Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Nursultan Nazarbayev’

Wanted Man: Mukhtar Ablyazov

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th August, 2019

Mukhtar AblyazovWhen I first went to Kazakhstan in 1994, the fledgling nation was struggling to get on its feet. As the train I was travelling on trundled across the steppe from the then capital of Almaty to the frontier of Uzbekistan, old women wrapped up against the cold stood by the side of the track selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on. With US dollars, a visitor could live like a king for a pittance. But while the bulk of Kazakhstan’s population was having difficulties making ends meet, a smart but not necessarily honest minority were cannily seizing the opportunities offered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union to make fortunes for themselves. One such was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh theoretical physics graduate from Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute. In 1992 he started supplying different areas of the newly independent country with basic commodities such as salt, sugar, tea, chocolate and medicines, establishing a multi-sector private holding company, Astana Holding, He then moved into the energy sector, being appointed head of the state-owned Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company in 1997. After turning that into a profitable operation, in a rapid rise he was appointed Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade. For a while, at least, he enjoyed the favour of the then all-powerful President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But that was not to last.

Mukhtar Ablyazov bookFast forward to 2005, by which time Mukhtar Ablyazov was Chairman of BTA Bank, which within three years had become the largest financial institution in the country. Blessed with colossal natural resources, from hydrocarbons to precious metals, Kazakhstan’s economy was starting to take off dramatically and oligarchs with the right connections were making huge fortunes. But all was not well with BTA. Auditors from Pricewaterhouse Coopers discovered a $10 billion shortfall in the bank’s accounts — and Mr Ablyazov was subsequently accused of embezzling a substantial chunk of that. He had meanwhile accumulated an impressive property portfolio on both sides of the Atlantic — including a mansion on Hampstead’s Bishop’s Avenue, “Billionaires Row”, and an estate in Surrey. BTA launched legal proceedings against their former Chairman in the British High Court; the judgment went against Ablyazov, but he managed to slip out of the country — using a false identity and a cheap bus to France, according to Gary Cartwright, a Brussels-based journalist and author of the slim volume Wanted Man: The Story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (Cambridge International Press, £9.95). In France, Ablyazov found himself the subject of an extradition order to Russia and spent some time in a French jail. Yet various human rights organisations as well as several members of the European Parliament campaigned to have that situation reversed on the grounds that he was the victim of political persecution and had a valid claim to asylum. He had indeed set up a putative opposition party and maybe even aspired to replace Nazarbayev one day in a fully democratic Kazakhstan.

BTA BankBut as Cartwright’s book outlines, the Ablyazov affair has murky tendrils that stretch into many countries, tax havens such as Luxembourg and networks of criminals and intelligence agencies. Ablyazov even stands accused of ordering the murder of his predecessor as Chairman of BTA bank, who was “accidentally” shot by a rifle when the car he was travelling in on a hunting expedition went over a bump in the road. The story is indeed worthy of popular fiction or a high-drama film and maybe one day that will happen. In the meantime, Ablyazov is assumed to be lying low in France, playing his guitar and hanging out with a close network of family and friends. Gary Cartwright’s book only skates over the surface of this extremely complex and intriguing affair, and it is very much the case for the prosecution (supported by some documentary evidence). As such, it whets the appetite rather than providing a definitive account. Presumably one day that will be written by someone, but for the present one is left with unsettling insights into the unseemly underbelly of not just Kazakhstan but of so much of the post-Soviet world, as well as elements of the support systems that dodgy oligarchs have been able to rely on across the EU, ranging from lawyers to false NGOs and sometimes gullible politicians. And in a world in which false news and alternative facts increasingly rule it may prove to be the  evil of a task to find out the whole truth.

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Norman Foster’s Peace Pyramid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th April, 2015

imageimageOne of the most striking buildings in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, is the Peace Palace, designed by Sir Norman Foster in the form of a pyramid. It was specifically constructed, at the behest of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to house the triennial gatherings of lsaders of world and traditional religions — the pyramid being chosen as a concept that was religiously neutral. The pyramid was completed in 2006 but the first such gathering was in fact held in 2003 and the next is due this June. In between those summits, the building is used for concerts and other conferences and boasts a variety of different spaces, from a large classic style theatre to the circular meeting room right at the top of the pyramid, whose windows feature beautiful stained glass depicting white doves. Kazakhstan itself is a secular state, with large populations of Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as Roman Catholics and other faiths, being ethnically very mixed. It also has good relations with the Jewish diaspora worldwide.

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A Night at the Opera

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th April, 2015

image imagePolling stations in Kazakhstan’s presidential election closed at 8pm last night, at which point I was installed in a full house at Astana’s Opera House for a performance of Mukan Tulebayev’s Birzhan and Sara, a sort of Central Asian Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of around 100 (including a full corps de ballet) and magnificent scenery, making full use of the theatre’s enormous and high tech stage. The music was an eclectic mix of Kazakh folk tunes and Russian romantic music, defiantly tonal and guaranteed to please the crowd, as were the sumptuous costumes and fine dancing. At the express wish of the omnipresent President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the opera house has maintained the old Soviet practice of keeping prices low, so that high culture is within everyone’s reach. My excellent stalls seat cost 2,000 tenge — the equivalent of €10. The national TV had its camera just above my head, broadcasting the opera live in keeping with the celebratory mood of Election Day. I was fascinated to see that selfies are all the rage among Kazakhs in the theatre, but I did scowl when the woman sitting next to me actually answered her mobile phone during the performance. The opera house itself is magnificent, brand new but classical in style, with a beautiful marble hall outside the main auditorium for interval drinks.

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President Nazarbayev Goes to Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th April, 2015

imageThis morning I joined journalists and TV crews from around the world at Astana’s People’s Palace (a name so redolent of the former Soviet Union!) to watch voting in today’s presidential elections, for which voters of all ages were indeed streaming into the polls. In keeping with the holiday mood in Kazakhstan’s capital loud dance music was being played through loudspeakers outside and there was a large cut-out of the kind one used to see at British seaside resorts, with a hole for people to put their head through for photos. There was a brand new red carpet running up the steps from the square, along which people were proudly marching — many hand-in-hand with their small children — though I imagine it was mainly there for President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was due to come to cast his vote at 10am, but was fashionably late, being greeted with polite applause by the small queue of other voters that had built up. The voting process is identical to what happens in the UK, with officials checking off voters’ names from the electoral register before the voters go into a curtained booth to complete their ballot, which they then fold to put in a large ballot box (transparent Perspex here, unlike the black metal ones in Britain).

imageThe President turns 75 this year, but looks quite fit and not all that different from when I met him in London when he came to open independent Kazakhstan’s first embassy to the Court of St James’s, when Margaret Beckett was Labour Foreign Secretary. Mr Nazabayev has been Kazakhstan’s leader since independence and was Secretary General of the republic’s Communist Party for a short while in the Soviet twilight. He has his own party these days and one of the two candidates authorised to run against him is standing for the Communists. In stark contrast to Britain’s current general election, where no-one has a firm idea of the government that will emerge after 7 May, the result in Kazakhstan’s presidential poll is a foregone conclusion. Mr Nazarbayev usually gets over 90% of the vote and it would be astonishing if he didn’t this time as well.

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