By RFE RL
By Chris Rickleton
(RFE/RL) — A nephew jailed, a brother discredited, an in-law awaiting sentencing.
How much further can the clan that dominated Kazakhstan for three decades fall?
Kazakhstan was still reeling from unprecedented social unrest in January when President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev) gave a national address, promising reforms and signaling that the privileges enjoyed by predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev’s (Nazarbayev) family were no longer ring-fenced.
Nearly nine months later — and even after the Kazakh capital shed the long-ruling first president’s name — the question of where so-called “de-Nazarbaevification” will stop remains unanswered.
That is especially the case with the country’s economy, which the former first family continues to control swaths of.
At the time Toqaev delivered his speech on January 11, tensions in Kazakhstan were high.
The week before, peaceful protests over a sudden spike in the cost of fuel in the western region of Mangystau led to a burst of nationwide unrest that was met with violence from law enforcement and the military.
More than 230 people died in the clashes that ensued, including bystanders and innocent motorists, as arson and looting left central areas of Almaty and several other cities charred and disfigured.
Russian-led troops, whose controversial presence was requested by Toqaev to help restore order amid what he described as an attack by “terrorists,” were still in the country.
Nor had Nazarbaev — still known as “Elbasy” or “leader of the nation” despite stepping down from the presidency two years before — appeared in public.
Rumors that Nazarbaev’s relatives had attempted to overthrow Toqaev — the man he handpicked as his successor in 2019 — were rife.
The televised address was Toqaev’s first before lawmakers and his cabinet following the bloodshed and he used it to throw shade on his mentor’s once untouchable legacy.
“Thanks to the first president, Elbasy, a series of very profitable companies emerged in this country and a layer of people wealthy even by international standards,” Toqaev said.
“I believe that the time has come to give the people of Kazakhstan what they are owed and help them on a systematic and regular basis.”
As one journalist quipped on Facebook at the time: “Today [Kazakhstan] heard the phrase ‘thanks to Elbasy’ said in a very different way.”
Toqaev, who admitted issuing a “shoot to kill” order during the crisis, went further, railing against a system of state subsidies that he described as “everything for friends, and rules for everyone else.”
He announced that a hugely unpopular company linked by paper trail to Nazarbaev’s youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbaeva — though he did not mention her by name — would be stripped of its mandate to collect bountiful recycling fees.
In the days and weeks that followed, Nazarbaeva’s husband and the civil partner of her older sister, prominent former lawmaker Dariga Nazarbaeva, lost their leadership roles at companies in the oil and gas sector and a People’s Fund — ostensibly oriented toward social projects — was established.
Members of the Nazarbaev family were reportedly among the first to “contribute” to it.
On June 5, as Kazakhstan held a referendum on constitutional amendments to formally remove Nazarbaev’s “leader of the nation” political privileges, Toqaev announced the creation of a commission to “return cash illegally taken out of Kazakhstan” by “a narrow circle of people who had illegally taken over the larger portion of the country’s wealth.”
By July, the commission said it had repatriated nearly $500 million as part of that effort.
This week, more than a month after calling a snap vote to secure a fresh seven-year mandate, Toqaev doubled down on his claimed opposition to vested interests in the economy, promising “the end of the era of oligarchic capitalism” during a tour of the country’s Karaganda and Palvodar regions.
The recent renaming of the capital from Nur-Sultan back to Astana and the removal of a holiday to honor Nazarbaev are viewed in the context of a trend popularly called “de-Nazabaevification.”
But for all of that, only two members of the broader Nazarbaev clan are confirmed as being under criminal investigation.
On September 26, Nazarbaev’s nephew, Qairat Satybaldy, became the first direct relative of the former head of state to be sentenced, receiving a six-year sentence after a court in the capital found him guilty of embezzlement at national telecom operator Kazakhtelecom and the rail logistics company Center of Transport Service (CTS) to the tune of $84 million.
During the course of the investigation the businessman returned to the state two stakes worth 28.8 percent in the company, the larger of which was held by the Luxembourg-registered Skyline Investment Company S.A.
