“So if they provide these services, we’re supposed to vote for them?” writes a resident of a Bishkek apartment building in a local WhatsApp group.
“Of course,” the building supervisor answers. “I need lists tomorrow, write me privately whoever’s in favor. … We need 300 votes.”
According to the supervisor, the offer — to outfit the apartment building with CCTV cameras or lay a new coat of asphalt outside — had come from Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, a political party that has emerged as a top contender in this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Among the party’s most prominent backers are two members of the influential Matraimov family.
Iskender Matraimov, already in parliament, is running for a new term in office under Mekenim Kyrgyzstan’s banner. His younger brother Raimbek, a former customs official nicknamed “Raim Million” for his questionably acquired riches, plays a less public role but is widely assumed to exert heavy influence behind the scenes.
Iskender Matraimov (center) in a promotional video for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.
But the Matraimov family’s affiliation with the party is only the latest and most obvious sign of its growing social and political clout, built on the back of massive wealth.
For years, the Matraimovs’ charitable foundation — previously reported to have received money from a money laundering network — has built mosques, organized sporting events for the disabled, and sponsored needy students. This year, it has gone on a heavily-advertised campaign of COVID-19 relief. It’s no wonder that many locals from the Matraimovs’ home region view them as generous benefactors.
But not all of their power is soft power. The southern city of Osh and surrounding towns have become hostile ground for visiting journalists. The family sued two Kyrgyz media organizations and OCCRP partners in response to previous investigations. Athletic young men, or sportsmeni, have intimidated, threatened, and assaulted the Matraimovs’ perceived opponents.
And in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections, the family’s wealth and influence has been brought to bear.
“The Matraimovs’ political organization, which is the heart and the brain of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, has always collected votes for the party in power,” said Azim Azimov, a Kyrgyz political commentator. “And in 2020 it’s collecting votes for itself.”
As slick advertisements for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan run on television and banners hang across the country, the party backed by the Matraimovs has been accused of violating electoral law, intimidating opponents, and outright buying votes.
Asked by reporters to respond to these allegations, a party spokesperson sent a statement accusing political opponents of slander and said “fakes and black PR” have only made the party more popular among its supporters.
The spokesperson denied that Mekenim Kyrgyzstan buys votes, insisted that it upholds the law, and said that the party is prepared to take responsibility for any violations that could be proven. These should be reported to the proper authorities, the spokesperson said. He did not say whether Raimbek Matraimov has donated to Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, noting only that the party has many “successful” supporters.
Raimbek Matraimov could not be reached for comment for this story. An assistant of Iskender Matraimov wrote that the family would be unable to provide any comments until after the October 4 election.
A Mekenim Kyrgyzstan banner on the former ElDorado shopping center in Bishkek. The building is owned by Iskender Matraimov’s wife.
The Politics of Clans And Soms
Kyrgyzstan’s political lines are drawn largely around familial and regional loyalties. With few exceptions, successful leaders are identified by the clans they belong to: The family of former President Askar Akayev were known simply as “The Family,” the relatives of Kurmanbek Bakiyev were called the “Baksi,” and the Matraimovs are sometimes called the “Matri.”
These dynamics are reflected in party politics. Labels like liberal or conservative mean little as citizens align with political parties backed by favored clans.
Many votes are “collected” by “agitators,” prominent locals hired by political parties to rally their kin for the vote. Some voters are drawn to the polls by the promise of material benefit, or simply of cash.
This renders Kyrgyzstan’s fragile political system vulnerable to moneyed interests. “To open an office and pay agitators, you need a lot of money,” an opposition activist explained, citing a price of four million soms ($50,000) to “buy 2,000 votes for 2,000 soms each.”
The clan-based politics also has a regional dimension. Securing the support of southern leaders is crucial to national political success, as they represent Kyrgyzstan’s most populous regions.
This was the formula followed by the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) in the last parliamentary elections in 2015, in which the party did well enough to form a government. It was supported by a mix of wealthy northern leaders, experienced apparatchiks, and southern businessmen — including the Matraimovs, whose home district of Kara-Suu is the country’s most populous.
“[The Matraimov family’s] political organization has long been the main machine of collecting votes,” says Azimov, the Kyrgyz political commentator.
But the SDPK unraveled in the wake of its victory due to infighting between two of its most prominent members, outgoing president Almazbek Atambaev and newly elected Sooronbay Zheenbekov. One apparent casualty of this conflict was Raimbek Matraimov, whose firing was orchestrated by Atambaev as one of his last acts in office.
