This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry appears to be trying to calm simmering tensions with the United States after a senior official criticized the top U.S. diplomat in Bishkek for his statements on the Central Asian nation’s problems with corruption.
About a dozen activists gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek on December 11 in support of U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu after the deputy chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament, Mirlan Bakirov, accused the U.S. diplomat of “meddling in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs” because of his statements regarding disputed parliamentary elections in October and the arrest of Raimbek Matraimov, a wealthy and influential political player in the Central Asian nation.
Bakirov’s comments came after the U.S. Treasury Department announced on December 9 that it had slapped sanctions on Matraimov for his role in a vast corruption and money-laundering scheme that saw hundreds of millions of dollars funneled out of the country.
Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurlan Suerkulov said on December 11 that “Kyrgyzstan is ready to closely work along with the United States and other countries against corruption.”
“The Kyrgyz side is grateful to the U.S. for its goodwill and proposal to cooperate in that direction…. Along with that, we think that such cooperation, as any other ties, must be carried out in frames of current legal norms and principles of interstate relations, one of which is noninterference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state,” Suerkulov added.
On December 5, Lu criticized proven cases of vote buying during controversial October 4 parliamentary elections that led to mass protests which ousted the government, led to the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and caused a deep political crisis in the country.
“This has been like a Hollywood mafia movie. But you don’t yet know how the movie will end,” he said of the situation, adding that while the government has taken some steps in the battle against graft, “they are not enough.”
The sanctions against Matraimov fall under the Magnitsky Act, a piece of legislation passed by the United States in 2012 that penalizes individuals responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.
Last year, a joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop, implicated Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.
Matraimov is one of three brothers from what is rumored to be one of the wealthiest and most-powerful families in Kyrgyzstan.
He was a key financial backer for political parties and presidents, including Jeenbekov and the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, which dominated the controversial October 4 parliamentary elections along with a party called Birimdik, which listed Jeenbekov’s brother among its ranks.
The $700 million scheme involved a company controlled by Matraimov bribing officials to skirt around customs fees and regulations, as well as engaging in money laundering, “allowing for maximum profits,” the U.S. Treasury Department said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a December 10 tweet said sanctions had also been imposed against Matraimov’s wife, Uulkan Turgunova.
Records leaked from the Turkish investigation into Saimaiti’s killing showed that he had named Matraimov as one of two people who would be responsible should something happen to him, according to a subsequent report by RFE/RL.
The other individual was Khabibula Abdukadyr — a Chinese-born Uyghur cargo magnate with a Kazakh passport for whom Saimaiti said he had laundered money.
Kyrgyz authorities said in October, following Matraimov’s arrest, that the tycoon had agreed to pay about 2 billion soms ($23.5) million in damages to the state, and that 80 million soms (almost $1 million) had been transferred to its account.
Matraimov and his family have denied any links to Saimaiti or corruption in the Kyrgyz customs service, and filed a libel suit over the investigation, demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, its former correspondent Ali Toktakunov, Kloop, and the 24.kg online newspaper as compensation for the alleged damages.
The hearing into the lawsuit was scheduled to resume on December 11 but because Judge Jyldyz Ismailova did not show up, the hearing was postponed to an unspecified time.
Toktakunov, who has received death threats in connection with the reporting, which has triggered street protests in Kyrgyzstan following its publication last year, said to RFE/RL on December 11 that since Matraimov accepted responsibility and agreed to compensate the financial damage to the state treasury, the lawsuit he filed must be withdrawn.