Prosecutors in Kazakhstan say that they have recouped up to 760 billion tenge ($1.7 billion) in illegally appropriated assets in a revenue-generating exercise that was initiated in the wake of political unrest that ripped through the country in January 2022.
The General Prosecutor’s Office said on May 12 that around $575 million out of that overall sum was returned to Kazakhstan from abroad.
Success in clawing back this money will be branded as a triumph by supporters of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has pledged to dismantle the crony system that flourished under his predecessor and mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tokayev has never singled Nazarbayev out for criticism by name, but many of the former president’s associates and even relatives have over the past two years been either side-lined or targeted for prosecution.
The asset reclamation drive was kickstarted by Tokayev in February 2022, when he instructed the government to draw up a plan to return money unlawfully salted away in foreign jurisdictions to the state’s coffers. The work of implementing this task has been handed to a Special Interdepartmental Commission on Combating Illegal Accumulation of Economic Resources set up by the president in June 2022. The commission is composed in part of high-ranking law enforcement officials.
As a result of that team’s work, the courts have found the sale of numerous state assets, anything from entire companies to plots of land and markets, to have been conducted illegally.
In a few instances, it is Nazarbayev’s own family who were forced to relinquish holdings. One asset returned to the state was a 50 percent share in a company known as the Liquefied Petroleum Gas Storage Park, based in the oil city of Atyrau. Following a court ruling, that stake was taken out of the hands of Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of the former president, and handed to the Atyrau Oil Refinery. According to the news outlet Orda, Kulibayev took control over that 50 percent stake in 2021 when it was sold at an auction.
Another major loser in this confiscation drive has been Nazarbayev’s younger brother, Bolat. Assets said to have formerly been under his control include the Barys-4 wholesale market, whose sale by the state was declared illegal by a court in Almaty in October. In March, local media reported that Bolat Nazarbayev was instructed by the Supreme Court to surrender a 31.9 percent stake in the Almaty Heavy Machine Building Plant.
One more major casualty among Nazarbayev’s extended family was a nephew, Kairat Satybaldy. In November, the Anti-Corruption Service reported that it had repatriated precious gems and jewelry worth $230 million that Satybaldy had allegedly appropriated illegally and stashed abroad. They said they also discovered $300 million he had invested in foreign securities.
Satybaldy was sentenced to six years in prison in September on charges of embezzlement.
Kazakh officials said their international hunt for assets has taken them to jurisdictions that include among them Liechtenstein, Austria, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong. The government says it has sent more than 100 requests to other countries in search for a further $100 million.
In April, representatives of the General Prosecutor's Office signed a cooperation agreement with the Basel Institute on Governance, a Swiss-based anti-corruption non-profit organization. The institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery has since 2006 helped numerous countries in tracing and recovering illegally acquired assets.
The government says the funds it is recouping through this initiative will be fed back into the state’s coffers and be directed toward the construction of new schools. Prosecutors have pledged that the effort will continue until the country’s economic resources are no longer concentrated in the hands of a small group of individuals and a level playing field is created for business in Kazakhstan.
They will have their work cut out for them. Last February, lawmakers pointed out, citing data from international organizations, that around $160 billion had been taken out of the country to offshore jurisdictions over a 25-year span. That amount is, incidentally, equivalent in size to Kazakhstan’s entire external debt.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.