Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The 'Beautiful' Life Of A Kyrgyz Customs Official

By RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, Kloop, and Bellingcat

December 14, 2020

Raimbek Matraimov is a powerful Kyrgyz political operator known for his massive wealth. This investigation into his wife’s social-media accounts reveals the opulent lifestyle his family enjoyed even as he declared only a modest salary in the country’s customs service.

“You can’t forbid living beautifully! 😍😍👍,” wrote Amanda Turgunova.

Those weren’t empty words for the Kyrgyz jet-setter. An accompanying photo collage, posted on a Russian social-media site in April 2015, shows an elegantly dressed Turgunova in what looks like an expensive restaurant and a fancy hotel lobby.

Turgunova posted many more extravagant photos that month: decked out in a matching Dolce & Gabbana floral-print ensemble on a FlyDubai flight; posing with her young daughter, who is wearing a dress with the same print; and receiving a new Lexus SUV as a “gift from ❤️❤️❤️.”

A selfie Turgunova captioned “Super vacation! ☀️😍👍”. CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki

One might expect Turgunova’s “❤️” to be a successful businessman. But he was not.

Her husband was Raimbek Matraimov, then a Kyrgyz government official. Matraimov had been a public servant since the late 1990s, when he reportedly joined the customs service as an inspector. He rose through the ranks and was promoted to deputy head of the entire service in 2015. But his highest official salary barely exceeded $1,000 per month, if his own asset declarations are to be believed.

In previous investigations, RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop showed how Matraimov operated during his tenure in customs: He became the patron of a smuggling empire that raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profits.

The investigations turned up assets, such as a real-estate development in Dubai, that did not appear in Matraimov’s declarations and could not be explained by his official salary. But the full extent of his wealth was never clear, although many people in Kyrgyzstan have long believed the Matraimov family to be extremely rich — earning him the popular nickname “Raim Million.”

Now, an investigation into his wife and former nanny’s social-media accounts reveals that during his time in customs, Matraimov’s family enjoyed an opulent lifestyle that would have been out of reach to all but a handful of Kyrgyz citizens.

Most of the images in this story are taken from Turgunova’s social-media accounts on Instagram and the Russian social network Odnoklassniki. Her username is not being revealed to protect her privacy, and comments from other users have been cropped out.

They show Turgunova (whose legal name is not Amanda, but Uulkan), her nanny, and her daughter cruising on a private jet, enjoying yacht outings, and staying in some of the world’s most luxurious hotels. They also show Turgunova flashing the latest additions to her growing collection of clothes from iconic brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. The cost of the items Turgunova posted while Matraimov was working as a public official, and which reporters were able to identify, adds up to more than $400,000. She posted many more that could not be identified.

Turgunova’s social-media posts also strongly suggest that the family purchased a penthouse apartment on the 50th floor of a Dubai residential tower in 2016. She posted photos of herself and her children staying in the apartment on multiple occasions.

Though Turgunova often posts gifts she received from her husband, Raimbek Matraimov, he himself is very rarely seen in her photos — and never with his face showing. These two collages are the only images reporters found in which he appears. CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki (Collage by OCCRP)

Matraimov was let go from the customs service in 2017. But Turgunova’s most recent photos show that the family’s expensive vacations have continued apace, yielding hints that enabled reporters to identify a Kyrgyz lakeside property enjoyed by the family that points to a striking connection between Matraimov and Kamchy Kolbaev, an infamous criminal boss.

The Kolbaev Connection

A private resort village on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul is among the clues that connect former Kyrgyz customs boss Raimbek Matraimov and notorious criminal leader Kamchy Kolbaev.

Matraimov did not respond to requests for comment sent through his lawyer. Turgunova’s social-media accounts are private, and could not be used to reach her for comment.

Amanda’s Humble Table

Reporters obtained Matraimov’s asset and income declarations for the years between 2011 and 2017. They show that he and his wife declared that they owned two apartments in communist-era buildings in Osh and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s two main cities.

But Turgunova’s social-media posts show her living at two much grander properties: a mansion in downtown Osh and a penthouse apartment in a Bishkek neighborhood called the Golden Square.