The schism was so severe that the party is not even contesting this year’s election, leaving a wide open field.
Kyrgyzstan’s ‘southern capital’ of Osh.
Originally established in 2015 as a local southern party, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan took third place in a March 2016 local election in the city of Osh. One political scientist noted with surprise that a party “previously unknown to anyone” had done so well.
Over the next few years, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan won seats in several more local councils. Back then it had no known connection to the Matraimovs, though the brother of the party’s co-founder owns Ihlas, a construction company that is now developing a large residential and commercial building in Osh in partnership with Chynara Matraimova, Raimbek’s sister.
But at some point, the family moved in.
It’s difficult to pinpoint how and when this happened. But the party is now widely cited in the Kyrgyz media as a Matraimov vehicle, and “there are a million small confirmations” of the family’s control, says Azimov.
In addition to Iskender’s place on the party list, Azimov said, “we have seen Raimbek Matraimov, who comes and visits public events associated with the party, even to the point of filming videos.”
“But in general, I don’t have a sense that they’re hiding it,” he said. “It seems to me that the moment when Matraimov and his team showed any impartiality or non-affiliation has long passed.”
Five of the top 20 spots on the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan list are filled by people connected to the Matraimov family. Iskender Matraimov, the eldest Matraimov brother and already a member of parliament, is tenth on the list. Other candidates connected to the family include:
Mirlan Bakirov — Party leader. Vice-speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament and reportedly a friend of Islambek Matraimov.
Baktybek Kanaliev — The vice speaker of the Osh City Council served as a director of Avtoexpress Invest, a company that operated the Matraimovs’ customs terminal in the southern town of Kara-Suu.
Elnura Alkanova — A close associate of the Matraimov family who has published materials seeking to discredit OCCRP, Radio Azattyk, and Kloop’s earlier investigations into Raimbek Matraimov. (Alkanova briefly worked for Kloop and Radio Azattyk. She was also a fellow at OCCRP).
Talantbek Sarbagyshev — Sarbagyshev became the co-owner of UniLab, a company that operates a major customs terminal in northern Kyrgyzstan, after its previous owner had been pressured to sell. Then working as a police officer, he held ownership for just seven weeks before the company passed to others. Sarbagyshev is now the mayor of the resort city of Cholpon-Ata on Lake Issyk-Kul. Three knowledgeable inside sources who cannot be named to protect their safety have alleged that he has associations with Kamchy Kolbaev, a well-known figure in the Kyrgyz criminal underworld. Asked about his connections with Kolbaev, Sarbagyshev said: “I grew up in the same town, I have connections with all … good people … What, aren’t they humans?” He also told reporters he had nothing to do with UniLab.
Nurbek Kerimbekov — A wrestling and horse racing enthusiast who has a quasi-familial relationship with the Matraimov family. According to media reports and transport industry insiders, he is the okul bala (“named son,” a Kyrgyz traditional form of godson) of Almazbek Arstanbaev, a businessman who is himself an okul bala of Raimbek Matraimov.
Kanatbek Mamatov — The head of the Kyrgyz Football Union, Mamatov once gifted a valuable plot of land in the elite cottage village of Ala-Archa to Apiza Matraimova, the Matraimov siblings’ mother. The family built a luxurious residence on the land, which they later sold.
Every Vote Counts
One key advantage held by Mekenim Kyrgyzstan — and the Matraimovs themselves — is money.
The party declared that it spent 116 million soms ($1.4 million) on its campaign between July 9 and August 25 — far more than any other party.
Some of that money pays for normal campaign advertising. Professionally produced television ads, some showcasing beautiful drone footage, tout candidates’ local roots and business acumen. Party banners and posters are plastered across cities and towns, especially in the south of the country.
An image from a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan promotional video shows Mirlan Bakirov, the party’s leader and a friend of Islambek Matraimov, talking about his rural background.
But there’s also evidence that Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is benefiting from misuse of administrative resources — enjoying open support from supposedly neutral government bodies — and of simply paying people cash for their votes.
In one case, a large Mekenim Kyrgyzstan poster was displayed at an official Kyrgyz border crossing. (The party reportedly said that the poster had been placed there after being stolen by border guards or customs officials.)
Claims have appeared online that the party is spending money to win the support of citizens. In one video shared on YouTube, a woman says that the party had provided a meal for her and several companions. “Mekenim Kyrgyzstan made a holiday for us,” she says. “There’s vodka, wine, cognac. Sitting here with the ladies. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.”
