Following the social unrest and palace intrigue seen in Kazakhstan in early January, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has set out to consolidate his power by targeting the “oligarchic groups” that arose during the three decades his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled the ex-Soviet country after the gaining of independence.
Kassym Jomart-Tokayev (Image: Kremlin.ru).
Since he took office in 2019, Tokayev has been widely regarded by Kazakhs as little more than a placeman always ready to do the supposedly retired Nazarbayev’s bidding—but the unprecedented events that shook the republic in the first days of the new year have now given him ample opportunity to establish himself as a leader in his own right. Adopting a populist approach, Tokayev has blamed the gaping and widening wealth gap in the country for sparking the huge protests—though he still maintains, without evidence, that “terrorists” and “financially motivated foreign plotters” subsequently sought to exploit it—and has announced that he is set to force those who built up extraordinary wealth during the long reign of Nazarbayev to contribute to a fund for the people. Analysts will watch with keen interest to determine those in the Nazarbayev clan and related elite who might be at risk of losing big assets in the redivision of power.
Nursultan Nazarbayev (Image: Kremlin.ru).
Tokayev earlier this month directed criticism straight at Nazarbayev for the first time, saying that the leader who handed him the presidency three years ago while retaining key powers allowed a class of people to emerge who became wealthy “even by international standards”. These people, he said, choked off market competition in the resource-rich Central Asian nation. He then remarked that it was “time to give back to the people”.
News quickly emerged of Nazarbayev family members and former allies getting sidelined from influential posts or exiting voluntarily. Nazarbayev’s long-time ally Karim Masimov, who was formerly head of the security service, was even arrested on suspicion of high treason.
Samat Abish, a nephew of Nazarbayev, was sacked from his position as second-in-command at the National Security Committee (KNB) on January 17. Timur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev's billionaire son-in-law, resigned, meanwhile, on the same day, as chairman of Atameken, the oil-and-metals-rich nation's main business lobby group.
Another two Nazarbayev sons-in-law, Dimash Dosanov and Kairat Sharipbayev, were pushed out of their posts on January 15 as chairmen of KazTransOil and QazaqGaz (formerly KazTranGaz), respectively.
Nazarbayev himself was stripped of his right to be the lifetime chairman of the influential National Security Council and the Assembly of Kazakhstan's People as a result of a motion approved by the parliament's lower chamber, the Mazhilis, on January 19. In a January 18 video address, in which Nazarbayev denied there was any conflict between the elites in the country, the ex-president said Tokayev now has “full power”.
Tokayev, notably, has not directly targeted any oligarchs by naming them, though in one distinct move—hinting at more of the same to come—he announced that a much-criticised private monopoly on waste recycling would be ended. As it happens, the enterprise is allegedly linked to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, Alia, 41.
Tokayev also ordered authorities to “clean up the mess” on the Kazakh-Chinese border, with the focus there being on the Kazakh customs service, which is allegedly tied to Nazarbayev’s brother Bolat Nazarbayev.
While Tokayev did not name names, it is possible that his administration may go after some of the assets of some of Kazakhstan’s wealthiest individuals, perhaps even including offshore assets.
Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan, named after the country's first president, showcases some of the oil-rich nation's gleaming riches (Image: alexandrorodrigez, Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0).
A report by KPMG published in 2019 showed that 162 people in Kazakhstan owned 50% of its wealth. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the five wealthiest people in Kazakhstan were together worth more than $20bn.
Kazakhstan’s wealthiest individuals typically have significant ties to London, according to John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at Exeter University and lead author of the Chatham House report.
Heathershaw told The Observer on January 8: “London has been really important for the political elite in Kazakhstan and that includes the relationships they have developed with individuals such as Tony Blair and Prince Andrew.” Ex-UK PM Blair previously provided advice to the Nazarbayev regime, while Prince Andrew has been close to some of its most wealthy people.
Taking into consideration the significance of various members of Kazakhstan’s elites as the Nazarbayev era ends, the below is a compilation of assets directly—or allegedly indirectly—belonging to Kazakhstan’s most wealthy, very often members of the extended Nazarbayev family:
Oil, gas and mining assets
Kazakhstan’s richest man, Vladimir Kim, controls KAZ Minerals, one of the country’s largest copper producers, while he holds a stake in Kazakhmys, a mining and non-ferrous metallurgy firm. The mining sector is likely to be hit by Tokayev's rise to power as the president as part of his new populist platform has called on authorities to raise taxes on mining companies.
The country's fortunes have been built on oil (Image: KazPost CC-BY-SA 3.0).
