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Gangsta Tears? After Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan Strikes At Organized Crime

Known for his love of fashionable blazers and well-shined shoes, the announcement of Salim Abduvaliev's arrest was announced showing him wearing a simple hooded sweatshirt.
Known for his love of fashionable blazers and well-shined shoes, the announcement of Salim Abduvaliev's arrest was announced showing him wearing a simple hooded sweatshirt.

ALMATY -- If you have an underworld nickname, live in Central Asia, and find it difficult to keep a low profile, this might not have been such a great year for you.

Just weeks after security services in Kyrgyzstan gunned down the country's most notorious crime figure and began a very public campaign to arrest and "retire" mobsters lower down the food chain, neighboring Uzbekistan appears to have undertaken a similar effort.

And one of the most notable casualties of what Uzbek authorities are calling a 40-day campaign against organized crime is a true household name, who might now be facing his first-ever stint in jail.

Salim Abduvaliev, aka Salimbay, aka Salim the Rich, is hardly publicity-shy. Since 2017, Abduvaliev has been vice president of Uzbekistan's National Olympic Committee and has received multiple official awards for his contributions to sports. In terms of his alleged influence over government, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from as far back as 2006 depicted him as a "Tashkent mafia chief" who "sold" high-level government positions to officials and helped businesses secure lucrative government contracts.

Until now, it appeared that Abduvaliev had only grown more prominent under President Shavkat Mirziyoev, whose predecessor Islam Karimov cracked down on mafia groups in the early 1990s and periodically until his death in 2016.

The December 5 announcement by Tashkent police that Abduvaliev was under investigation in connection with illegal weapons possession came as a shock to the public. Known for his love of fashionable blazers and well-shined shoes, the 73-year-old Abduvaliev was shown wearing a simple hooded sweatshirt in the photograph accompanying the announcement. The statement said nothing about Abduvaliev being taken into custody, but sources subsequently told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he had not been at his family home for days.

Extortion Empires?

If Abduvaliev is indeed behind bars, he will have as much company as he wants.

Since what Uzbek officials are calling their 40 Striking Days campaign began, at least 200 suspected career criminals have been detained, with raids in Tashkent and across the country.

But experts are reluctant to speculate over the longer-term implications of the raids. "We will need a minimum of two to three years to understand the effectiveness of these measures," Alisher Ilkhamov, a political analyst and head of the U.K.-based Central Asia Due Diligence research company, told RFE/RL.

Salimbaev is not the only big name linked to the campaign. The arrest of Baxtiyor Kudratullaev on charges of large-scale extortion along with two suspected accomplices were announced by the Tashkent police a day earlier.

Baxtiyor Kudratullaev
Baxtiyor Kudratullaev

In 2018, sources including a driver had told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Kudratullaev invited underworld partners from Russia and Kazakhstan to Tashkent in order to talk shop -- a bold move that suggested crime bosses might be spreading their wings under Mirziyoev.

Ilkhamov notes that extortion charges have featured prominently in the most recent sweeps, and speculates that a desire to provide assurances to investors might be one motivation for the raids. Mirziyoev complained in 2021 that some of the country's largest markets paid "tribute" to criminal bosses, and he demanded an end to the practice.

The first information regarding the campaign against organized crime appeared on November 21. But a rare public breakdown of law and order in Tashkent on November 25 may have accelerated the crackdown, at least in the capital. On that evening, concertgoers who had been sold counterfeit tickets to a rap concert reacted angrily to being turned away from the venue, triggering a riot.

Multiple local media reports have claimed that a warrant has been issued for the arrest of another reputed crime boss, Gafur Rahimov. But there has been no confirmation by police of any action with respect to Rahimov.

Like Abduvaliev, Rahimov has always denied any connection to organized crime. Both men received public praise from former Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, who described the pair as sport-loving "patriots" in a 2019 interview.

Otabek Umarov and Gafur Rahimov
Otabek Umarov and Gafur Rahimov

Rahimov was designated a decade ago as having ties to transnational crime by the U.S. Treasury, along with other members of what Washington called "the Brothers' Circle" -- a Eurasian drug-trafficking network. The designation complicated Rahimov's bid to remain the permanent head of the Lausanne-based Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA), after his election in 2018 increased tensions between the AIBA and the International Olympic Committee. Rahimov formally stepped down the following year.

'Respected Gangsters'

Rahimov describes himself as a firm supporter of Russia, claiming credit for helping to swing the vote in favor of Sochi's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

According to Aleksandr Litvinenko -- a former Russian security officer-turned Kremlin critic who was fatally poisoned with polonium in the United Kingdom in 2008 following his defection -- Rahimov's services to Moscow's most powerful went well beyond this.

Citing conversations with other Russian officials, Litvinenko wrote in his book Lubyanka Criminal Group that an "Uzbek team" led by a man he called "Gafur" was an important vehicle for funneling illicit cash to future Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter's time as St. Petersburg's deputy mayor. Putin has never acknowledged any of the claims Litvinenko made after fleeing abroad under pressure from the state in 2000.

In Uzbekistan, Rahimov once occupied the vice presidency of the National Olympic Committee that is currently occupied by Salimbaev and is now the deputy head of the national boxing federation.

It was in this capacity that he was photographed weeks ago sitting beside MIrziyoev's son, Miralisher Mirziyoev, and the president's son-in-law, Otabek Umarov, at a boxing event in Tashkent, where boxing legend Mike Tyson was also in attendance.

The recent Uzbek government campaign against organized crime has been drawing comparisons with the one launched in the 1990s by Karimov. But there are also parallels with recent events over the border in Kyrgyzstan.

There, back in 2020, flamboyant national security chief Kamchybek Tashiev attracted ridicule for issuing a warning to men he addressed as "respected bandits" that their days of impunity were numbered.

The notion of a crackdown on organized crime had appeared particularly far-fetched at the time, given speculation that criminal networks allegedly assisted Tashiev and his ally -- Kyrgyzstan's current president, Sadyr Japarov -- in their rise to power during a period of political unrest.

But three years later, Tashiev looks to be keeping his word.

Kamchybek Kolbaev, aka Kolya Kyrgyz, a U.S.-sanctioned individual linked to the same "Brothers' Circle" network as Rahimov, was on October 4 dramatically gunned down by security services in a daytime operation in central Bishkek.

In the days and weeks that followed, the number of arrests grew, with security services targeting not just suspected mobsters but businessmen whom they accused of having ties to criminals.

A number of videos emerged alongside the reports, featuring alleged underworld figures publicly rejecting "the way of the thieves and criminal understandings" while expressing their support for the government.

But like Uzbek analyst Ilkhamov, Kyrgyz political commentator and journalist Borubek Kudayarov maintains that it's too early to celebrate any kind of victory over organized crime, which he says has corrupted politics and the justice system at every conceivable level in Kyrgyzstan.

In fact, Kudayarov argues, it's likely the appearance of influence of criminal groups on politics -- Kolbaev was sometimes seen mingling with politicians at parties -- moved Kyrgyz leaders to "rectify the situation" by taking out the biggest target there was.

"I don't think Japarov and Tashiev have the aim of completely eradicating organized crime," Kudayarov told RFE/RL. "It is likely that they want a different behavioral model, like the one in Kazakhstan, for instance, where organized crime exists but its influence is minimized and [its leaders] stay in the shadows."

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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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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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