A southern activist for a party that opposes Mekenim Kyrgyzstan told reporters that, in his village, it is buying votes outright.
“Mekenim Kyrgyzstan agitators get five to ten thousand soms ($60 — $120),” he said, referring to locals who are tasked with collecting votes for the party. “They don’t say ‘sell your vote,’ they just give the money and say it’s ‘for tea.’ That means they’ve roped you in. Yesterday, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan started giving out 2,000 soms per person in our village.”
He also spoke of physical intimidation.
“I won’t say ‘criminals,’ but sporty and slightly criminal people came to me in my village,” he said. “They said I should just lie low. They said, ‘You see, I’m supposed to collect votes here. Why would you make problems for yourself?’”
Azimov, the political commentator, said such tactics are common.
“Saying that it’s only Mekenim Kyrgyzstan that buys votes is one-sided. Practically all parties do this,” he said. “Clearly, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan has more financial resources. But buying votes is a widespread practice.”
In addition to money, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan’s other great advantage is its strong base of local support in the south of the country. It owes this, in large part, to the Matraimovs. To see how they maintain their influence, reporters headed to the family’s home district of Kara-Suu.
A bazaar in Osh.
At Home in the South
“The road to the universe begins in the village,” reads a post on the official Facebook page of Iskender Matraimov, accompanying a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan campaign video.
The Matraimovs’ home village is Agartuu, a small, perfectly rectangular settlement in this densely populated agricultural region. The family’s mansion and many of their businesses are based in the nearby city of Osh, and Matraimov companies are registered in villages and towns nearby. Osh and the district capital of Kara-Suu are covered with Mekenim Kyrgyzstan posters.
But the family’s influence is most evident in Agartuu itself. The village mosque was built by the Matraimovs, locals told reporters. A street in the village is named after Ismail, the father of Iskender and Raimbek. Even the family’s charitable foundation is registered in the tiny village.
When two female Kloop reporters stopped by Agartuu last June, they found that locals were wary of journalists. Near the home of one of the Matraimov brothers, the reporters were questioned by a teenager who snapped pictures of them on his phone. Minutes later, a policeman arrived, saying he had received reports of “suspicious girls,” and asked what they were doing. The message was unambiguous: They were not welcome.
Conversations with locals revealed the extent of the Matraimovs’ popularity. The family has earned wide support for its donations to students, orphans, and the sick and needy.
A local woman who is a distant relative of Raimbek’s mother had nothing but praise for the family: “All us residents of Agartuu are for the Matraimovs,” she said.
She knew little of Raimbek, but praised his brother Ruslanbek for furnishing her son with spending money for holidays.
Another Matraimov brother, Tilekbek, had ensured that water and electricity connections would be built on a neighboring street where her son owns property, she said. Tilekbek is the official head of the Kara-Suu district, but she insisted that it was not the government that had paid for the work.
“He himself provided it,” she said. “Not as the district head.”
She said she didn’t ask questions about the source of the family’s wealth: “If I ask where their money is from … they’ll tell me it’s none of my business.”
A Mekenim Kyrgyzstan banner in Osh.
Perhaps the most visible tool in the Matraimovs’ arsenal is the family’s charity, the Ismail Matraimov Foundation, named after the siblings’ late father.
Founded in 2013 and headed by another brother, Ruslanbek, the foundation focuses on health, education, and athletics. It has bought groceries for people affected by ethnic conflict, organized sporting events for the disabled, and given stipends to orphans.
The organization’s reach and influence attracts senior government officials to its events. A volleyball tournament it organized last May was reportedly attended by a deputy prime minister, the speaker of parliament, nearly a dozen legislators, and the former mayor of Bishkek.
But earlier investigations by OCCRP, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, Kloop, and Bellingcat raised questions about the origins of the foundation’s finances. Bank records and other documents show that nearly half of the money the organization is known to have received between 2014 and 2019 came from an underground network that laundered a fortune out of Kyrgyzstan.
The foundation has never made its donors public. When reporters asked about the source of funding for its COVID-19 donations in a recent interview, Iskender Matraimov directed them to its Facebook page, which contains no such information.
Last summer, lengthy pro-Matraimov advertisements created by unknown parties appeared on an obscure YouTube channel. One 22-minute video, “The Matraimovs and Sports,” showcases several athletic facilities the family built in Bishkek and the Osh region. Another relates how the family foundation helped Fatima, a young girl in poor health, afford medical treatment.
