In his inauguration speech on November 26, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stressed the government’s willingness to repatriate all assets that were stripped from the country in the past, a populist move that could further anger Kazakhstan. some oligarchs.
Elected by a massive margin against a field of political nobodies on November 20, Tokayev presented himself to the nation as a balanced leader, repeatedly vowing that this new seven-year term will be his last. Under constitutional amendments passed this year, Kazakhstan’s presidents will now serve a single term in office before making room for new candidates.
This lame duck setup could embolden the president to make decisions that are unpopular with the elite, and the call for asset returns is one of them.
Before going into details, Tokayev mentioned a popular saying in Kazakhstan: “What would you need wealth for, if it was obtained dishonestly? Why would you need power, if you don’t build justice?
This could be Tokayev’s last chance against his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for three decades until 2019, when he hand-picked Tokayev as his successor.
On January 11, after the repression of the protests that became known as Qandy Qantar (in Kazakh, “bloody January”), Tokayev said that “thanks to the First President Elbasy [the title of “Father of the Nation” given to Nazarbayev in 2010] a group of profitable companies appeared in Kazakhstan, and these are rich people even by international standards.”
Days later, Tokayev described how the “colossal concentration of businesses in the hands of one person” led to “the same individual owning a manufacturing company, a processing plant, banks, and a host of other side businesses.”
In March, he repeated that “the concentration of power in the hands of the highest echelons of the elite leads to the unjustifiable strengthening of the financial-oligarchic groups close to them. They perceive the State as their personal fiefdom”.
At that moment, Tokayev envisioned a From top to bottom redistribution method in the form of a fund called “For the people of Kazakhstan” (in Kazakh, “Kazakhstan Khalkyna”). Big business was ordered to cut “voluntary checks” into the fund, which would then have put the accumulated capital into social projects.
Since then, the government’s focus has gradually shifted to the assets that Kazakhstan’s richest have illegally moved to offshore tax havens.
At his inauguration, Tokayev was finally explicit: “The government will prepare a bill, which will adopt the necessary rules for the return of funds illegally transferred abroad.”
In 2008, following a joint investigation between Swiss and US authorities into suspected money laundering in Kazakhstan and an investigation of bribery between US officials and citizens, the Boot Foundation it was created to ensure a fair return of stolen assets, which amount to more than $100 million. So far, this has been Kazakhstan’s only large-scale international experience in asset recovery.
There were a few different initiatives that, for various reasons, targeted some specific wealthy businessmen, accused of having “extracted” wealth from the county.
In 2016, the Kazakhstan Initiative on Asset Recovery (KIAR) appeared online without an explicit founder or charter. He publishes articles primarily focused on alleged corruption schemes involving members of the Nazarbayev family and close associates. Due to KIAR’s selective targeting, he is believed to be closely related to former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin and former banker fugitive Mukhtar Ablyazov.
A more recent initiative is the Elge Qaitaru Fund, founded by Orazaly Yerzhanov and Bulat Abilov and established after Qandy Qantar. Abilov is a veteran politician who resurfaced this year after an eight-year hiatus from politics. Yerzhanov served as a deputy in the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.
With the help of a popular media project, Elge Qaitaru has specifically targeted assets owned by Timur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and one of the richest people in the country, and the so-called “Eurasian Group” consisting of Aleksander Mashkevich, Patokh Chodiev and Shukhrat Ibragimov, owner of several key mining operations in the country.
In a bizarre case from two years ago, Attorney General tipped over a Supreme Court decision and ordered the return of confiscated assets worth tens of millions of dollars from a group of former state officials close to the former governor of the Atyrau region, Bergei Ryskaliyev. The group was identified by the courts as an organized crime network. The return of assets can sometimes result in a system failure.
All eyes, unsurprisingly, remain on assets owned by Nazarbayev and his associates, who maintained control of key industries, ministries and foreign connections for decades. However, various other politicians and businessmen have amassed immense wealth at the expense of the state budget along with the “big names” in the forbes list of the richest in the country.
Since even Tokayev has been criticized in the media on unexplained assets abroad, a fair and just assessment of Kazakhstan’s stolen asset record would target all suspected individuals and avoid the kind of selective justice that has been the rule in the country for many decades.