Much noise, little substance: Kazakhstan’s elites “discovered” by sensation-hunters

Fame and wealth have their price – as the saying goes. Man is envious by nature, and those who have all the luck in life can count on jealous looks from all sides. Kazakhstan’s elites have had their fair share in dark-looking headlines for more than a decade now. In some cases, allegations have appeared to be true. Their perpetrators, on the run, are now trying to strike back to those who have managed to stay within the law, and the result to some extent appeals to sensation hunters whose task it is to keep their media from boring people at all cost. But this is as far as the nuisance goes – and there seems to be no reason for less than voluntary players in the game not to play along.

by Charles van der Leeuw, KZW senior contributor

Dubious questions have been raised in the last couple of years over affairs to which very little dubious things can be attributed. For members of social and political elites in Europe, this is hardly a novelty. Ever since the press became politicised in the late XVIIth and early XVIIIth Century, especially Britain’s and France’s news business treated their audiences on a never-ending avalanche of scandals. Royalty has always been a favourite target in the UK. Later only Hollywood celebrities added themselves to the list. Tycoons have followed pace since the aftermath of the Second World War. Those targeted by professional profile-builders – who are under pressure from the advertising business in turn and engaged in tough mutual competition – may indulge in it or not, but escaping it these days is difficult if not impossible. The best thing to do is probably either ignoring it or enjoying it.

In a country like Kazakhstan, though, where the word propaganda after communist tradition has kept much of its positive meaning and reporting for the sake of reporting and sensation for the sake of itself enjoy little affection by the public, it can come as a cultural shock. Those who become the target of tabloid-style journalism, however, should not panic. In general, it is all about very much smoke and very little fire – and as soon as the smoke dissolves the fire tends to go out by itself. By that time, the newspaper has kept up its circulation, the public has had its share in sensation (and by and large already forgotten most of it) and – most important of all: advertisers are happy and keep the paper in business.

Kazakh prominent figures’ ability to keep cool has been put to the test for some time now. An article in The Sunday Times in its issue of February 14 this year is a perfect example of sensationalist journalism and (most of all) its shortcomings. Under the misleading header “Kazakh tycoon’s secret deal on Prince Andrew’s house” (as it appears, there is very little secret left in the purchase of Sunninghill Park these days), the text reads as follows: “Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of the Kazakh president and worth an estimated ?1.7 billion in 2008, admitted this weekend that he is the owner of the Ascot mansion. He bought it from Andrew for ?3m above the asking price, even though there were no other bidders. His admission comes after nearly three years of secrecy over the building’s ownership. Kulibayev only acknowledged his role after The Sunday Times painstakingly unravelled the chain of offshore companies he had used to obscure the 2007 purchase. Insiders say Kulibayev’s decision to pay over the odds for Sunninghill may have been an attempt to win Andrew’s friendship.”

“Painstakingly unravelled”? All documents “revealing” Mr. Kulibayev’s companies have been in the public domain from the very beginning and, both in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, are accessible to everyone. Attempts to give the affair’s thin air some substance by calling in political heralds seem to have resulted in little tangible as well – and merely repeats what has been known for years. “Last night fresh questions were being raised over Andrew’s judgment in accepting the money from a businessman now subject to claims of financial impropriety in his homeland,” the article continues. “Ian Davidson, a Labour member of the Commons public accounts committee, questioned whether the prince was “blinded by the opportunity to make a windfall profit”. […] The house’s style was widely derided as “supermarket”. Andrew and Sarah were divorced in 1996, but continued to live at Sunninghill with their children Beatrice and Eugenie. The duke eventually moved out in 2004, two years after the house had been put up for sale. It languished on the market, valued at ?12m, until it was suddenly bought in 2007. The high price came even though there were no other bidders.”

What’s new? Nothing special. Follows the “painstaking” revelation by the Sunday Times: “The buyer [of Sunninghill] was named in the Land Registry as Unity Assets Corporation, based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). […] Contracts on Sunninghill were exchanged in June 2007 and the deal was completed in September in a sale signed off by Mark Bridges, a solicitor at Farrer, the firm which represents the Queen, and by Sir Alan Reid, the monarch’s keeper of the privy purse. […] Share registers show Unity is owned by Merix International Ventures. Merix is owned in turn by Kipros Ltd, also registered in the BVI. At the time of the purchase, Kipros was owned by Kipros limited liability partnership, registered in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Kazakh registration documents from 2007 show Kulibayev as controlling the partnership, and in 2008 its sole share in Kipros Ltd was transferred to him personally. Further documents show Sunninghill was just one of Kulibayev’s British purchases. Also in 2007, he paid a total of ?44.4m for four adjoining houses in Upper Grosvenor Street and Reeves Mews in Mayfair. They were bought in the names of Merix, Vitala and Lynn, all Kulibayev companies.”