Her photos in the Osh mansion show her throwing lavish dinners, posing in a large garden with a gazebo, displaying fashionable outfits, and playing with puppies from Japan.

On the left, a photo of a table full of food in the Matraimovs’ Osh house (Turgunova’s caption: “My humble table 😊.”) On the right, Turgunova poses outside the house. CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki; collage by OCCRP

The Matraimovs’ life in Bishkek seems even more idyllic. Their 279-square-meter penthouse apartment, on the top floor of a building capped with a golden crown, is in one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods.

Many of Turgunova’s pictures show her posing in front of well-appointed interiors with large flower arrangements, balloons, and other decorations for family celebrations. She also frequently showed off designer dresses, purses, and jewelry in the building’s mirrored elevator.

Turgunova in her family’s Bishkek apartment building. CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki

Both the Osh mansion and the Bishkek apartment were registered in the name of Raimbek’s late mother, Apiza Matraimova. When she died in 2019, the Bishkek penthouse went to him, while the mansion was inherited by a brother, Ruslanbek.

Going Abroad

Though the Matraimovs enjoyed their luxurious Kyrgyz properties, they also liked to travel.

Reporters reviewed about 100 travel photos Turgunova had posted since April 2015. Most feature only her, her shopping acquisitions, and her luxurious surroundings. A few include her children. None include Raimbek, and it’s unclear whether he accompanied her.

Her posts show her vacationing in style, favoring five-star hotels in Turkey and Dubai and visiting exotic destinations like the Maldives.

Turgunova enjoys the water and Dubai skyline from a yacht in the Persian Gulf in November 2016. CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki

She sometimes posted the photos after her trips were concluded, making reconstructing the dates of her travels difficult. Nevertheless, this timeline attests to the luxurious lifestyle she enjoyed while Raimbek was still working as a customs official and in the years immediately after he was dismissed:

One of Turgunova’s most frequent destinations was Dubai, where a previous investigation has already shown that she had financial interests.

For years, whenever she visited, she’d stay in the emirate’s most exclusive hotels, including Le Royal Méridien and Atlantis the Palm. But in November 2016, although she kept traveling to Dubai, her visits to hotels stopped.

Her social-media posts indicate why. A new series of posts inside a building with lavish interiors led reporters to a previously unrevealed Dubai property that appears to have been purchased by the family and used by them frequently.

A Penthouse In Al Fattan

The existence of the Matraimovs’ luxurious apartment was revealed on the Facebook account of a woman who worked for the family. On November 7, 2016, a woman named Teresita posted a video tour on Facebook of what she described as her “boss’s” new apartment. "It’s a new purchase," she says.

“This is the kitchen,” the woman narrates in Filipino as she shows off the expansive flat. “This is the living room and this is our dining room. This is my boss’s room. Let’s go back, I don’t want to be seen.”

“This is the girl’s room that I’ll be taking care of. We have separate beds,” she says. “This is the two teenage boys’ room. The eldest and the second eldest. Each of them has their own bed.”

Just two nights earlier, Turgunova had posted a photo of herself outside a hotel with an intriguing caption: “To make your dream come true," she wrote, "you just need a ✨💫👩‍❤️‍👨💍💝✨wizard ❤️ and not a storytelller.” CREDIT: Turgunova/Odnoklassniki

Geolocation techniques enabled reporters to identify the Matraimovs’ new apartment as a penthouse on the 50th floor of the Al Fattan Marine Towers, an upscale building in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence development. Similar apartments nearby sell for about $1 million.

The Matraimovs’ Dubai Apartment

Here’s how reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a new property apparently owned by the Matraimov family, a luxurious penthouse apartment in Dubai.

A Lead Not Pursued

The Matraimovs’ Dubai penthouse is not the family’s first property in the emirate. In November 2019, using a leaked database, RFE/RL and partners revealed that Turgunova had spent at least $12 million on Dubai properties and also invested an unknown amount in a five-story building under construction there.

This was a significant piece of evidence that Turgunova and her husband’s assets exceeded their modest declared income — but the connection did not appear to be seriously pursued by Kyrgyz authorities.

