Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, shown in a screen grab of the Radio Azattyk's investigative report.
An in-depth investigative report by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service into the suspicious wealth of a high-ranking customs official is a stark reminder of the hardiness of old habits.
While the investigation by the broadcaster, which is known locally as Radio Azattyk, has set tongues wagging, it is far from clear so far if it will have any repercussions for the people involved.
The video report focuses on Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, who is revealed in the report to be the owner, among other things, of a luxurious villa in Osh.
Azattyk used a simple but ingenious approach in trying to work out the yawning discrepancy between the amount of goods apparently coming into the country and the quantity of import tariffs paid into the state budget.
Doing some back of a napkin math, Azattyk reasoned that since around 20,000 trucks come into Kyrgyzstan from China every year, and each truck carries roughly 25 tons of goods, and import duties are levied at 100 som ($1.5) per kilo, the income accruing annually to the state should be more than 49 billion som ($700 million). And yet the amount of import tariff revenue being declared is closer to 30 billion som, which raises questions about where that money might be going, Azattyk said.
Then there is another curious set of figures. Chinese customs authorities have said that in 2015, around $4.3 billion of goods were exported to Kyrgyzstan. But their Kyrgyz counterparts, meanwhile, have offered the much smaller figure of $920 million for that same period.
During the boom days, when the country’s vast Dordoi bazaar had a reported turnover worth more than double the country’s gross domestic product, customs officials regularly cited differences between Chinese and Kyrgyz methods of evaluating the value of goods as an explanation for balance sheet discrepancies. While there was a sliver of justification for this argument, the sheer size of the discrepancies was large enough to sow suspicions about how Kyrgyzstan has emerged as regional hub for contraband.
So if the Customs Service isn’t a cash cow for the government, where is the money going? That is the where Azattyk’s report gets interesting.
Based on the online biographies available for the customs deputy head, Rayimbek Matrayimov, there is no reason to believe that he has ever worked in any other department. His career there began in 1997, when he would have been 25 or 26.
And yet by the time the 2010 revolution came along, Matrayimov was already a prized possession to be struggled over by top officials.
In an audio recording of a phone call that ended up on the internet, two leaders of the chaotic interim government that emerged from the unrest of the 2010 revolt, Azimbek Beknazarov and future President Almazbek Atambayev, quarreled over an unnamed official that the Azattyk report indicates might be Matrayimov, or "Rayim Million" as he is known among the local press.
Beknazarov questioned why the official — who at the time headed the southern section of the customs service — had returned to his role in the customs setup despite his sullied reputation as an monied apparatchik under the authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
In the conversation, Beknazarov repeatedly accuses Atambayev of accepting a $400,000 bribe. Atambayev has confirmed the conservation did take place, but has denied all the accusations made in it.
Despite all this squabbling on his behalf, Matrayimov has remarkably managed to survive and prosper to this day.
In 2015, Matrayimov was named as the customs service’s second-in-command by then-prime minister and now-presidential candidate Temir Sariyev.
That same year the customs official’s brother, Iskender Matrayimov, entered parliament as a member of Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. In his campaign statement, the brother credited the Atambayev era with “transforming the country and opening the way to its renaissance.”
Azattyk refrains from spelling out the implication of all this, but it points heavily to one inescapable possibility.
And Azattyk suggests the good fortune is being spread around the upper tiers of the customs service too. Much public anger has been simmering of late over reports that 20 senior customs officials went on recent collective holiday to Dubai to soak up some wintertime sun.
Customs boss Azamat Suleimanov’s claim in an interview to Azattyk that any working Kyrgyz could afford to do the same if only they only looked for the right package holiday has only fanned the flames.
As one economically comfortable business consultant wrote on Twitter: “Every year, I want to take a winter holiday in a warm country. But I am only able to do so once every five years. My salary is several times bigger than those of customs officials. What am I doing wrong?”