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What Role Did Crime Kingpins Play in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Violence?

A fresh plume of smoke rises over the Uzbek neighborhood of Arevan in Osh during the several days of ethnic clashes. (Photo: Dalton Bennett)

Criminal networks have long maintained a strong presence in southern Kyrgyzstan, given the region’s status as a trade hub. In the weeks since inter-ethnic violence in the region left hundreds dead, observers have been wondering about what role, if any, criminal groups played in stoking the violence?

Some experts believe that a breakdown of state authority in the region in the months leading up to the mid-June violence helped touch off an underworld turf war, which, in turn, played a key role in inciting broader inter-ethnic violence. Others say gangs simply reacted to the violence, using the inter-ethnic clashes as cover for their own actions, which were aimed at altering the local criminal balance-of-power.

Kyrgyzstan’s criminal networks generally fit into one of two categories, local experts tell EurasiaNet.org. The first – prison-based hierarchical networks – comprise professional criminals who follow an established code of conduct. Kamchi Kolbaev, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was reportedly one of the most influential criminal figures in the South. Authorities detained him on June 16, days after the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in Osh and Jalal-abad. He has been undergoing interrogations since then.

Athletes – sportsmen, in local parlance – form the second type of networks. These groups are widely believed to engage in racketeering, money laundering, drug trafficking and fraud. Their leaders reportedly fund youth sports clubs, leisure facilities and private enterprises to attract crowds of young and unemployed men.

Osh-based observers, speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions, say that while various links between the two types of networks exist, the sportsmen-led networks do not have the same kind of clearly delineated hierarchy and strong code of conduct that exists in the prison networks. Sportsmen are also known to lend muscle to Kyrgyz political factions during protests, and to form groups along ethnic lines.

“There is no doubt that criminals played a part [in the June 10-14 clashes],” said Abdurahman, an Osh-based expert on ethnic and religious tensions, who asked his surname not be printed.

Abdurahman suggested that the June 7 assassination of Aibek Mirsidikov – a drug lord also known as Black Aibek – was directly linked with the mid-June violence. A Jalal-abad based Kyrgyz criminal gang reportedly killed Mirsidikov, an Uzbek, to neutralize his Uzbek gang. Mirsidikov was believed to have played a role in fomenting protests in May, according to a report distributed by the 24.kg news agency. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

Sabyr, an economics professor at an Osh university who also spoke on the condition that only his first name is printed, contended that there was only tenuous evidence to support the hypothesis that criminal groups initiated the mid-June violence. But he acknowledged that former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s demise destroyed a fragile balance and unleashed a power struggle among various criminal gangs. [For background see EuarasiaNet’s archive].

“They have been clashing over control of the bazaars and drug trade for a long time,” Sabyr said.

Recently, some government officials have faced allegations of involvement with criminal elements. Timur Kamchibekov and Bakyt Amanbaev, two former top officials in Osh’s municipal government accused Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov of maintaining links with criminal gang members, Ferghana.ru reported on June 17. Myrzakmatov is a Bakiyev appointee whom the interim government appears unable to remove. He is also widely reviled in the Uzbek community.

“People have been complaining about the mayor everywhere,” Ferghana.ru quoted Kamchibekov as saying. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Myrzakmatov responded that his deputies – appointed in April by the provisional government – were “mentally-disabled” individuals whom he was forced to fire.

Ibragim -- a former prison inmate who has served time for drug trafficking, and who is familiar with the region’s criminal networks -- said he suspected that the sportsmen gangs were chiefly responsible for the violence. These gangs supplied weapons and explosives to both Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents in Osh prior to and during the conflict, he alleged. “They [Kyrgyz criminal gang leaders] also organized their men to stage attacks on military garrisons to seize guns and military vehicles,” Ibragim claimed, speaking in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.

Ibragim added that the scope of the violence exceeded expectations. Suspected criminal gang leaders, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, sustained property losses amid the violence, and some rank-and-file gang members were killed. “A lot of ordinary people died. Nobody expected that all this would get out of control,” Ibragim said.

The strengthening of the state’s security forces in the South in the immediate aftermath of mid-June violence reportedly caused some disruptions to criminal racketeering and trafficking operations. But many experts believe gangs will emerge in the coming months in a stronger position than before. “The criminal groups are regrouping. So we will see more clashes in the days to come,” Abdurahman, the Osh-based ethnic relations analyst, predicted.

Sabyr, the economics professor, warned of renewed competition over the reconstruction of Osh’s fabled bazaar. The market was almost totally destroyed by violence and looting. “Look at what happened to the Osh bazaar. Now that the bazaar will be built in a new place [as the Osh mayor has insisted], control will shift to new hands and this will ignite more competition,” Sabyr said.

Analysts say renewed criminal gang competition would pose serious risks to central authorities. “At the root of this conflict lies the complete failure of the security services and an inept [state] cadre policy, which sidelined influential political forces,” said an Osh-based political analyst working with an OSCE-funded conflict monitoring project, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If they [interim leaders] have an instinct for self-preservation, they will not repeat their previous mistakes,” the analyst continued.

What Role Did Crime Kingpins Play in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Violence?

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