To say that Kyrgyzstan has been riddled with controversy lately would be an understatement. Protests in the Issyk-Kul region spiraled out of hand over the foreign-owned Kumtor mine and in response, a state of emergency was temporarily declared. Moreover, on June 6, one of Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Prime Ministers, Shamil Atakhanov, resigned following a scandal over the early release of reputed crime boss, Aziz Batukaev, who later fled to Chechnya.
Batukaev’s release has come amid a highly publicized government anticorruption campaign led by President Almazbek Atambayev, who has made combatting the issue a priority since taking office in December 2011. Due to this confluence of scandals, the impunity of organized crime in Kyrgyzstan has once again been shifted into the spotlight.
Batukaev made his name by being a central figure in the drug trade during the chaos of the transition to independence from Soviet rule. He quickly amassed power and became a major crime boss in the country. Eventually, he was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 16 years for racketeering as well as the high-profile murders of a parliamentary deputy and a state prison official.
In early April, Batukaev walked out of Naryn prison and was escorted to a chartered plane, which then sent him off to Chechnya. The official reason for his release was his deteriorating health, but this narrative was quickly debunked. Following Batukaev’s premature release, the issue of governmental corruption was brought up in parliament. The May 29 debate unearthed evidence of Batukaev’s good health, even showcasing photographs of the crime boss smoking a cigarette, while sitting next to a table full of alcohol and platters of food in his prison cell. The parliamentary debate eventually culminated with Deputy Prime Minister, Shamil Atakhanov’s resignation.
But beyond parliamentary proceedings, the question remains, just how cozy are organized crime figures with politicians in present-day Kyrgyzstan?
Under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, organized crime bosses were rumored to operate with exceptional impunity and it was widely suspected that former President Bakiyev himself played a significant role in the heroin trade. This was exemplified, when Bakiyev famously disbanded the country’s Drug Control Agency (DCA) in 2009, following a high-profile seizure of Afghan heroin. Bakiyev was ousted from power after violent public demonstrations in 2010 and is now in exile in Belarus.
Since assuming office, President Atambayev has tried to distance himself from this reputation, but Kyrgyz politics remains very much an old boys club. Despite the 2010 change of executive power, many parliamentarians and high-up officials remain the same as during the Bakiyev-era, a fact that has left President Atambayev’s public fight against government corruption toothless.
Still, President Atambaev has frequently accused politicians of harbouring ties to Batukaev, as well as another alleged major crime boss, Kamchybek Kolbayev. Kolbayev is currently facing a lengthy prison sentence and began standing trial in Bishkek on April 18. Kolbayev’s current trial, however, is not his first. Back in 2006, while serving a 25-year prison sentence, Kolbayev somehow managed to secure his release and then vanish off the radar of law enforcement. The following year, state prosecutors closed all investigations into his activities.
This made Kolbayev’s return in December 2012 all the more confusing. It is still unknown if he was extradited from Dubai or whether he returned by his own will. Regardless, it is likely that there is more going on here than is apparent at the moment.
Kolbayev is no small fry in the Kyrgyz underworld. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him for his alleged connections to a multi-national drug trafficking and organized crime network known as the “Brothers’ Circle.” Moreover, Kolbayev is widely suspected of having orchestrated demonstrations in Kyrgyz prisons from abroad in January 2012, where thousands of inmates across the country stitched their mouths shut as a form of protest for better living conditions.
However, it is widely suspected that the demonstrations are related to attempts to reform the prison system that was underway in January 2012. In its current form, the prison system is open for control by organized crime bosses. Bosses can pay off wardens and attribute favours to prisoners serving time, ostensibly gaining access to a loyal criminal workforce further down the road. The demonstrations were seen as a display of control and a message to deter would-be reformers. Given that Kolbayev was able to wield this kind of influence over the phone in Dubai, it is unlikely that being behind bars will curb his influence.
Even so, President Atambayev has been able to achieve some very modest success in his fight against government corruption. According to Transparency International’s annual index, Kyrgyzstan’s score has risen from 164 to 154 out 174 countries while under his watch. Still, this progress is nothing to boast about. Kyrgyz institutions still remain weak and the power of the state is contested in some parts of the country.
As such, just as under President Atambayev’s predecessors, the symbiotic relationship between criminals and politicians in Kyrgyzstan has been able to continue. Until this relationship can be fractured, figures like Aziz Batukaev and Kamchybek Kolbayev will continue to make a mockery of law and order in Kyrgyzstan.