Satybaldy is still under investigation for other crimes, while Qairat Boronbaev, whose daughter is the widow of Nazarbaev’s late grandson, Aisultan Nazarbaev, is expected to face sentencing soon over his alleged role in defrauding the national oil company KazMunaiGaz.
Boronbaev is best known as the owner of Kazakhstan’s McDonald’s franchise and Almaty’s biggest football club, FC Kairat Almaty.
Dimash Alzhanov, a political scientist and opposition activist, said the fact that closer relatives of Nazarbaev have not been prosecuted indicates a deal between presidents past and present that will likely “remain in force” for at least as long as the 82-year-old former leader is alive.
One Nazarbaev relative who has reportedly shed some of his Kazakhstan businesses in the post-January shakeup is his younger brother Bolat, a former plumber sometimes referred to as the “bazaar king” due to his reported ownership of markets.
An RFE/RL investigation identified Bolat Nazarbaev as one of several family members who owned massive tracts of land and expensive properties in Kazakhstan. His ownership of lavish properties in France’s Cannes and New York City, meanwhile, came to light thanks to a messy divorce battle with his ex-wife.
The 69-year-old’s business affairs were put under the spotlight recently after bazaars reportedly belonging to him were handed over to the state.
But Alzhanov argues that it is unlikely prosecutors will press charges against him.
In July, government-loyal media outlets published photos of the businessman apparently in ill health, which Alzhanov said is “an attempt to influence public opinion.”
Meanwhile, Nazarbaev, “the cause of all this corruption, can split his time between Kazakhstan and Dubai, and sometimes appears in public,” Alzhanov added, calling the Satybaldy verdict “lenient.”
Ben Godwin, head of research at the U.K.-based political risk company Prism, told RFE/RL that the government is unlikely to launch a frontal assault to seize assets held by the Nazarbaevs abroad.
To do that, authorities would have to “expend significant resources,” including on proving to foreign prosecutors that the country was able to repatriate funds responsibly.
But he argued that reconfiguring the economy is something that Astana is treating seriously and is part of “the process of consolidating power” for Toqaev after Nazarbaev’s announcement of his exit from politics in January.
While the government may in the future target companies in the mismanagement-plagued mining and banking sectors, where Nazarbaev family members retain strong interests, the priority for the moment is companies involved in “egregious rent seeking,” Godwin argued.
These include “commodity traders that do little other than extract money and fuel from the value chain,” he said, noting the government’s need to foster real growth to head off future political distress.
Some gatekeeping companies of this type have already hit the curb.
Satybaldy’s CTS was accused by entrepreneurs of charging extortionist fees for services on access railroads that CTS controlled independently of the main state rail company.
The entity and its assets have now been nationalized.
Operator ROP, a company whose original documents of incorporation listed Aliya Nazarbaeva as a founder, was a similar story.
Thanks to a government-approved monopoly the company was able to charge huge fees for the future utilization of imported cars and other items.
This caused the overall cost of cars in Kazakhstan to surge and sparked a large movement called No To Utility Fees spearheaded by disgruntled businessmen.
The fees once charged on imports by ROP have since been lowered somewhat and are levied by a state-owned entity, while ROP’s former director, Medet Kumagaliev, is currently in jail on embezzlement charges.
There has been no suggestion that Nazarbaeva herself will be prosecuted, however.
Nor has the government made any comment on the ongoing legal battle waged by Nazarbaev’s charitable foundation against investigative journalists who reported that several foundations founded by the strongman controlled assets worth up to $8 billion, including “luxury hotels, banks, factories, warehouses, and other possessions.”
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), whose parent company is being sued in the case, has said it stands by its reporting.
Nazarbaev, whose last public appearances were for a mosque opening in the capital in August and alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, has given Toqaev vocal backing, despite watching his leadership cult fade away.
In May, he made his one and only comment on the investigations concerning his relatives, noting that anyone committing crimes “hiding behind my name” deserved to face justice in the form of a fair trial.
“For many years we have been building a state of law in Kazakhstan,” he claimed. “Its main principle is that the law is the same for everyone,” he said, apparently failing to realize the irony of his statement.
- Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.