The making of characters like Mukhtar Ablyazov: when tyrannosaurs go democratic

The making of characters like Mukhtar Ablyazov: when tyrannosaurs go democraticIf Ablyazov and his fellow-abusers on the run Rakhat Aliyev and Viktor Khrapunov have one thing in common it must be an extreme level of impertinence maintaining that turning need into greed should be considered for the good of all. Continuing accusations alleging that Ablyazov is supposed to have been behind the strikers’ movement in southwestern Kazakhstan, resulting in the worst bloodbath by the authorities ever since the country’s independence, make therefore little sense and should be dismissed as attempts to make insincere opportunism look like political aspiration – like other comments linking him to marginal non-core opposition movements outside the official framework in Kazakhstan in earlier times. In truth, the three men’s political pretences have always been a hoax from beginning to end. While their business empires were meant to allow them to steal and usurp without limit or excuse, the political positions they aspired, and temporarily obtained, were meant only to facilitate getting away with it all.


As the new millennium dawned, following his dismissal as a state official, Ablyazov was accused of having embezzled a handsome pair of billions from state companies including Kazakhstan’s jewel in the crown, state company KEGOC. In 1999, he left his job and became president and CEO of Kazakhstan’s ill-born and ill-fated flag carrier Air Kazakhstan. Before the end of the year, he was to abandon his post again. But during that brief period of time, he left his trade mark on the ailing, debt-ridden company in pretty much the same manner he was to deal with BTA bank in later times. Once more, he left office to become minister of energy – which unwittingly drew attention to his period at the helm of KEGOC.

The allegations triggered his move to form an opposition party, dubbed Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) – probably in the hope that a seat in Parliament would offer him immunity from prosecution. The party was bullied by loyalists in Kazakhstan’s political arena from the very beginning, which, unfortunately, gave Ablyazov enough ammunition to claim political martyrdom later. DCK had been ambiguous both in composition and in pretences from the very start. First of all, Ablyazov’s later claim that he was the “founder” of the movement was to remain subject to doubt at best. In reality, the initiative came from Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, then governor of the northeastern province of Pavlodar. When the movement was proclaimed in November 2001, Ablyazov was still minister of energy but already under pressure through accusations of embezzlement during his job as head of KEGOC.

Other cabinet members within DCK’s ranks included deputy defence minister Zhannat Yertlesova and Kairat Kelimbetov, then deputy finance minister and later to be put in charge of the National Welfare Fund Samruk Kazyna – before returning to the government in the function of minister of economic affairs. But much worse was in place in the presence of Rakhat Aliyev, then still prominent as foreign minister, head of the National Security Council and married to President Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter. Other members included two members of Parliament, Bulat Abilov and Tholen Toktassimov. Finally, there was Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, president and CEO in Kazkommertsbank and a major shareholder in the bank.

The movement was poised to split up in the course of the following spring. Looking back, there can be little doubt that most of its prominent members had signed up less with the goal to pursue “political and economic reforms for the establishment of a free market economy” as DCK pretended, but with the sole aim to protect their own business interests against state interference and competitors. This has been beyond any doubt what the likes of Ablyazov and Aliyev had in mind. This is why all pretences of “political” character put forward by Ablyazov in later times will have to be categorically dismissed – as they have been, notably, by British courts of law in later times.

Only weeks after DCK’s “official” proclamation, charges of abuse of public office and public funds, forgery and embezzlement had been filed against both Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov, who in the course of the following year were to be convicted to seven and six years in prison. After having been behind bars for hardly more than a year, Ablyazov obtained amnesty. He had to promise to stay out of politics, and did so by leaving the country for Moscow, from where he consolidated his previous career’s yield, before taking the helm of Bank TuranAlem. It can now be assumed, as investigators suspect, that he used part of the embezzled cash to buy into the bank and as the biggest single shareholder obtain the position of president.

Billions of written words must have been spent on the banking crisis that emerged in 2007 and caused havoc in economies around the globe that keep rippling through into the new decade. In most reviews, rechless lending and reckless spending in the run-up to it have been blamed for the following misfortune. “Erroneous policies” pursued by banks and their executives are usually blamed for the implosion in cash provisions that cost the world’s tax payers trillion after trillion to fill pits that seemed to have no bottom. It means, though, that huge amounts of money have been used to cover sums that simply have been stolen by the world’s financial echelons. In particular in the UK and (especially) in the USA, most queries and claims by banks’ victims have in the end been “settled” through arbitration committees and supervising agencies with no judicial authority. Prosecutors have been remarkably reluctant to take on criminal cases which, looking back, would look all too justified from the very beginning.

