Fresh salvoes are being fired in a running battle between members of Kazakhstan's ruling elite and tycoons who have fallen out of favor.
As oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov -- wanted in Kazakhstan on fraud charges that he denies -- continues to shoot off allegations from London about corruption involving the president's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, fresh accusations have been made against his former associate, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, who is already on trial on corruption charges. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has also waded into the fray to give a tongue-lashing to another influential tycoon who supported the two entrepreneurs.
The latest trading of accusations began after Ablyazov alleged in January that Kulibayev had made a personal profit of $165.9 million over the acquisition by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) of the Kazakh government's stake in the CNPC-KazMunayGaz joint venture. He followed this up with further allegations of corruption in other energy transactions with China, such as CNPC's acquisition last year of a 50 percent stake in the MangystauMunayGaz concern.
Kulibayev has not responded to EurasiaNet's requests for comment on the case, but he has publicly denied the allegations and has filed a libel suit in Kazakhstan against Ablyazov and the media outlets that first reported the accusations. The lawsuit is frozen while the sides seek an out of court settlement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On March 11 CNPC issued a statement denying the allegations, which it described as "groundless and libelous."
There are signs that the controversy involving Kulibayev - who is married to Nazarbayev's middle daughter, Dinara Kulibayeva, and is often tipped as a presidential successor - has rattled Nazarbayev, a skillful political operator not given to outbursts of emotion. At a session of the Council of Entrepreneurs on February 26, he turned on another influential oligarch, the head of Astana Motors, Nurlan Smagulov, and berated him for intervening when Ablyazov was serving a prison sentence in 2002-2003.
"A group of his friends, who you were among, wrote me a written petition, you swore and gave a written guarantee so that I pardoned him, Ablyazov, who was in prison for corruption," Nazarbayev said angrily. "And you promised me in writing by oath that he would serve the motherland. He has now spat in the face of all his friends. I am not going to name names. And you should answer for this."
The response of Smagulov -- who was also among the signatories of a letter to Nazarbayev in support of Dzhakishev last year -- was understandably uncomfortable: "It is deplorable to me that we are now on different sides of the barricade. And I think it is very important to think about the country's future, to consolidate and ? not to see in the country in which you grew up and established yourself only the negative."
Ablyazov received a six-year prison sentence in 2002 on corruption charges, but was pardoned after less than a year. He maintains that the trial was politically motivated by his co-founding of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement set up in 2001 to lobby for reform, which became a thorn in the administration's side. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Another person who vouched for him back in 2002 was Dzhakishev, the dynamic entrepreneur who spent a decade dragging Kazakhstan's nuclear industry out of the doldrums as head of the Kazatomprom state nuclear company. He was arrested last May on corruption charges. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"When I was in prison Mukhtar [Dzhakishev] actively fought for my release and gave a guarantee for me to Nazarbayev that I would not engage in public politics. . . . He basically became a hostage to future events," Ablyazov said in an interview with the Svoboda Slova weekly that was published on February 18. He went on to predict that attacks on his associates would be stepped up.
On March 4 the Prosecutor-General's Office revealed that Dzhakishev was under investigation on fresh charges of money laundering. He is already on trial accused of embezzling $800,000 from Kazatomprom and bribe taking, and on March 6 the prosecution called for him to be given a 14-year prison term.
Dzhakishev's trial, which began on January 5, is closed because authorities say state secrets are subject to testimony during the proceedings. His wife, Zhamilya Dzhakisheva, and lawyer, Nurlan Beysekeyev, have complained of restricted access to the defendant; a shortage of time for the defense to acquaint itself with case materials; and the withholding of appropriate medical treatment: Dzhakishev is reportedly suffering from high blood pressure. He has been hospitalized once and has collapsed in court.
Law enforcement bodies deny any mistreatment, but in early March, Dzhakishev wrote to his trial judge, Nurlan Zholdasbekov, to complain that his rights were being flouted and protest his innocence. In the letter, made public on March 2 by Beysekeyev, Dzhakishev questioned the need for a closed trial, complained about his health and the lack of time to prepare for hearings, accused the court of bias and demanded the removal of the judge. "I see an inclination toward the prosecution in the actions of the chairman [of the court, Zholdasbekov] and believe that you are not conducting the trial in the interests of justice but are only assisting the KNB [National Security Committee] in repressing me," the letter said.
Last May, law enforcement bodies accused Dzhakishev of misappropriating uranium reserves worth billions of dollars in collusion with Ablyazov. Both deny the accusations, which remain under investigation and could spark a new trial later.
Ablyazov is now wanted in Kazakhstan on separate charges of defrauding BTA Bank, where he was chairman until the government forcibly nationalized it. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
He fled to London and says the criminal charges are politically motivated.
There are signs that authorities are determined to see him stand trial in absentia. At the same meeting where Nazarbayev railed at Smagulov for supporting Ablyazov, a top law enforcement official promised Nazarbayev that the investigations would end with people in the dock.
"I think the Prosecutor-General's Office, together with other law-enforcement bodies, will definitely see this case [involving Ablyazov] through to its logical end, which is to say that the criminals will be handed over to a court," Prosecutor-General Kayrat Mami said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.