The Interior Ministry has confirmed that a body found in a secret grave in southern Kazakhstan is that of a former television host and a distant relative of former presidential son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, who is wanted in Kazakhstan on racketeering charges. Amid speculation that the woman, Anastasiya Novikova, was Aliyev’s lover, the ministry has not ruled out a link between Novikova’s death and Aliyev.
"The corpse was exhumed with a prosecutor’s warrant, and expert tests established that the body belongs to Novikova, Anastasiya," Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov told an August 7 briefing, according to a report distributed by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. Fuelling suspicions that Novikova -- who disappeared in 2004 -- was murdered, Kozhakhmetov said the body showed multiple fractures. This fact prompted Kazakhstan’s tabloids to speculate that she had been tortured.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Novikova -- who moved to Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan in 2001 when she was in her early 20s -- are murky. Police say that she reportedly lived in Lebanon in 2004 and appears to have died there. Her body was flown to the southern Kazakhstani town of Taraz from Lebanon at some point after her death in 2004, spirited through customs and covertly buried.
"Circumventing the established rules, her body was taken to Taraz airport on a charter flight from Lebanon on an aircraft belonging to the Atyrau Aue Zholy air company," Kozhakhmetov said, adding that "Novikova’s body was taken by car to a remote location in the South Kazakhstan Region and secretly buried in a pre-prepared place."
Police point to a possible link between Novikova and Aliyev because her body -- which was found in late July -- was accompanied on the flight by people connected to another Kazakhstani criminal case in which Aliyev is implicated. That case involves the January abduction of two senior Nurbank officials who are still missing, Zholdas Timraliyev and Aybar Khasenov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kozhakhmetov identified the men implicated in both cases as Kurman Akimkulov, who is under arrest, and Vadim Koshlyak, who is in Vienna. Aliyev is also in Vienna, where he is awaiting an extradition hearing after being abruptly fired as Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Austria in May and accused of involvement in organized crime. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, is in the process of divorcing Aliyev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Novikova’s corpse was accompanied on the flight to Kazakhstan by a third man: Daniyar Esten, her husband and Aliyev’s cousin. Police believe Novikova entered into a fictitious marriage with a citizen of Kazakhstan in 2002 to arrange a residence permit for herself, and worked as a presenter at NTK TV, part of the Alma-Media group then controlled by Aliyev.
Later in Vienna, Kozhakhmetov said, she married Esten -- who was working in the Kazakhstani Embassy -- without breaking off her previous marriage. Esten died in a car crash in Vienna in 2005.
Shortly before the discovery of her body was announced, Novikova’s brother, Vladimir, went to Almaty to report her missing, three years after her disappearance. The family was prompted to contact police after hearing that Aliyev was under criminal investigation, Kozhakhmetov said, adding that it was the Nurbank investigation that led police to the body.
In comments originally published by the Vremya tabloid, Novikov said his sister had been involved with an unidentified married man who was highly-placed in Kazakhstan, an involvement which took her to Vienna. Aliyev lived there as ambassador to Austria from 2001 to 2005, and from February 2007, sent there both times in disgrace by his father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, following political scandals in Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Vremya printed e-mails reportedly sent by Novikova to her family. Their content led the newspaper to point to similarities between Novikova’s lover’s life and that of Aliyev: his date of birth, the number of children he had and the timing of his son’s wedding.
In the summer of 2003, Novikova gave birth to a girl, Luiza, who is now the subject of frenzied speculation in Kazakhstan’s press. Her brother says she did not reveal the father’s name. Police say they know Luiza’s whereabouts, but have not revealed it, while Kommersant newspaper has speculated that she may be in the care of Esten’s mother.
Aliyev has denied involvement in Novikova’s death, accusing Nazarbayev in an August 5 open letter of seeking to smear him. "When your ideologists start using a tragedy in our family -- the death of my cousin Daniyar and his wife Nastya -- for their PR aims, it surpasses all imaginable borders of immorality. It is beyond the bounds of good and evil," Aliyev said in the letter.
Aliyev continues to protest his innocence in the Nurbank case, too, as he fights extradition. "You know full well that this case is fabricated, that I have not committed the absurd crimes that are being pinned on me," the letter added.
Aliyev repeated previous claims that Kazakhstan is backtracking from democracy, that the justice system is "repressive" and that he is being persecuted for holding alternative views. A wide variety of media outlets in Kazakhstan have heaped scorn on Aliyev’s claims, casting him as someone who, until two months ago, had enthusiastically helped construct the system that he is now vilifying.
Kazakhstan’s international image has recently been tarnished by a Tour de France doping scandal which saw Team Astana, headed by Alexander Vinokourov, forced to withdraw from the competition. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Novikova case is unlikely to do anything that could help Kazakhstan’s efforts to secure the 2009 OSCE chairmanship. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. News of the discovery of Novikova’s body came as the country’s parliamentary election campaign entered the home stretch. Whether or not the August 18 vote is deemed free-and-fair could become the determining factor in Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chair in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some analysts in Kazakhstan suggest that the emergence of Novikova’s body after so many years is connected with the Astana’s campaign to convince Austrian officials to extradite Aliyev. Many in Kazakhstan hope that a public trial could shed light on her perplexing death and on the disappearance of the two Nurbank officials.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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