Kyrgyzstan’s recent unrest has not only exposed deep divisions between the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, it has shed light on a web of criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking, extortion and politics. Analysts say the gangs do not appear to have started the unrest, but they are taking advantage of it.
If you want to pick a fight in southern Kyrgyzstan, a good place to start is with the criminals. Not the ones in jail, but the criminals hanging out in the bazaar, coffee shop or even the town office.
United Nations officials say this was the way the deadly unrest that scorched the cities of Osh and Jalalabad began in early June – with five orchestrated attacks on targets sure to fight back, including a gym frequented by a criminal gang.
Alisher Khamidov, an independent journalist in southern Kyrgyzstan, says there are plenty of targets.
“There are some groups that specialize in trafficking drugs. And then there are some groups that control the bazaars,” Khamidov says, adding that other mafias make money by raiding homes and robbing people.
The criminals often have legitimate day jobs – they run businesses, fight fires and hold public office. But their real power comes from dirty money, largely earned by trafficking heroin from Afghanistan to Russia.
Hakan Demirbuken, with the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, says Kyrgyzstan is an ideal trafficking hub because of its poorly controlled borders and institutionalized corruption.
“We are talking about the government officials. Possibly the people involved in organizing the law enforcement in the country,” Demirbuken says. “Without having some support from the officials, it is impossible to traffic all that amount of heroin from one country to another one.”
Osh, the southern city at the center of Kyrgyzstan’s recent unrest, is also the center of the country’s drug trade. Afghan heroin is carried through the mountains bordering Tajikistan, entering Osh in truck beds stacked with fruits and vegetables.
The drugs are then diluted and moved on to Kazakhstan before reaching Russia, the world’s largest consumer of heroin. This route is also favored by human traffickers headed to European destinations.
Demirbuken says the country’s high unemployment and low salaries mean organized crime provides cash that the state cannot. He says the money reaches almost every sector of society.
“In Central Asia, if you want to have a power, then you need to have money. So the easiest way to earn money, maybe some cases is drugs. Drug trafficking,” Demirbuken explains. “And they need to also launder the money and the next step is making a business. So business people, politicians and drug traffickers, they are all mixed together.”
Dirty money and politics
Former President Askar Akayev has accused his successor, the recently ousted leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of using drug money and criminal gangs to seize power during the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Mr. Akayev points to a series of political assassinations as evidence of Mr. Bakiyev consolidating his power through criminal means.
Kevin Jones, a Kyrgyzstan expert at Georgetown University in Washington, says drugs and politics were also enmeshed during the Akayev administration. But he says the political instability in 2005 created an opportunity for new criminal gangs to assert their power.
“It wasn’t widespread violence like there is now by any means. It was very targeted,” Jones says. “But it was definitely an inner battle for control for parts of the drug trade and relationship to the government.”
Jones says the April overthrow of the Bakiyev government and the ethnic clashes in Osh have created yet another opportunity for the criminal powers to shift.
“They’re all very much taking advantage of the continuant instability,” says Jones. “And for many of them, it’s in their interest to continue that until they gain whatever specific objective they have.”
For some, that is a trade route for greater control of the border. For others, according to journalist Alisher Khamidov, that means a seat in power. He says when the ethnic clashes began in Osh in early June, an influential former local politician in his hometown, Aravan, took advantage of the instability.
“He came him with his bodyguards – about 50 people all armed to teeth - and he installed his own man in the position of power in this town. And so we have a new mayor,” Khamidov reports.
Unlike in Colombia, where a single cartel controls the entire cocaine trade, Central Asia’s drug market is made up of many small mafias all competing, and fighting, for a share of the trade.
Jones says that while organized crime will always be violent, the instability in Kyrgyzstan should ease.
“It’s in their interest to actually have it settle down and have one person that they’re regularly paying. You can think of it as the efficiency of corruption,” says Jones.
Kyrgyzstan’s interim government has pledged to reinstate the country’s anti-drug agency, and Russia is considering setting up a second base in Kyrgyzstan to tackle the narcotics trade. But analysts question whether these measures will help, or just add new forces to the country’s underground economic engine.