In this regard, the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov, like the one of Russia’s fugitive banker Vladimir Guzinsky back in 2002, is exemplary, with Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s authorities consistently thriving for the law to be enforced, arguing that a thief is a thief – whether he is a poor thief or a rich thief. The fact that the Ablyazov files, in all their complexity, dislocse numerous connections with the world of “heavy”, organised crime, with names such as those of Central Asia’s leading “capo” Muratkhan Tokhmadiyev, the Russo-Judaic entrepreneur Arkadi Gaydamak at the time accused and convicted for smuggling and fund abuse, the “merchant of death” of Tajik origin Viktor Bout, and last but not least the Kazakh President’s former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, charged and in absentia convicted for multiple murder and attempt of an armed overthrow of the Kazakh government, appear in this context should therefore hardly come as a surprise.

Though unique in terms of size (at least as far as known at the time of writing), the overall pattern of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s carreer corresponds to an overall pattern that looks pretty much in line with John Lea’s assessment. The waning public awareness ever since the cold war that communities are supposed to have a common cause in terms of the values of liberty, dignity and prosperity (modern-day variants of the French Revolution’s liberty, equality and fraternity) distorted but still matinained throughout the Cold War left increasing room for a non-mentality: what I take is mine, disregard the rest. This and little else was to trigger wars – from petty gang fueds to all-out wars against entire nations – over natural resources with no end to them in sight.

This shift, or rather pendulum’s swing, in mental conditions in the world may have popped up in the open in the early 1990s when former Soviet citizens joined the club, but the formation of its roots coincide with the time in which Ablyazov grew up. Chances to succeed depended on ambitions, and the measure of success upon the ruthlessness of the methods used to get there. Ablyazov never spared any rival, nor did he ever reward any partner or proxy, preferring to leave them either exposed as a scapegoat allowing him to get away – or worse. This, however, far from turning him into a unique case, unveils a pattern in the world of business which is frightening indeed. Power, rather than a tool to maintain order and justice, is becoming an aim in itself, parallel to the trend in which wealth, rather than a tool for overall socioeconomic development, has become a sovereign individual goal in itself, at the expense of socioeconomic development. Worse: the two tend to go hand-in-hand. Together, they form a tandem that generates the loan-pushers and corporate wealth accumulation sharks of the late 1990s and 2000s, and divide societies deeply into elites of haves and masses of have-nots – both in terms of business and politics.

Response from the public is incoherent at best – as could be expected especially in a part of the world where paternalism has a history that goes many centuries back in time. During the Civil War in Russia in the early XVII Century, civilians rose against the aristocracy much less because of the latter’s hunger for power and property through contested privileges. But instead of establishing civil rule, they hang on to the search of an individual strongman which would lead to the rise of the Romanovs. True: the new czars opened Russia to western education, western market opportunities and even established a national assembly in the form of a Senate – which only opened the back door for the surviving boyars to enter the echelons of power once more leaving the people proper in limbo. Yet, for centuries the latter lived by and large in support of the imperial “benevolent tyrants” rather than let the old times’ gentry pick up rule once more. This particularly bloody episode in Russia’s history with its by and large open outcome has virtually repeated itself with the disappearance of Yeltsin and his clique of oligarchs by the entry of Vladimir Putin, whose relatively authoritarian rule (by and large democratic if compared with the sweet habits of China’s ruling party) is preferred by a comfortable majority of the population, with the remainder being divided into one group thinking that it is not authoritarian enough and another segment in support of the neo-boyars.

The overall state of mind in most of the former USSR could be defined as follows: better have a Boris Gudonov in place for all his faults than no one in place to impose limits on economic usurpation. People do not seem to have forgotten that in the previous century two dramatic world wars broke out not between Europe’s enlightened democracies and the despotic orient but among the former’s members themselves. This, of course, is not to say that the latter are the obvious remedy against socioeconomic abuses. In the Far East, so-called tiger states do have authoritarian regimes but they operate by and large with their local industrial and financial elites, leaving the bulk of the population in a hopeless state of collective misery. Revolutions against paternalistic regimes in the Middle East explain that to a very broad extent indeed.

The fact that this can only improve by collective response rather than calls for new interventions of authoritarian character has gained little ground anywhere between Minsk and Singapore. This, as a result, leaves the door wide open for cowboy entrepreneurs ready to take their chance within the old but still current deadlock between “liberal” and “social” forces on the ground. This, in turn, makes the story of Ablyazov double worth studying. It illustrates the urgent need for a widespread notion that democracy is not equivalent to laissez-faire, and that thereby his pretences displayed in the so-called Free Democratic Choice have been false from beginning to end. In the minds of both western champions of so-called free entrepreneurship and post-Soviet oligarchs, there is only cut-throat competition and shark financing. Therefore, those who criticise the likes of Vladimir Putin could well be right in so far some of his methods are concerned. Where the overall goal is concerned, there can be no mistake: lifting the boundaries of people’s socioeconomic rights and the room for those rights to materialise for the entire population would only facilitate the world’s neo-boyars from plunging the world into a new age of widespread misery once more.