Organized criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan have significantly weakened since the death of criminal kingpin Rysbek Akmatbayev on May 10. According to Deputy Minister of Interior Omurbek Suvanaliyev, today Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies are able to curb criminal organizations and thwart the merger of the political and criminal worlds. This is the first time since the March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution that Kyrgyz power structures have asserted their dominance over criminal groups.
Organized criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan spread their influence after the Tulip Revolution, as weak central power structures sought cooperation with the underground world. According to Kyrgyz experts, the presidential administration, members of parliament, the prosecutor-general, and various representatives of the judicial branch reportedly supported Rysbek. Many of the current members of parliament had known Rysbek before entering the political scene. MPs active in the business sphere had first encountered Rysbek’s racketeering in the 1990s. “Ninety percent of parliament members today feel more relaxed after the death of Rysbek,” a Ministry of Interior representative told Jamestown.
The use of criminal leaders in politics became a common practice in Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1990s. Various political leaders sought help from the criminal world to intimidate their rivals. Rysbek had already engaged in such political games during the reign of former president Askar Akayev. After the March 24 revolution, several political figures increasingly relied upon criminal forces to grab as much state power as possible. According to Rashid Tagayev, a member of parliament and the leader of a national committee on organized crime, “Everyone — from state officials to criminals — moved beyond legal frameworks after the revolution.”
Yet Rysbek was cleared of all pending charges in January 2006 and won a seat in the April parliamentary elections (see EDM, April 11). By becoming politically active and gaining legal immunity, Rysbek also became publicly exposed. He and members of his gang could not carry arms and openly lead a guerilla life. The kingpin’s actions were scrutinized not only by law-enforcement agents, but also by his rivals in the underground world. Ulan, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from Bishkek, told Jamestown that without carrying a personal weapon, Rysbek was left vulnerable to his long-time criminal foes.
Representatives of the Ministry of Interior assure the public that Kyrgyzstan today is able to fight organized crime and to prevent its infiltration of the state. Rysbek’s death dethroned his criminal network, which had extended from northern Issyk-Kul to southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. Other existing criminal organizations in Kara-Balta, Talas, Osh, and Jalalabad are reported to be declining as well. The faction led by the imprisoned Aziz Batukayev, an ethnic Chechen, is also losing membership.
Off the record, many observers believe the increased rate of contract murders in recent months to be Rysbek’s unfinished business. However, no official verdict has been made. Suvanaliyev reminds that investigating contract murders is difficult. Although Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies might have suspicions about who ordered a particular hit, it is difficult to collect evidence. The Ministry of Interior is also hindered by criminals with connections to top political officials. “It is always difficult to arrest a criminal who is backed by the highest echelons of political power,” the head of the Kyrgyz General Board of Criminal Investigation complained to Jamestown. Three parliament members and several sportsmen were assassinated last year.
Kyrgyz mass media outlets and NGOs have taken an active part in reporting the spread of criminal groups in post-March 24 politics. The public is well-informed regarding criminal groups and their leaders. It is also evident that state officials rely the mass media for information on the topic. There are some fears among the Kyrgyz public that another criminal leader will succeed Rysbek. “The whole place is never empty” is a common Kyrgyz reaction to Rysbek’s death.
The pervasiveness of criminal groups in post-March 24 period cultivated a subculture of violence, notes Kyrgyz analyst Aleksandr Zelichenko. Kyrgyz youth followed the examples of aggression exhibited by infamous criminals. The rise of violence was evident in schools, among ethnic groups, and on the street. The amount of illegal small arms circulating among the population also increased.
Despite increased violence in politics and society, Kyrgyz NGOs are optimistic about the changes achieved through their mass demonstrations on April 29 and May 27 (see EDM, June 6). One Bishkek NGO leader told Jamestown that the government has satisfied two out of the three main requests made by Kyrgyz civil society groups and the political opposition regarding the merger of criminal and state structures. The first request was to remove the head of the National Security Service, Tashtemir Aitbayev, who was suspected of supporting criminal leaders. Second, they demanded the arrest of Nurlan Motuyev, who had illegally seized the Kara-Keche coal mine in Naryn oblast. The third request — to stop supporting Rysbek and strip him of his parliamentary seat — was also realized, yet there is official verdict regarding who killed the criminal kingpin.
Indeed, removing one mafia boss has not solved the broader issues of drug trafficking and the shadow economy. However, the rise and fall of Rysbek during the last year was an important lesson for Kyrgyz political leaders. By resorting to the service of criminal kingpins, state officials risk becoming dependent on them.