A violent dawn argument in southern Kyrgyzstan this week has landed one man in hospital and prompted fresh questions about the nebulous political and business empire overseen by a man said to be the country’s kingmaker.
The fight broke out on September 22 in Furkat, a village on the fringes of the biggest city in the south, Osh. It is unclear what prompted the dispute, but the confrontation culminated in the head of the Osh city government sports committee, Kylych Sarkarbayev, shooting Tologon Rakhmanberdi uulu, a former policeman and mixed martial arts, or MMA, champion fighter. Rakhmanberdi uulu was admitted to the hospital in serious condition for an operation to dislodge a bullet from his leg.
Similar violent set-tos are not so unusual for southern Kyrgyzstan, but this one is notable for the close ties that both men enjoy with influential powerbroker Rayimbek Matraimov.
Matraimov, or Rayim Million, as he is better known – a reference to the riches he is said to have accrued over the years – worked for 19 years in the customs service. He quit his role as deputy head of this notoriously corrupt government body earlier this year amid growing public calls for an investigation into his family’s suspiciously attained wealth. Even without a formal portfolio, Matraimov is said to continue enjoying considerable behind-the-scenes power.
Among the more prominent assets controlled by the Matraimov family are the chain of EREM sport clubs and a slew of restaurants and supermarkets in Osh and the capital, Bishkek. The family, most of whom are on paper just regular government employees, also run a charitable foundation called Ismail Ata, which is devoted to building mosques and schools in the Osh region, as well as providing university scholarships and funding urgently needed medical treatment for local children.
Sports clubs in Kyrgyzstan typically tend to focus on combat sports such as wrestling and boxing. In recent years, no-holds-barred MMA has become especially popular. The significance of this is that businessmen and politicians – both legitimate and not – tend to draw their muscle from such sports clubs.
Both the men involved in this week’s dispute are deeply involved with the EREM sport clubs, which are so called for how Rayimbek Matraimov’s initials are pronounced in Kyrgyz and Russian. The clubs are run by a younger brother of Matraimov, Ruslan. Sarkarbayev has, like Rakhmanberdi uulu, been a competitive MMA fighter.
In apparent recognition of the sensitivity of the case, Osh regional police have been circumspect about the incident. In public statements, they refer to Sarkarbayev and Rakhmanberdi uulu only by their initials. All they relay in their account of events is that the argument broke out at 6 a.m. on September 22 and culminated with Sarkarbayev firing a weapon at Rakhmanberdi uulu. According to unconfirmed reports Sarkarbayev used an automatic rifle, which would explain the gravity of Rakhmanberdi uulu’s injuries.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Ydrys Isakov, wrote on this Facebook page that heavies from Matraimov's clubs stood guard outside the hospital ward where Rakhmanberdi uulu was being treated to prevent journalists from trying to interview him.
Police have initiated an investigation, but no objects of likely criminal charges have been identified. Anybody found guilty of aggravated bodily harm in theory faces between five and seven years in prison.
Both men are favored Matraimov protégés. In a family video posted online, Sarkarbayev described Matraimov as “a hero for our times.” Rakhmanberdi uulu, meanwhile is a champion MMA fighter and a former police officer in the Aravan district, an area close to Osh. He is known to be a close associate of another former customs official, Emilbek Kimsanov, who is in turn Matraimov’s godson.
Kimsanov was fired from the customs service, reportedly after his violent assault of fellow customs officer Avtandil Kongantiyev. Whereas Kimsanov had a high-ranking position in the customs service in south Kyrgyzstan, Kongantiyev was deputy head of the northern department of the service. It is not known precisely when this alleged incident occurred, but it was reported in local media this past January.
Matraimov is a usually publicity-shy figure who has sought to burnish his profile through support for sports events. When his family organized a tournament in the Osh region in the spring in honor of Matraimov’s father, guests of honor included the speaker of parliament, Dastan Djumabekov, several other MPs and First Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov.
He has earned less favorable attention from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, which in May published a detailed report alleging that the Matraimov family had conspired to spirit more than $700 million out of the country. In the same investigation, Azattyk cited its sources as saying that EREM had from 2011 onward not paid any taxes, and that it paid only a little under $2,200 in the period from 2017 to 2018.
In spite of these allegations, Djumabekov has been a lively champion of the Matraimovs, describing them as honest toilers working for the benefit of the Kyrgyz people.
Following an earlier Azattyk investigation into Matraimov, published in January, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov found himself under pressure to order the finance police to conduct a probe into the family’s well-documented wealth. The probe, which dragged on for six months, revealed that companies linked to Matraimov had defaulted on around 24.2 million som ($345,000) in tax payments. No punitive action is known to have been adopted in consequence of these discoveries.
But there are, in any events, strong doubts about the strength of Jeenbekov’s determination to crack down on the sprawling informal empire overseen by Matraimov. Indeed, it is widely speculated that the president is under his fellow southerner’s sway and some have aired unconfirmed allegations that Jeenbekov’s 2017 election campaign was bankrolled by Matraimov.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.