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Unfinished Business: Alia Nazarbaeva Poses A Problem For 'New Kazakhstan'

Alia Nazarbaeva (file photo)
Alia Nazarbaeva (file photo)

ALMATY -- Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's youngest daughter, Alia, has suffered what would have been unthinkable during her father's long reign: a defeat in court.

But that doesn't necessarily mean she is going to face charges in Kazakhstan anytime soon, despite growing demand.

In 2002, Nazarbaeva was in her early 20s and was just beginning her business career.

But that didn't stop her from meeting with two successful entrepreneurs and making them an offer that they couldn't refuse before raising the threat level when they didn't play ball.

Such is the story being told by a pair of Kazakh businessmen who are now seeking damages from Nazarbaeva for what they call her seizure of their business, which was valued at around $170 million two decades ago.

Their colorful account -- one that implies Nazarbaeva had officers of the state at her beck and call in those days -- is so far being ignored by Kazakh law enforcement.

At the same time, Nazarbaeva's counterattack appears to have fallen flat.

On June 7, an administrative court in the capital, Astana, threw out libel charges Nazarbaeva had filed against the businessmen in response to accusations that they aired for the first time in February.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev attend the Astana Economic Forum in Nur-Sultan in 2019.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev attend the Astana Economic Forum in Nur-Sultan in 2019.

A draw, then?

Not if the businessmen have their way.

"We have hired lawyers in Britain. We are going to take our case there and to Switzerland. We have a 350-400-page dossier full of evidence of the lawless activities of Alia Nazarbaeva," Zharqyn Qurentaev, a representative for the two men, told RFE/RL.

RFE/RL reached out to Nazarbaeva, who did not participate directly in the online libel proceedings, but received no reply by the time of publication.

Ring-Fenced Relatives?

Unlike her older sister, Darigha Nazarbaeva, and her octogenarian father, the 44-year-old Alia Nazarbaeva has not been seen in Kazakhstan since the events known as Bloody January rocked the country at the beginning of 2022.

Those events, in which at least 238 people died, remain contested and almost impossible to fully unpack.

But two things seem clear.

The protests and violence on the streets of Kazakh cities occurred in parallel with a mighty struggle at the top of the government.

Secondly, that struggle ended in current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's favor, allowing him to finally emerge from the shadow of Nazarbaev, whose family dominated Kazakhstan for three decades and amassed incredible wealth in the process.

After Toqaev emerged from the crisis empowered, Nazarbaev, his relatives, and most of his in-laws relinquished positions of corporate and political leadership.

And yet for all the public clamor -- and longstanding allegations of Nazarbaev-inspired corruption -- neither the strongman nor his children have ever appeared to be in danger of standing trial.

Nurlan Bimurzin (left) holds a press conference in Almaty on February 28.
Nurlan Bimurzin (left) holds a press conference in Almaty on February 28.

Is that an indicator that deals were struck to protect the foremost members of the former ruling family?

Toqaev has insisted that is not the case.

But Nazarbaeva is proving a particularly stern test of that position.

The claims of Nurlan Bimurzin and Medgat Kaliev, which Bimurzin reiterated in an interview with RFE/RL this week, are shocking.

The pair allege their company, TPK Azia, came under intense pressure from state organs in 2002, at a time when it had amassed nearly 70 gas stations and six large oil depots in different parts of Kazakhstan.

After financial police sealed off the company's depots and storage facilities that year, the men were contacted by an intermediary who suggested a face-to-face meeting with Nazarbaeva.

At the meeting, it is alleged that Nazarbaeva told the men she was aware of their problems and could solve them for a price -- 50 percent of their company.

They claim that under duress they agreed.

A copy of an extraordinary shareholders' meeting dated September 4, 2002, and seen by RFE/RL indicates that TPK Azia's shareholder structure was indeed altered to allow Nazarbaeva to take a 50 percent stake in the company.

That left Bimurzin and his business partner Kaliev with 25 percent each.

The document also details the size of Nazarbaeva's investment in the company: 36,250 tenges (about $250 at the exchange rate then).

At ROP's End

Things got nastier the following year, when Bimurzin and Kaliev say they asked Nazarbaeva to make them offers for the business in order to exit the uncomfortable arrangement.

One of those offers came from Russia's LUKoil and stood at $161 million.

But Nazarbaeva came up with a counteroffer -- hand her the remaining half of the business.

According to Bimurzin, she suggested they do this after plainclothes officers kidnapped Bimurzin's now-deceased father, Serik Bimurzin, and took him to see her in her office.

Nazarbaeva, Nurlan Bimurzin claims, threatened to arrange for all of their personal properties to be seized and their closest relatives jailed if they did not comply.

The men accepted the offer and, more than two decades later, most of their former assets are now controlled by Singapore-headquartered Sinoil, a company they say they have no claim against.

When Bimurzin and Kaliev first told this story, they did so at a press conference with Qurentaev and Kazakh lawmaker Ermurat Bapi.

A gas station in Atyrau
A gas station in Atyrau

Two months later, Qurentaev and Bimurzin held another press conference to launch a movement of people -- dubbed Victims Of Old Kazakhstan -- who claim to have suffered wrongdoing at the hands of the former president's relatives.

But the authorities are unmoved.

Prosecutors had appeared to accept Bimurzin and Kaliev's case, it was kicked around law enforcement until police eventually told the entrepreneurs they could not move it forward due to the statute of limitations.

Qurentaev says the frustrations his clients have encountered indicate that Kazakhstan's system is still very much afraid of the 83-year-old man who created it: Nazarbaev.

"It is wrong to think that he doesn't have any influence anymore," Qurentaev said. "He still has a lot of influence."

Nazarbaev has three daughters from his marriage to Sara Nazarbaeva: Darigha, Dinara, and Alia.

He has also publicly recognized two sons born to another woman, Asel Qurmanbaeva, who is some 40 years his junior.

But while Darigha Nazarbaeva held top political positions and Dinara Kulibaeva co-owns Kazakhstan's biggest private lender, it is the youngest Nazarbaeva whose business practices have so often made headlines.

In 2005, authorities seized tens of thousands of copies of the opposition newspaper Svoboda Slova after it published the article How Alia Nazarbaeva Does Business.

The newspaper was also fined.

Since January 2022, there has been increased scrutiny over her involvement in the work of a privately owned monopolist that incurred the wrath of Kazakhs by collecting supersized utilization fees on imported vehicles.

That company -- Operator ROP -- was name-checked in a speech by Toqaev just after the unrest and was dissolved, with its functions passed onto a state-owned company.

But the now-jailed former head of ROP's financial department testified in court last year that Nazarbaeva had earned millions of dollars from the scheme and demanded in court that she face trial.

Another former ROP employee, who headed the company's legal department, died in jail before the trial began in what officials said was a suicide.

And Nazarbaeva was in the news again this month after a garbage-collection company tied to her by company documents managed to win a contract in one of the districts of the capital, Astana.

"Alia Nazarbaeva's company is back in business," read the June 5 headline of the private news website Golos Naroda.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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