An investigation by RFE/RL has uncovered indirect ties between the chairman of Kazakhstan's monopoly gas trader, KazTransGas, and emergent companies that have benefited from massive business deals linked to the state -- including a multibillion-dollar, 20-year contract to process so-called associate gas from KazTransGas.
Public documents showing KazTransGas Chairman Kairat Sharipbaev and other current or former statutory figures in Kazakh businesses raise the specters of industrial self-dealing or favorable state treatment for past Sharipbaev start-ups and an obscure business partner who figures in some of those same companies.
It is unclear whether Sharipbaev directly profited from his discreet personal relationship with the eldest daughter of ex-leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose unrivaled influence has barely waned since he retreated from his presidential duties two years ago.
But Sharipbaev's appointment to the chairmanship at KazTransGas and his rising business fortunes have coincided with reports of a long-term relationship with Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha -- possibly including a marriage that has never been publicly confirmed.
Decades of accusations of rampant clientelism in Central Asia's wealthiest post-Soviet republic is buttressed by evidence of a tight circle of elites close to Nazarbaev's family enriching themselves through undisclosed personal and business networks.
In one of the starkest examples of a little-known entity with indirect ties to Sharipbaev profiting from key services, a firm called GPC Investment was chosen to supervise the construction of a $860 million plant to process associated gas for KazTransGas.
GPC Investment is only two years old and has just five registered employees.
Seemingly corresponding to that government-assisted deal, GPC Investment's tax payments -- a frequent barometer of profits -- skyrocketed to around 500 million tenges, or about $1.17 million, in the first half of 2021, from a mere 400,000 tenges the previous year.
Processing "associated gas" has become increasingly lucrative as natural-gas prices soar, but also as global pressure mounts to minimize environmental damage from fossil fuels and squeeze additional resources out of the byproducts of crude-oil extraction.
Kazakhstan has rushed to capitalize, with much of that business so far going either to a firm called Gas Processing Company or to GPC Investment thanks in significant part to KazTransGas.
Public documents say Gas Processing Company was founded by an individual named Aset Nurdos, and that GPC Investment is run by Nurdos.
The enigmatic 34-year-old Nurdos has turned up atop several of Sharipbaev's former companies -- including one called Astana Group that since February has listed his daughter, Korlan Sharipbaeva, as its founder.
Sharipbaev and Nurdos both also appear as statutory members of a company called Intergas Central Asia, where Sharipbaev led marketing and trade efforts in the early 2000s.
A company originally founded by Sharipbaev in 2014, Innovation Invest, subsequently listed Nurdos as its founder.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service investigation could not locate any Aset Nurdos, and calls to the telephone numbers listed for Nurdos on commercial documents were out of service.
Sharipbaev declined to respond to RFE/RL’s questions -- including questions about Nurdos's identity, their business relationship, or activities involving firms founded by Sharipbaev or run by Sharipbaev's daughter.
Rise To Power
The 58-year-old Sharipbaev has risen from his roots as a soil scientist and greengrocer to become one of the most influential men in Kazakhstan.
His two-decade career in the gas industry culminated in November 2020 when he took up the chairman's post at KazTransGas, which delivers natural gas to more than half of Kazakhstan's 18 million residents.
The state-owned oil and gas company KazMunayGas spun off KazTransGas in March, when ownership was transferred to the Kazakh state's sovereign wealth fund, known as Samruk-Kazyna.
Around the same time, video appeared online showing Sharipbaev and Darigha Nazarbaeva, a former deputy prime minister and current lawmaker, at the center of what appeared to be a wedding celebration.
Amid a frolicking group of around 20 other people tossing flower petals and singing a traditional wedding song known as "Jar-Jar," Sharipbaev hoists Nazarbaeva into his arms in the style of many modern Kazakh weddings.
It was unclear when the video was made or by whom. But it has strengthened rumors dating back to at least 2013 that the two had quietly wed.
Shortly before his death in London in August 2020, at the age of 29, Darigha's son from a previous marriage, Aisultan Nazarbaev, referred to Sharipbaev as "my mother's current husband."
But while they have occasionally appeared together at public functions, neither has publicly confirmed they are married.
Open government sites don't currently list Sharipbaev as owning or controlling any commercial entities outside of his role at KazTransGas.
But major deals and activities involving entities linked to Nurdos and KazTransGas or state-controlled companies have continued apace.
Gas Processing Company already owns one of the associated-gas processing plants that are cropping up in oil-rich western Kazakhstan, at Kozhasai in the Aqtobe region.
In late 2018, then-President Nazarbaev helped mark its opening. It reportedly processes around 300 million cubic meters of associated gas annually before selling about 70 percent of its output abroad.
In June, Nurdos's GPC Investment began construction on a new, $860 million associated-gas processing plant at the Kashagan field, in Kazakhstan's Atyrau region.
The Kazakh newcomer GPC Investment was selected for the project by the Kazakh government despite initial suggestions that international energy companies like Eni, Total, Shell, Exxon Mobil, China's CNPC, or Japan's Inpex might be in the running.
Sharipbaev attended the ground-breaking ceremony at Kashagan on behalf of KazTransGas.
Five months earlier, in late December 2020, soon after Sharipbaev's appointment at KazTransGas, the Kazakh government approved a resolution clearing the way for KazTransGas to receive 1 billion cubic meters of associated gas from Kashagan.
Two days later, on December 31, a consortium including state-held KazMunayGas signed a deal pledging to give the same amount of associated gas to KazTransGas, which would transfer it to GPC Investment's new plant.
In February, GPC Investment struck a deal to "extract and process crude gas" for KazTransGas that is worth "50 or more percent of the total assets of KazTransGas," or upward of $2 billion.
Officials from the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund declined to disclose its terms, citing "trade secrets."