Two years after the death of criminal kingpin Rysbek Akmatbayev, who controlled organized criminal groups across Kyrgyzstan, the country’s new “thief in law” is 33-year-old Kamchybek Kolbayev (www.24.kg, May 25). Recently crowned in Moscow, Kolbayev, like Akmatbayev before him, has considerable influence over politics and business in the country, as well as a great deal of leverage with law-enforcement agencies. (www.24.kg, May 25). Rysbek and Kamchy are both better known by their first names.
Rysbek’s death on May 10, 2006, left the position of “leading criminal” vacant, with rivalry among criminal groups over who would be his successor. Rumors that Kamchy would be the likeliest candidate to occupy the place of a nation-wide criminal leader spread across Kyrgyzstan days after Rysbek’s death. According to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Internal Affairs, Kamchy was finally “crowned” on April 23 at the Moscow nightclub Kristall. About 30 other “thieves in law” attended the event, including “Yaponchik,” the nickname of the notorious Russian mafia boss Vyacheslav Ivankov (www.24.kg, May 25). Kamchy’s so-called coronation in Moscow proves that transnational criminal connections are strong and criminal leaders in Kyrgyzstan are supported by their Russian counterparts.
According to former Interior Minister Omurbek Suvanaliyev, Kyrgyz security structures were mobilized to prevent the emergence of any criminal who would threaten political circles to the extent that Rysbek once did. Suvanaliyev recounted that Rysbek was able to intimidate even the most high-ranking security officials, and his direct team of over 100 men constantly threatened the lives of regular policemen. Several contract killings before and after the March 2005 Tulip Revolution were believed to have been masterminded by Rysbek’s people. Such influence was possible only by maintaining strong support from political officials.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev once met with Rysbek at the central square in Bishkek in front of the public and journalists, exposing his ties with the criminal (www24.kg, March 31, 2006). A number of political leaders frequently spoke in support of Rysbek, who shortly before his death won a seat in parliament after being acquitted of a triple homicide and numerous other charges.
Many political leaders, businessmen and representatives of law-enforcement agencies welcomed Rysbek’s death as they had been intimidated by him on a number of occasions, but Rysbek’s death caused panic as well. Without a nation-wide criminal leader, some were afraid that the criminal world would lose central control and small criminal bands would act independently.
Already by the end of 2006, it was clear that Kamchy had become an influential authority both in the criminal underworld and in political and business circles. “Anyone launching a business should divide his income in three: one part for himself, one for the official authorities and one for Kamchy,” an entrepreneur in Bishkek said. Kamchy sends his people, usually marshal arts sportsmen, to private offices and demands payments to the criminal world using techniques ranging from verbal diplomacy to direct physical intimidation.
Unlike Kamchy, Rysbek was not the traditional “thief in law” but was rather a leader promoting nationalist ideas and thus gathering support among regular citizens. “Rysbek was a patriot; he defended the Kyrgyz from Chechen and other Caucasian criminal groups,” a man from Rysbek’s home village said. Rysbek had a severe confrontation with Aziz Batukayev, an ethnic Chechen “thief in law,” who was imprisoned for several years. Batukayev was believed to have masterminded the assassination of Rysbek’s younger brother Tynychbek in a prison riot in October 2005.
Impoverished rural areas are a fertile breeding ground for criminal organizations in Kyrgyzstan. Young men unable to find a job face a choice of going into the army or joining criminal groups, which will guarantee some earnings as well as social status. Experience in martial arts and a strong character are especially valued among criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, the criminal subculture, its slang and informal divisions are popular among school children across the country. Criminal leaders are renowned for their machismo behavior and quick minds.
The “coronation” of Kamchy was met with anger among law-enforcement circles. As one young policeman from Bishkek told Jamestown, “we had been trying to catch him [Kamchy] before his coronation, but it was all in vain. He built up a great deal of authority.” Even though Kamchy and a dozen of his followers were arrested by the police at a Bishkek cafe on April 29, they were released within hours. Occasionally, Kamchy people are stripped of weapons and armaments.
It seems that once again, law-enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan will be powerless in preventing, investigating and persecuting contract killings, racketeering and kidnappings for political and business interests. “The government needs a criminal leader to further control the police,” the policeman concluded.