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Is Kyrgyzstan’s Underworld Just Biding Its Time?

It is no secret that elements of Kyrgyzstan’s underworld enjoyed many freedoms during the reign of the country’s second president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Indeed, members of the current political elite are keen to remind us of anything that blackens the former first family’s name and deflects attention from their own shortcomings. But recent comments by Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov go beyond the usual Bakiyev-bashing and provide some interesting insights into the way the state and mafia became enmeshed during his rule, as well as what Kyrgyz mob-watchers should look out for in the future.

In a January 23 interview with K-News, Atakhanov spoke of the “criminalization of the entire political structure,” and labeled “criminal elements” as the main drivers of the ethnic violence in Osh shortly after Bakiyev’s overthrow in 2010. But he also made some more specific remarks about the fight against drugs and organized crime under Bakiyev.

During the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, criminals managed to incorporate themselves in the system of state governance. Staffing and government activities were decided thanks to the help of criminal leaders, including in the law enforcement agencies. [...] Not without the participation of criminal elements were the Agency for Drug Control and the Main Department in the Fight Against Organized Crime reduced in size. Practically, the police and the criminal world became one and the same.

The comments, which jive with independent research on the Bakiyev era and the ethnic violence in Osh, come in the wake of the January 11 assassination of the chief officer responsible for fighting drugs and organized crime in Kyrgyzstan’s south, Tolkunbek Shonoyev. The murder happened in Osh, a city widely recognized as one of the key transit points for narcotics traveling north out of Afghanistan.

While three people have apparently confessed to participating in the hit, the reasons and forces behind the murder remain murky.

Some fingers have pointed toward the same crime bosses whose influence grew under Bakiyev. One such “thief-in-law,” Kamchi Kolbayev, is currently being held in a National Security Committee holding facility, having been extradited home from Dubai on December 8 (extradition is the official line; others say he returned voluntarily). Atakhanov refers to Kolbayev as a “‘crowned thief-in-law’ who has sway throughout the entire republic.” Many fear Kolbayev continues to wield enormous influence from behind bars. In 2012, the US Treasury Department sanctioned him for his alleged connections to a multi-national drug-trafficking and organized-crime network known as the Brothers’ Circle.

Kolbayev – who is scheduled to appear before a Bishkek court on February 3 on charges including kidnapping, organization of criminal groups and drugs trafficking – has wriggled out of justice’s grasp before. According to an August 2006 report by the International Crisis Group, in 2002 Kolbayev was sentenced to 25 years for “banditry” only to “disappear” in February 2006, having been transferred from one colony to another. On August 3, 2007, Kolbayev’s birthday, the general prosecutor ordered all investigations into his activity closed.

Atakhanov, for his part, downplays suggestions Kolbayev played a role in the recent Osh murder. Atakhanov’s subordinate, Bishkek city police chief Melis Turganbayev, linked the crime to Almanbet Anapiyayev, referred to across the Kyrgyz media space as Kolbayev’s “watcher in the south,” a Russian term for a kind of underboss, who is believed to be living in the UAE. A lawyer for Anapiyayev issued a strongly worded statement distancing his client from the murder.

Officer Shonoyev’s murder and Kolbayev’s arrest have thrust concerns about organized crime back into the spotlight in Kyrgyzstan. During his interview, Atakhanov did not shy from adding that “people beneficial for criminals” exist in the current Kyrgyz parliament. Though he could be talking simply about opponents of President Almazbek Atambayev, it’s worth considering in light of Kyrgyzstan’s recent history, and asking: Just how much influence do Kyrgyzstan’s feared kingpins wield over the current government, and how and when they will go about wielding it?

Is Kyrgyzstan’s Underworld Just Biding Its Time?

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