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What's Next For Kyrgyzstan After The Killing Of A U.S.-Sanctioned Crime Boss?

Kamchybek Kolbaev's influence in Kyrgyzstan was rumored to stretch from the prisons to the parliament and even the presidency. (file photo)
Kamchybek Kolbaev's influence in Kyrgyzstan was rumored to stretch from the prisons to the parliament and even the presidency. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Kamchybek Kolbaev was more than Kyrgyzstan's most powerful crime boss.

In a system drenched in corruption and powered by illegal activity, he was perhaps at one point the most powerful player of them all, with influence reaching far beyond the country and deep into the bowels of Eurasian crime.

Yet whatever status he enjoyed at home was apparently diminished by the time security forces moved on him in central Bishkek on October 4, shooting him dead either on or near the territory of a popular brew pub that he owned.

A few years ago, the idea would have seemed laughable.

After all, Kolbaev's influence in Kyrgyzstan was rumored to stretch from the prisons to the parliament and -- according to cruel tongues -- the presidency.

Kamchybek Tashiev
Kamchybek Tashiev

But Kyrgyzstan is nothing if not a box of surprises.

And now the focus is on whether there will be more to come, with Kolbaev's killing bound to have implications both for politics in the country and all manner of illicit trade traveling through it.

'Drinking From The Same Trough?'

Officially Kolbaev was "liquidated" after opening fire during an operation to detain him carried out by the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) headed by another Kamchybek -- Kamchybek Tashiev.

The UKMK said in a statement that it had been attempting to detain him in connection with illegally owned property and the murder of another reputed crime boss, Chyngyz Jumagulov, more than a year ago.

Kolbaev, the longest reigning of all of Kyrgyzstan’s crime kingpins, had since 2011 been designated under the United States' Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

The sanctions pertained to his reputed links to the Eurasian heroin trade, with U.S. authorities deeming him a member of a multicountry crime ring known as The Brothers' Circle.

But of all the crimes and charges that he spent time behind bars for in Kyrgyzstan -- about a decade in total across three stints -- drug trafficking was not among them.

His final term in jail was the shortest; he was released just six months after his arrest on criminal conspiracy charges with little expectation he would ever face justice.

That last arrest came in 2020 as then-acting President Sadyr Japarov and Tashiev had promised a crackdown on crime after arriving in power in a political crisis that saw Japarov sprung from jail.

"Respected bandits! We are giving you very little time: Either you live according to the law, go to jail, or leave our state. This country will no longer be criminal and corrupt," Tashiev promised on his first day as UKMK chief.

Japarov made similar pledges in his first address as acting president.

And although he did not mention fellow Issyk-Kul Province native Kolbaev by name, he did pledge that authorities would arrest another powerbroker often cited as Kolbaev's business partner -- the former customs official Raimbek Matraimov.

Raimbek Matraimov
Raimbek Matraimov

Matraimov, now also under U.S. sanctions, was duly arrested and convicted in the months that followed.

But he was promptly released after the government claimed he had repaid some $24 million to the state, having spent even less time behind bars than the jail-hardened Kolbaev.

For seasoned observers of Kyrgyz politics, the lenient treatment given to two notoriously powerful men was unsurprising.

After all, Japarov's overnight leadership bid had been massively tainted by suggestions that he had risen to power thanks to backing from Kolbaev.

Aida Kasymalieva, an ally of outgoing President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, complained she had been threatened by gangsters for shedding doubt on the legality of a vote that established Japarov as president.

One of her colleagues, parliamentarian Dastan Bekeshev, said Japarov was "100 percent" controlled by Kolbaev.

And the allegations of ties between Japarov and Kolbaev were not limited to that period.

President Sadyr Japarov
President Sadyr Japarov

In 2011, when Japarov was an opposition lawmaker, then-Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev had accused the future head of state of "drinking from the same trough" as the notorious gangster.

So how did it go wrong for the kingpin?

Decline Of A 'Ruthless Subculture'

Mark Galeotti, a renowned expert on organized crime, made a few suggestions on that score in a piece published for the British magazine The Spectator, placing Kolbaev's death in the context of what he called the decline of a "ruthless subculture" of the Eurasian "thief-in-law."