Nazarbayev's above-mentioned son-in-law Kulibayev has allegedly wielded significant influence in Kazakhstan's oil sector. Kulibayev rose through the ranks in Kazakhstan’s natural minerals industry. He chaired the Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund—also known as a national oil fund that serves as the country’s sovereign wealth fund—and later sat on the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom.
In 1992, during the early days of privatisation in Kazakhstan, Kulibayev formed investment group Altyn Alma, a group that later morphed into Almex LLP. His success came in 2004, when a company he controlled sold telecoms operator Kar-Tel, operating in Kazakhstan, to VimpelCom for $350mn. In 2014, he sold Altynalmas Gold to Polymetal, part-owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Nesis, for company shares and cash.
Kim in 2017 reportedly used his KAZ Minerals holding as collateral to rescue Bank RBK, a lender he co-owned at one point with a fund managed by Dariga Nazarbayeva, the ex-president's eldest daughter.
Banking sector and other financial assets
Another one of Kazakhstan's wealthiest men Vyacheslav Kim (no relation to Vladimir Kim)
co-owns a systemically important bank, Kaspi. Kazakhs have grown accustomed to relying on Kaspi for quick and easy cashless payments and money transfers.
Vyacheslav Kim (Image: Daniyar, CC-BY-SA 4.0).
Vyacheslav Kim controls Kazakh fintech giant Kaspi.kz together with Georgia-born Mikheil Lomtadze. Kaspi.kz, in turn, owns the Kaspi bank. Kaspi was a hit when it listed in London in 2020 as it share price surged by 33% on its debut, making it Kazakhstan’s most valuable company. Kairat Satybaldyuly, a nephew of Nazarbayev, owned 30% of Kaspi until 2018, before he sold his stake to Kim.
Timur Kulibayev and Dinara Kulibayeva, Nazarbayev’s middle daughter, control the country’s biggest lender Halyk Savings Bank of Kazakhstan. Kulibayev also owns Singapore-based investment company Steppe Capital with interests in energy, mining and infrastructure. As mentioned earlier, he has also served as chairman of the $67bn Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund.
Shares in Halyk bank took a hit as unrest spread across Kazakhstan (Image: bne).
According to Forbes, the Kulibayevs lost a combined $200mn as the value of their stake in London-listed Halyk bank fell 16% in the wake of the political unrest of early January. The couple (with an estimated net worth of $2.9bn for Timur Kulibayev and $2.7bn for Dinara Kulibayeva, according to Bloomberg) own a majority share of the bank along with sprawling private investment portfolios and real estate portfolios.
Another one of the top five wealthiest Kazakh individuals, Bulat Utemuratov, a former Nazarbayev aide, founded Almaty Trade Finance Bank in 1995 and now controls ForteBank in Kazakhstan. Bloomberg has referred to how his ownership of a bank has helped him build ties among the establishment. It added that he had never abused his government positions or friendship with Nazarbayev.
Halyk was not the only Kazakh bank that saw its shares plummet during the protests and riots. Vyacheslav Kim became $1.4bn poorer amid the 30% plunge in Kaspi’s share price to $87 on January 6 from $118 on January 4, taking his estimated net worth from $5.7bn to $4.2bn. The shares as of January 21 stood at $77.
Kim's partner Lomtadze saw his net worth crash from $5.2bn on January 4 to $3.8bn on January 6 during the two nights of particular uncertainty in the oil-rich nation.
The share prices of Kazakhsan's two most important banks fell following reports that banks including Kaspi and Halyk would not process pension payments until the end of the government-declared state of emergency, planned for January 19. While the state of emergency was last week officially lifted, Tokayev did not lift the "red level terrorist threat" status off some regions, including the commercial capital Almaty.
Property and other assets
Members of the Nazarbayev family have over the past two decades acquired luxury homes and other properties for hundreds of millions of dollars in the US and Europe, becoming owners of top-end Manhattan lakeside and skyscraper real estate, and of rich real estate holdings in London and on Spain’s Costa Brava.
The Nazarbayev family have made their mark in Manhattan (Kidfly 182, CC-BY-SA 4.0).
According to an investigation by Azattyk, the Kazakh edition of Radio Liberty, the Nazarbayev family reportedly owns a catalogue of expensive properties in leading cities of the world, not only in London and New York, but in cities across Czechia, France, Spain and Switzerland. The owners of the property reportedly include the former president’s two daughters, grandchildren and a brother.
Nineteen properties named in the investigation are all worth tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars, KNEWS has reported.
