sadyr Japarov cut the ribbon on the agency’s Coordination Center for Cybersecurity . The purpose of the center is reportedly to coordinate the activities of government agencies and identify, prevent and suppress computer attacks.
A GKNB academy is under construction.
And losses of criminal elements are the gain of the agency. In December 2020, Tashiyev revealed that eight apartments seized from a notoriously corrupt former customs officials have been handed over to his officers. A ninth apartment was donated to an orphanage.
Japarov has committed to improving the lot of the security services even further, including by providing low-cost loans to buy homes. It is evident that maintaining the loyalty of the men in Tashiyev’s agency is a paramount priority.
“Different opinions are expressed in public regarding housing and office buildings for security officers, and about why, they say, teachers and doctors [don’t get the same thing],” Japarov said in February, addressing GKNB officers. “[But] first of all, if the internal and external security of the country is not ensured, then no one will need apartments. We know and see this from the events taking place in the world. That’s why we provide for you first.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.