Camping Next to Kyrgyzstan's Most Notorious Gangster at the ‘World Nomad Games’

Many Kyrgyz doubt the difference between a convicted criminal like Kolbayev (left) and an MP like Tekebayev (right). Image remixed by author.

Many Kyrgyz doubt the difference between a convicted criminal like Kolbayev (left) and an MP like Tekebayev (right). Image remixed by author.

Last week Kyrgyzstan held the first-ever edition of the World Nomad Games. By most accounts, the event, featuring competitors from 19 different countries, was a reasonable success. Men wrestled with men, horses wrestled with horses, and goat carcasses were slung around with a vengeance in an ancient game of polo still played across remote Eurasian locales, ranging from Afghanistan to parts of Siberia.

But not everyone came away from the experience smiling.

Omurbek Tekebayev, a long-time Kyrgyz MP with a tarnished reputation, was seemingly shocked to find that when he bedded down for an evening in a yurt camp created by the organizers of the event, the country’s most notorious gangster was hanging out in the next door yurt. (A yurta, in Russian, boz üý in Kyrgyz, or ger in Mongolian, is a traditional nomadic dwelling. Tekebayev’s comments below, are reported by local news agency

Недавно в Кырчыне мы были гостями в юрте, а по соседству сидел Кольбаев со своими ребятами. Он что, хочет с властью соперничать? Эту юрту, оказывается, выделили нам, депутатам, там губернаторы еще были, а он пришел туда. Нам тут же выделили другую юрту. Если он лидер в криминальном мире, то пусть будет там, а не соперничает с властью. Правоохранительные органы прямо там же должны были скрутить ему руки и задержать.

Just the other day we were guests at a yurt in the village of Kyrchyn [near the site of the World Nomad Games] and we found out that Kolbayev was sitting with his guys in the neighboring yurt. What is this? He wants to be a rival to the government now? The yurt where they were sitting was allocated for MPs, but he came and took it. So we asked to be given another yurt somewhere else. If he is a leader in the criminal world, then let him stay there instead of trying to compete with the government. Police should have arrested him right there and then.

The target of Tekebayev’s indignation, Kamchi Kolbayev, is a convicted felon thought to be Kyrgyzstan’s principal ‘Thief-in-Law’, a title unique to the post-Soviet underworld that implies extensive informal authority over criminal activity in a given country or region, and — perhaps most importantly — an unrivaled status among inmates in the prisons where the Thief has served time.

Kolbayev, who recently spent one-and-a-half years in jail on kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges, is viewed by the U.S. government as a lynchpin in the Eurasian heroin trade. Prior to his sentencing he was briefly based in Dubai from where he allegedly coordinated mass insubordination —  thousands of prisoners stitched up their mouths following a deadly riot — in Kyrgyzstan’s jails in 2012. 


The object at the source of all the consternation, a Kyrgyz yurt. Image from Wikipedia.

The Issyk-Kul province where the World Nomadic Games were held is very much Kolbayev’s home turf. So much so that the hippodrome where many of the key sporting events took place was recently named in honor of Kolbayev’s father. The hippodrome is state property and the national government never gave permission to rename it, but that has not stopped the rebranding going ahead.

That criminals continue to have such influence in Kyrgyzstan owes much to the failures of MPs like Tekebayev to build public faith in the national political elite. As the main author of Kyrgyzstan’s current parliamentary constitution and the head of a major party in the legislature, Tekebayev is a prominent politician. He is also thoroughly compromised by allegations that he participated in looting during the country’s 2010 revolution and an infamous video of him naked with an unknown woman – not his wife — that Russian TV popularized in the run-up to Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections that year. (The Kremlin was never Tekebayev’s biggest fan).

That background may explain why Tekebayev’s indignation was met with a backlash of irony and invective from commenters on, where his quotes appeared:

Sem said:

Лучшебы они там депутатами и губернаторами с опгешниками перестреляли друг друга.Народ вздохнулбы с облегчением!

It would have been better if those MPs and governors and criminals had all had a shootout. The people would have died from happiness!

Another reader made an unflattering comparison between the Thief-in-Law and the lawmaker: 

Кольбаев вор и к его чести это не скрывает и сроки за сию деятельность переодически отбывает. А вот “политик” Текебаев свою мародерскую деятельность депутатским мандатом прикрывает, Так, что вору в законе должно быть стыдно за соседство с Теке!

Kolbayev is a Thief-in-Law and to his honour he does not hide it and periodically does time in acknowledgement of his activities. But this “politician” Tekebaev hides his looting activities behind his parliamentary mandate. In this sense, the Thief-in-Law should be ashamed to be found next to Tekebayev.

Others were openly supportive of Kolbayev:

Камчы, грохнул бы ты этого Текебашу, все бы тебе спасибо сказали.

Kamchi [Kolbayev] if you had killed that Tekebayev, everyone would have thanked you.


На его месте надо радоваться тому, что Кольбаев ему рога не отломил!

In [Tekebayev's] place he should be glad that Kolbayev did not break him. 

One of the crime lord's many female admirers weighed in:

Я хочу замуж за Камчи, красивый мужчина. Хочу чтобы мой муж был внешностью похож на него. Импозантный мужчинка. Камчи я люблю тебя!

I want to marry Kamchi [Kolbaev], beautiful man. I want my husband to look like him. An imposing man. Kamchi, I love you!

Even as one commenter thanked Tekebayev for being “the only politician brave enough to utter Kolbayev's name”, another suggested that Tekebayev's real opposition to Kolbayev lay in the MP's patronage of a separate criminal group.

Kyzyl Asker summed up the common feeling that in Kyrgyzstan, the line between the political and criminal elite blurred so long ago that it was no longer worth drawing:

Да ладно тут цирк опять дешевый разыгрывать ! Они там всех за баранов держат что ли ? Депутаты, менты, бандюки – все в одной колоде, начиная со Акаевских времен ! Не было у нас Закона за эти 20 лет.

Whatever, here comes the circus again! Do they take us all for stupid sheep? MPs, cops, bandits – all part of the same pack, beginning from the era of [first president Askar] Akayev! We haven't had laws in our society for the last 20 years.

If the MP was looking to score political points by taking on the mob boss, he failed dismally.

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