During a December 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates, then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov met with Kyrgyz citizens residing in the Gulf state. During the meeting, Kyrgyz opposition activist Cholpon Abdrakhmanova asked Jeenbekov about the Matraimovs’ recently-revealed Dubai investments.

“From where does he have that kind of money, and what is your position on this matter?” Abdrakhmanova asked.

Jeenbekov told Abdrakhmanova to look into it herself.

“You live in Dubai.… Take that address and go there. By doing so, you will help. You understand, yes? Definitely go there,” he said, adding that an investigation was already under way.

The results of that investigation, if it took place, have never been made public.

On Lake Issyk-Kul

Another of Turgunova’s favorite destinations appears to be Issyk-Kul, one of the largest mountain lakes in the world and Kyrgyzstan’s biggest tourist draw.

Between 2015 and the end of 2019, she posted multiple photo collages showing herself staying at the Karven Four Seasons resort, where stays in the VIP cottages cost about $500 per night during tourist season.

Using geolocation, reporters were able to identify the exact cottage she stayed in. Unlike the other cottages nearby, hers is fenced off by a distinctive border of trees that protect its inhabitants from prying eyes.

The Matraimovs’ Karven Cottage

Reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a cottage the Matraimov family frequented near Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest tourist destination.

On paper, this vacation escape is owned by Dinarkhan Alaichieva, Raimbek’s sister-in-law. But Turgunova was a regular user of the property.

While Karven dominated Turgunova’s social-media pages until 2019, she appears to have spent the COVID-19 season in another exclusive villa this year.

The Kaganat development, in the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-Ata, is a members-only elite community ringed by a perimeter fence. The villa Turgunova stayed in, which reporters also found through geolocation, has its own fencing to add a further layer of security.

A representative of the construction company that built Kaganat told reporters that its owner was Kamchy Kolbaev, a notorious underworld figure. Four other locals from the town confirmed that the development belongs to Kolbaev.

‘Nothing Would Happen’

Most of Turgunova’s lavish journeys and material goods were taken or acquired while her husband was employed at Kyrgyzstan’s customs service. He stayed out of the public eye after he was fired in 2017, though in an earlier investigation RFE/RL and its partners showed that he was busy building a private business empire in the customs sector.

As recently as early October, Matraimov still seemed untouchable. A political party he had backed won a commanding second place in the parliamentary elections. It looked like the former official and his allies would form a coalition and continue their dominance of Kyrgyzstan’s political scene.

An Instagram photo posted by Turgunova on March 8, 2019, apparently in honor of International Women’s Day, includes candy with custom labels joking — or hinting — at her husband’s political ambitions: “THE PRESIDENT OF KYRGYZSTAN” and “THE FIRST LADY OF KYRGYZSTAN.” CREDIT: Turgunova/Instagram

But widespread reports of blatant vote-buying triggered a popular uprising. Within days, President Jeenbekov had resigned, setting off a confusing -- and still unresolved -- scrambling among political factions.

The new acting president, Sadyr Japarov, called for “corruptioneers” to return their stolen assets. Then, on October 20, Kyrgyzstan witnessed a scene few had ever expected: Matraimov was arrested and delivered to the headquarters of the security services.

His fate is unclear. Before being released under house arrest, the former deputy customs boss promised to compensate the state budget for “criminal acts” (it is unclear whether he has admitted any guilt). He has since been making his payments, several million soms at a time.

Japarov -- who has since resigned as acting president so he can take part in the January 10 presidential election -- said in an interview that imprisoning the former official would make it impossible for him to “return” any money to the treasury. “Nothing would happen” if he was jailed, he said. “He would simply lie in a cell.”

“Having thought about it, we came to a political decision,” the acting president said. “Let him pay compensation. He’s supposed to pay 2 billion soms (about $24 million) by the end of November. That’s why he was let go under house arrest.”

Observers are skeptical, raising the question of whether Matraimov is simply buying his way free. Japarov’s statements, and his promise of an “economic amnesty” for Kyrgyzstan’s "corruptioneers," don’t appear to have any basis in law. The country’s security services have recently stated that the investigation of Matraimov continues.

But, as this investigation by RFE/RL and partners shows, even 2 billion soms would represent only a small fraction of the wealth Matraimov appears to have acquired while working in a public position with a modest official salary.

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