Rayimbek Matraimov: Do protests threaten Kyrgyzstan’s kingmaker?

A powerful family backed one of the few parties to succeed in a disputed vote, but the country is now unravelling.

Protesters gather at a rally in Bishkek demanding impeachment of President of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbay Jeenbekov. [Igor Kovalenko/EPA]

As a revolt spilled out onto Bishkek’s streets and Kyrgyzstan’s politics descended into chaos following a disputed parliamentary election, the local elite’s blood ran cold.

And some have more to lose than others.

Last week’s events developed rapidly, but as the country was unravelling, many of Kyrgyzstan’s social media personas took to their Instagram accounts not to document the protests but to delete what was left of their ostentatious support for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.

The new political force came second in the October 4 election race securing 24 percent of the vote – results which surprised few observers.

As the election battle reached its peak, it became clear that the party was unstoppable in its endeavour to fortify its position in Kyrgyz politics.

Through a widespread campaign of vote-buying and with “administrative resources” – a term used to describe the pressure exercised on government employees to vote in favour of the ruling party, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan became one of four parties which emerged as the victors of the election.

A total of 16 participated in the race; 11 refused to accept the results.

At the same time, none of the opposition forces managed to pass the 7 percent threshold to enter the parliament.

The party’s goals have been clear: to extend the political influence of the Matraimov family, one of the most powerful clans in the country, led by the former customs official Rayimbek Matraimov.

Nicknamed Raim Million, due to the enormous wealth he accumulated while working in the customs service, the most notorious member of the family is not officially part of the political project. He does not hold any public posts and rarely appears in public.

But for years, he has been the ultimate kingmaker in Kyrgyz politics with his acolytes infiltrating key public institutions and local media.

If the protests continue, the financial empire he has built over the years will be at stake.

Demonstrators shout slogans and hold placards during an anti-corruption rally in Bishkek on November 25, 2019 [Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP]

Rayimbek Matraimov, 49, joined the customs service in the late 1990s as a low-level official and over the years, moved up through the ranks to take on the role of the service’s deputy chair in 2015.

He was fired in 2017 by then-President Almazbek Atambayev and although he managed to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court, he never returned to the service.

His time in office proved profitable.

An investigation by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service in 2019 showed that during his tenure, the family transported more than $700m from the country.

In addition, as the joined investigation by OCCRP, Kloop, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, and Bellingcat showed, Matraimov oversaw a large-scale transnational corruption scheme in collusion with the Abdukadyr family.

The clan from China has been running an underground cargo transport empire and acquired immense wealth through customs fraud. That would be impossible without the continuing support of Rayimbek Matraimov.

“They were making a lot of money on various forms of customs fraud. A lot of people pointed to Matraimov as the key raider of the corruption at the customs service and we showed through the confession of a professional money launderer who was moving money for this family that Matraimov benefitted from this corruption,” Ilya Lozovsky from OCCRP told Al Jazeera.

A number of journalists reportedly faced intimidation, threats and even physical assault while investigating Matraimov’s businesses.

At the time of publishing, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

After leaving the custom service, Lozovsky says, through trusted confidants and proxies, Matraimov and the Abdukadyr family managed to take control of three important private custom terminals in the country.

The Matraimovs also own a vast property empire, a grocery store chain and a charitable foundation, which, according to Lozovsky, has not only supported poor students, provided COVID-19 relief and built mosques, but also benefitted hugely from Matraimov’s money-laundering scheme.

“Matraimov is a kingmaker who has always been in the shadows and he’s never had any blatant political ambitions. He is masterful in that sense. Yet, from behind the scenes, he has exerted massive influence on Kyrgyz politics,” Azim Azimov, a Kyrgyz political commentator told Al Jazeera.

“I always call them the Matraimov organisation because even though they are a clan, they operate like a corporation; they are buying their supporters. For years now, they have been investing in the media and public speakers of various nature to promote the agenda that the Matraimov organisation see fit.”

The family’s immense wealth has helped them to infiltrate all Kyrgyz public institutions.

Mekenin Kyrgyzstan was meant to be another project in the family’s empire with Iskander Matraimov, Rayimbek’s eldest brother, as one of the party’s faces.

But the post-election uprising has put the family’s influence into question.

“They are fighting for their political survival because if the upheaval turns into a revolution – they will be done. They will lose their wealth, they will be arrested and prosecuted and they know that people will not forgive them,” Azimov said. “Therefore, even if Raim had fled, I have no illusions that he has not given up. He still has influence on the events.”

Several days into the protests, one of Rayimbek’s brothers was arrested trying to cross illegally into Uzbekistan. There were reports that the kingmaker himself had fled the country, although this information has not been confirmed.

“The Matraimovs are not just a family or a single business. The way Rayimbek constructed his empire was by infiltrating all-important decision-making bodies. That’s how he has run his businesses. He needs the security forces and other state bodies to cover up for his transnational schemes. That’s why it’s so difficult to get rid of him,” said Asel Doolotkeldieva, a Kyrgyz academic.

“All other people who are one way or another involved in his business are also at stake. They need to stay in power to keep their business and reputations intact. That’s why it’s so difficult to succeed in the revolution. There are too many forces resisting the revolutionary moment.”