There are a number of factors in the report that are misleading. A number of perfectly legal procedures has been summed up here with an overtone that something illegal has been done – of which there is no sign whatsoever. No legal charges have been filed anywhere in the world against Mr. Kulibayev – let alone any blame recognised as such by any court of law in any location. This cannot be said about the man which has sent the entire gossip into the world and who, amazingly, is being treated with utmost discretion by the UK’s outstanding sensation hunters.

For whereas in some cases news sources can, and sometimes need to be consulted on condition of anonymity, this is not such a case. The main and probably only source of all the hints and suggestions is no one less than Mukhtar Ablyazov, the Kazakh banker-swindler who is hiding out in London while having been convicted by a Kazakh court of law to 14 years in prison for embezzling the dazzling amount in the order of 10 billion US dollar during the years he was at the helm of Bank TuranAlem (BTA), the country’s largest bank by assets. Part of the multiple scheme he used went through fake investments in the Russian Federation, for which Russia’s prosecution has filed serious charges against him last winter. Ablyazov cannot leave the UK, since his personal assets have been frozen and his passport confiscated.

If the quest for support from Parliament by England’s sensation hunters stranded (since it far from always does since MPs love to “score” as much as pundits do), there is always leisure left to turn to – if it were only to give commoners a glimpse of the lavish manner in which the rich and mighty have fun. This has led to a further attempt to search for scrap wood in order to keep the fire and the smoke alive by the Sunday Times’ rival the Sunday Telegraph, resulting in an article published in its issue of May 30 this year. The report focuses on a young woman from Kazakhstan who made a fortune in the wake of the country’s industrial privatisation towards the New Millennium and these days enjoys the good life resulting from it downtown London.

“Goga Ashkenazi, 30, is super rich and well connected. Ashkenazi rose from rags to riches and mingles with the world’s elite naturally, not betraying her humble roots in Kazakhstan. Ashkenazi’s recent 30th birthday party was a show of her power, influence and opulence. Ashkenazi spent lavishly, as if her money well would never run dry. Ashkenazi’s distinguished birthday guests included Prince Andrew, financier Robert Hanson, Duran Duran band member Nick Rhodes, party organizer Caroline Stanbury, banker Andy Wong, his wife Patti Wong, Russian model Natalia Vodianova, real estate millionaire Nick Candy, his actress girlfriend Holly Valance, socialite Nancy Dell’Olio, Lord Edward Spender-Churchill, MD of Conde Nast, Nicholas Coleridge and etc.” How the trail from Timur Kulibayev to Goga leads is explained by the rumour that some years ago she gave birth to a child allegedly from Mr. Kulibayev and that she is a good friend of Prince Andrew. Not very puritan perhaps – but a long way from what the likes of Ablyazov have on their record.

So where does this disproportion between make-belief and content originate from? In the introduction to his classical work A History of News, mass communication expert at the New York University Mitchell Stevens explains it as follows: “Sensationalism appears to be a technique or style that is rooted somehow in the nature of the news. News obviously can do much more than merely sensationalise, but most news is, in an important sense, sensational: it is intended, in part, to arouse, to excite, often – whether the subject is a political scandal or a double murder – to shock.” Further on in his book, Stevens elaborates: “Those who object not to the subjects being reported but to the treatment they are accorded often complain of the sensationalist’s eagerness to exploit those occurrences, to squeeze every last drop of melodrama from some unfortunate circumstance.” But he argues: “All journalists are comrades in the battle against dullness; they are straining not to bore the sultan. But where the most respectable and skilled journalists might season the news they gather with some delicately applied cerebration or wit, sensationalists pour on the catsup – not an insignificant difference in preparation for readers interested in the flavour of events.”

Mr. Kulibayev and his numerous fellow victims around the globe might find a lot of comfort in the fact that as it appears authorities tend to merely shrug at sensationalist news. Not every pundit is a Bob Woodward and no affair but for extremely rare exceptions is a Watergate. In fact, affairs like those of Ablyazov and his fellow-embezzler on the run Rakhat Aliyev – just to name two – are a lot more serious but strangely enough get less attention from scoop-hunters than one would think. A pity – but at the same time a comforting thought for those who are sought by the ones who hold the limelight. Moreover, few people are amused by watching the same show over and over again – meaning that there is always a long line of fresh victims of sensationalism waiting to enter the stage.