In Kyrgyz capital, 'anti-corruption cafe' feeds a movement

by Tolkun Namatbaeva
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Some are hailing the movement, based at the Communa cafe, as a sign progress can be made in the fight against corruption

(Some are hailing the movement, based at the Communa cafe, as a sign progress can be made in the fight against corruption

In a self-styled "anti-corruption cafe" in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, a barista dusts cinnamon over a stencil, leaving a familiar portrait staring out from the latte foam.

Ex-deputy customs chief Rayimbek Matraimov's likeness is everywhere in the Communa cafe -- on coffee cups, on wall posters, even looming over customers in the toilet.

Matraimov is at the centre of smuggling and bribery claims that have brought hundreds onto the streets in this ex-Soviet nation in Central Asia, many angered by the murder of the main whistle-blower in the case in Istanbul.

Some are hailing the movement, called UMUT 2020 and based at Communa, as a hopeful sign in a country with a history of rowdy opposition-led protests but only sporadic civic engagement.

This "is a new direction in our political culture," Azamat Akeneev, a noted economic analyst and enthusiastic Twitter user, told AFP at an evening of political poetry at the Communa cafe earlier this month.

"We want to pressure the government to take real measures (against corruption)," Akeneev said -- a point reinforced by demonstrators holding up football-style yellow cards during a November 25 rally where Matraimov's image featured prominently.

Many are accustomed to corruption in Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim-majority country of six million and the second-poorest of the 15 republics that gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Two Kyrgyz presidents have been overthrown -- in 2005 and 2010 -- following protest movements driven in part by anger over graft and nepotism.

But a recently released investigation by three media outlets into contraband, money-laundering and customs corruption schemes in the landlocked republic has convinced many that the system which drove those uprisings remains unchanged.

- Whistle-blower murdered -

Matraimov -- derided as "Rayim Million" by his detractors -- is accused of having been involved in wide-scale bribery and smuggling at the customs office and taking part in schemes that saw hundreds of millions of dollars spirited out of the country.

He denies any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

The Customs Service has also denied that smuggling exists in its ranks and noted that Matraimov no longer holds a position there.

Matraimov has twice been called in by Kyrgyzstan's national security service for questioning triggered by the investigation carried out by Radio Free Europe's Kyrgyz service, local outlet Kloop.kg and the US-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

He has said he is suing one of the Kyrgyz journalists that investigated his family, as well as Shirin Aitmatova, a former lawmaker who founded the Umut 2020 movement and the Communa coffee bar.

The media investigation would likely not have generated such an upswell of indignation were it not for the murder of its main whistleblower in Istanbul on November 10.

Aierken Saimaiti, a Chinese national of Uighur heritage, had provided documents to journalists showing he funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country in order to benefit a Uighur business clan engaged in contraband.

He also claimed he facilitated bribes for Matraimov and other officials.

Saimaiti fled Kyrgyzstan in 2017 and told journalists he feared for his life, having already survived one assassination attempt in the Central Asian country.

He was gunned down in a hotel garden in central Istanbul just two weeks before the probe was published. Turkish police said they have arrested four people in connection with the shooting.

So far the government's response to the investigation's claims has been mixed.

- Political connections -

While activists have applauded Matraimov's questioning, many are sceptical that it will lead to the powerful figure's arrest or trigger real reform.

Many who attended the poetry evening at Communa also raised alarm over the detention on incitement charges of a popular blogger the day before the November 25 rally.

Human Rights Watch said the accusations against the blogger, Aftandil Zhorobekov, were a pretext to punish him "for his controversial posts about government figures."

He has since been released but is under house arrest.

State television has downplayed the protest and raised doubts over the investigation, while lawmakers have defended Matraimov in parliament.

Aitmatova, the Umut 2020 and Communa coffee founder, said some in the government are trying to "whitewash" the image of Matraimov -- who is reportedly connected to members of the country's political elite.

But she is adamant that Matraimov is a super-charged "bagman" of the type that have operated behind the scenes in Kyrgyz politics for years alongside organised crime and other vested interests.

Until these interests are uprooted, "Kyrgyzstan will not have a future," she told AFP.

(Some are hailing the movement, based at the Communa cafe, as a sign progress can be made in the fight against corruption

Demonstrators held an anti-corruption rally last month - a rare public protest sparked by a whistleblower's claims of massive official corruption

The ranks of anti-corruption activists have been swelling since the murder of a key whistleblower in Istanbul last month

Cafe owner Shirin Aitmatova says the government is trying to 'whitewash' the image of ex-deputy customs chief Rayimbek Matraimov, who is reportedly connected to the country's political elite