This Eurasia-specific phenomenon, with roots in the gulag prison camps of the Soviet Union, saw "crowned" figures like Kolbaev openly embrace their gangster status along with a fairly conservative set of behavioral codes.

But after the assassinations of key "thieves" in the past 20 years, business models have undergone a change, Galeotti explained.

"If the [thieves] were the traditionalist Don Corleones of the post-Soviet underworld, their successors, known as 'avtoritety' (authorities), are criminal entrepreneurs. They are typically flexible businessmen happy to do whatever makes the most money safely," he wrote.

Omurbek Bakirov
Omurbek Bakirov

Galeotti also argued that Kolbaev may have been opposed to international sanctions-evasion schemes demanded by Kyrgyzstan's top ally, Russia, fearing they might bring more attention to narcotics traveling from Afghanistan to Europe via the same country.

This meant that Kolbaev's slaying could lead to "more organized sanctions busting," Galeotti predicted, "given that there have been plausible suggestions that Kyrgyzstan's notorious [UKMK] or political police are involved in this illegal business."

A Turf War Or A War On Organized Crime?

The idea of a rivalry between the two Kamchybeks seems logical, in no small part due to their shared absence of capacity for compromise.

Japarov's appointment of his longtime friend as top security chief three years ago put the headstrong Tashiev in charge of an agency with traditionally close ties to Russia and an abundance of boots on the ground.

Almost immediately after that appointment, the state border service was folded into the UKMK, giving it yet more power, and Tashiev a good view of the illicit trade flows that have allegedly enriched both criminals and their political protection over the years.

He also never hid his anger at Kolbaev’s influence in political circles.

In November 2022, when then-lawmaker Omurbek Bakirov challenged Tashiev in parliament over a controversial border agreement with Uzbekistan, Tashiev responded with an angry tirade.

"We know who you are and we know how you were elected. Soon we’ll look into it," he fumed.

Bakirov's office in the parliament was subsequently cleared out.

The following month, the UKMK released a statement accusing the lawmaker of paying a visit to Kolbaev in his home base of Cholpon-Ata -- an obvious move for a politician under pressure.

Bakirov denied the allegations. But he was stripped of his lawmaker's seat by a court earlier this year.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, former Interior Minister Omurbek Suvanaliev noted that Tashiev was just recently at a "large-scale celebration attended by ex-presidents, former speakers, former prime ministers, heroes of the Kyrgyz republic, [and] major businessmen" -- with Kolbaev walking freely among the guests.

"[This] caused a stir in society. After this incident the authorities seem to have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to fight with criminal gangs," said Suvanaliev.

Thousands gathered in Cholpon-Ata to witness the kingpin known to the underworld as Kolya Kyrgyz make his final journey on October 5, as questions about a possible succession swirled.

On October 4, according to RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service sources, Matraimov was questioned by the UKMK before being released.

Media investigations co-authored by RFE/RL have tied the former Customs Service honcho to a massive smuggling empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and few doubt that he is still involved in the trade.


A key source for those investigations, a self-confessed money-launderer who was later gunned down in an outdoor cafe in Istanbul, referred to Kolbaev as someone who "protected" Matraimov -- a protector who is now gone.

Also on October 4 -- and again, without official confirmation -- Altynbek "Altukha" Ibraimov, an allegedly senior member of Kolbaev's entourage, was reportedly released from prison despite his awaiting trial on charges of large-scale extortion.

What to read into these moves?

Tashiev, for one, is adamant that history is not about to repeat itself.

"I warn those who were near the crime boss who was eliminated yesterday. If anyone tries to raise his head against society or starts organizing illegal activities, he will be severely punished!" he said as he presided over the opening of yet another new building for the UKMK, this time in Tokmak -- a city with a long reputation for organized crime.

"Yes, there were years when some criminal authorities were replaced by others, who created even larger groups and controlled society even more. Now this won't happen," he insisted.

Japarov, meanwhile, has issued no comment on Kolbaev's killing.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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