“Please do not hinder our brothers like Raimbek Matraimov, but help them,” says a man identified as Fatima’s father. “If such people are imprisoned, who will help people like us?”
It does, however, take pains to advertise its work.
The foundation’s Facebook page was only intermittently active after being created in 2019, but the quantity and quality of the posted materials grew as the coronavirus pandemic struck — and elections approached.
There was plenty of material to work with. The foundation made considerable donations during the crisis, including 20,000 tests, 19 ventilators, hundreds of thousands of medical masks and protective suits, and food aid to people in need.
In one of 22 different videos posted in August alone, volunteers who participated in pandemic relief projects receive certificates of appreciation. In another, foundation workers are shown delivering oxygen concentrators to a remote district in the west of the country, accompanied by dramatic music.
The Facebook page of Iskender Matraimov has also posted dozens of the foundation’s coronavirus aid videos, in addition to urging voters to the polls to vote for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.
Some social media users registered their suspicion of the Matraimovs’ motives. “This is a drop of what’s been stolen from the people,” a poster commented on Facebook.
“Dead or Alive”
But reporting on the family and its activities is no easy task, even for professionals. Independent journalists who have investigated the family have had frightening encounters with the Matraimovs’ supporters.
Kloop reporters visiting the south of Kyrgyzstan to investigate the family’s business learned this first-hand.
The reporters’ list of Matraimov-affiliated companies drew them to the city of Kara-Suu, on the Uzbek border. They stopped at an apartment building where a company associated with the Matraimov family was registered.
As the reporters’ colleague waited in his car, two athletic young men knocked on his window. They said they knew who he was, where he lived, and what he and his team were doing. He was told to treat the approach as a warning. The group headed back to Osh.
That same evening, and again on the following day, Kloop staff noticed suspicious cars parked outside the organization’s Osh bureau. Cutting the remainder of their trip short, the two visiting reporters headed for the airport with another car in close pursuit.
After arriving home, the colleague who had driven them saw the car parked nearby and confronted their pursuer. On hearing that the two reporters had left town, the man dropped any pretense of being uninvolved. It’s good that they left, he said. Everything would now be fine.
Back in Bishkek, a Kyrgyz website, Factcheck.kg, had published several investigations into the Matraimov family.
The pushback was immediate, said Bolot Temirov, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief. “Just imagine. At ten in the morning, the first part comes out. At eleven, an acquaintance calls and says we need to meet. And he makes a [financial] offer from [the Matraimovs].”
When he refused to accept the money, a relative who had a joint business with the Matraimov family made another offer. “I could be a member of parliament if I agreed,” Temirov says. “I turned off my phone.”
But on January 9, as Temirov passed through an archway on the way to his office, he was set upon by three men who struck him from behind, threw him to the ground, and kicked him repeatedly in the head. In a subsequent Facebook post, Temirov says he begged for mercy, but the men continued beating him until he thought he would die.
“I’m 100 percent sure [it was the Matraimovs],” Temirov said, though he admits it would be difficult to prove. The attack had taken place soon after a published investigation. And just a day earlier, Temirov said, a man had come around his building, showing neighbors the Factcheck.kg logo and asking where his office was.
Threats from Kyrgyzstan can reach even as far away as Prague. Earlier this year, Ali Toktakunov, a Radio Azattyk reporter on earlier joint investigations with OCCRP and Kloop, received a credible warning that Raimbek Matraimov had demanded to have Toktakunov brought to him “dead or alive.” The person who warned Toktakunov provided evidence that his movements in Prague had been tracked. RFE/RL called on Kyrgyz authorities to investigate, but no investigation has been opened. Matraimov has not commented on the allegation.
This Sunday’s elections will show how many votes the Matraimov machine can collect, through a combination of threats, rewards, and genuine enthusiasm. Though many Kyrgyz citizens are well aware of the family’s questionable income — even recording rap videos about the clan and its millions — the Matraimovs’ hold on their southern base of support appears secure.
A middle-aged accountant who was born in the Matraimovs’ home village and still lives nearby said she had seen the previous investigation into the family on television.
“Someone came up to ‘Raim-million’ and asked about the money that had been investigated,” she said. “He didn’t answer the question. He had two cars there. He got into one and drove away. Didn’t even deign to answer.”
“They’re very influential,” she said. “They’re even higher than the president.”