Azattyk has identified properties worth at least $785mn in six nations—the properties were acquired by members of the Nazarbayev family and relatives of their spouses over a period of 20 years. Several of the named properties have since been sold, according to KNEWS. They include millions of dollars worth of apartments in the US that were acquired by Nazarbayev's brother Bolat.
221 Baker Street, London (Image: Jordan 1972, CC-BY-SA 1.0).
A recent report by OpenDemocracy on kleptocratic wealth in the UK real estate world described how the extended Nazarbayev family owns some $450mn worth of luxury property in the UK. The UK-based investigative news platform SourceMaterial claimed that Nazerbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her son are the owners of 221b Baker Street, the fictional home of the character Sherlock Holmes.
OpenDemocracy cited a recent Chatham House report as saying that, as of early January , elite figures of the Central Asian state own at least £530.4mn of luxury property in London and the southeast, where £330mn of that luxury property is owned by the extended Nazarbayev family.
“This figure of £530m is likely to be the tip of the iceberg,” OpenDemocracy quoted Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow at Chatham House who has researched corruption in Central Asia, as saying. “We only learned about some of the big UK properties thanks to the Unexplained Wealth Order and associated investigations. There’s likely to be much more.”
Mayne was referring to the National Crime Agency’s (NCA’s) Unexplained Wealth Order case lodged in reference to three properties, with allegations that they were purchased with funds embezzled by Rakhat Aliyev, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s disgraced son-in-law who died in 2015 in Austria. The case was later thrown out by a High Court judge, who found the NCA’s claim was “unreliable”.
The three London properties were disclosed to be worth $52mn, $43mn and $12mn, according to a report by Forbes.
The extended Nazarbayev family includes the former president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, her son Nurali Aliyev, Nazarbayev’s billionaire son-in-law Timur Kulibayev and Kairat Boronbayev, a Kazakh businessman whose daughter was married to Nazarbayev’s grandson. Their combined portfolio of properties has ranged from £140mn of property between 215 and 237 Baker Street to a lavish mansion on London’s Bishops Avenue, known as ‘Billionaires Row’.
Houses on London's 'Billionaires' Row (Image: Martin Addison / The Bishops Avenue / CC BY-SA 2.0).
Aside from Nazarbayev’s family, some of the aforementioned also own property abroad. The daughter of copper magnate Vladimir Kim, owns a £27.5mn apartment in One Hyde Park, the colossal luxury development on the edge of London’s central green space.
Another previously mentioned billionaire, Utemuratov, is an owner of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported on January 19 that Nazarbayev’s foundations, a subject of frequent state-media coverage for charitable works, have turned out to own assets worth billions of dollars. These assets include luxury hotels, banks, factories, warehouses, and other possessions amounting to at least $8bn. While Nazarbayev does not formally “own” this fortune, he does control it as the founder of these organisations who only answer to him, OCCRP reported, citing legal experts.
OCCRP added that secretive foreign commercial structures often hide these assets, making it hard to track down where these billions are or where they might end up, especially amid the political turmoil that has hit Kazakhstan recently.
One of these foundations was the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan—Elbasy, which was established years earlier as a public foundation and was reclassified in 2011 as “private”. Nazarbayev was listed as its founder.
Nazarbayev founded two more private foundations, the Nazarbayev Foundation and the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, in 2009 and 2010, respectively, followed by another two, Demeu and Elbasy, in 2013 and 2021, respectively.
OCCRP found that the Nazarbayev Foundation is responsible for funding a flagship research university (Nazarbayev University) and a network of secondary schools (also named after Nazarbayev).
However, the schools and the university have set up their own corporate “development funds”, which, in turn, own an investment fund called Pioneer Capital Invest, which was used to purchase a Kazakh bank called ExpoCredit for $30mn. Since then, Pioneer Capital Invest has acquired several other banks, an internet marketplace, mobile operators, shopping malls, warehouses, and even a pasta factory, OCCRP reported.
The total value of the investment fund's assets amounts to a startling $7.8bn, which includes Kazakh and Kyrgyz state bonds, US Treasury bills and $3.4bn in cash, the report said. In 2020 alone, the fund earned more than $500mn in profits.
Tip of the iceberg?
The described assets, at the end of the day, may only represent the tip of the iceberg of what is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by Nazarbayev, his extended family and Kazakh billionaires that acquired wealth during Nazarbayev's 29-year rule.
If Tokayev's regime is truly targeting their wealth, no one knows what else may eventually be unearthed.