Asia

The Richest Get Richer in Kazakhstan

The Nazarbayev family was prominently featured in this year’s Forbes list of Kazakhstan’s richest people, but the country’s First President himself did not appear in the ranking, showing the limits of the system’s transparency.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who left the presidency in 2019 after three decades in power, has at least four foundations under his name and these control one of the country’s largest banks as well as the crown jewel education institution Nazarbayev University, and engage in several other lucrative activities.

Until recently the only member of the family that was consistently in Forbes’ yearly ranking was Nazarbayev’s middle daughter, Dinara Kulibayeva, the wife of Timur Kulibayev. Through businesses shared with her husband, she controls the largest bank and several industrial and financial holdings. At $3.9 billion each, they are the richest pair in Kazakhstan.

Mining magnate Vladimir Kim claims Forbes’ number one spot for the fifth year in a row, with a fortune of $5 billion. The top three have become significantly richer in the past two years alone, despite the sluggish recovery of the economy since the start of the pandemic.

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The rest of the list features bankers, among whom are the owners of Kaspi, which listed its shares in the London Stock Exchange in 2020, real estate tycoons, and owners of extractive companies.

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Two notable businessmen were absent from the list because of their recent run-ins with the law. In 2021, Kairat Boranbayev was the 14th richest person in Kazakhstan, through his holding Almaly, through which he controlled real estate, extractive, and pharmaceutical businesses, alongside the McDonald’s franchise and the football club Kairat. In March 2022, he was arrested, accused of embezzlement.

The same week, Kairat Satybaldy, also a member of the Nazarbayev family, was arrested on charges of embezzlement against Kazakhtelecom, the country’s largest telecoms provider, in which he owned a 24 percent share.

Importantly, with a fortune estimated at $584 million, Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga made her return into the ranking claiming the 13th place with her participation in holding companies that control telecoms and media groups. Until February, she served as a member of parliament. Her son, Nurali Aliyev, is listed as the 26th richest person in the country.

Last year, an investigation by Radio Azattyq unveiled an unofficial business network established by Kairat Sharipbayev, the former head of pipeline monopolist KazTransGas and allegedly Dariga’s husband. Sharipbayev left his post in January after violent unrest and an alleged attempted coup resulted in 240 killed across the country.

The shake-up of the January events led other public officials linked to the Nazarbayev family to retreat. Almost in unison, law enforcement launched an investigation into the waste management business of Aliya, Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, and her husband left his post as top manager at pipeline operator KazTransOil.

Nurbol Nazarbayev, the former president’s nephew, appeared on Forbes’ list (41st in the ranking) with a fortune of $160 million, through his participation in investment companies tied to real estate and machinery industries. His father, Bolat, is said to have controlled several businesses and government agencies, both formally and informally.

Public servants generally give their stakes in companies and holdings to trust funds while they serve in office, dropping off the list. Such is the case of Almaty mayor Yerbolat Dossayev, ex-head of the Central Bank and co-owner of the Lancaster Group, a large investment company.

Interviewed by news outlet Orda.kz, the Forbes journalist who compiled the ranking said that Nazarbayev could not be included in the list of the country’s richest because he does not officially own business assets.

“As far as I know, Nursultan Nazarbayev has never been involved in any business […] Should he be stripped of the title of Elbasy [Leader of the Nation], we might consider him, but for now he is a statesman, not a businessman,” Forbes’ Ardak Bukeyeva said.

In January, citing a report by auditing company KPMG, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that half of Kazakhstan’s wealth is in the hands of “just 162 people.” Inequality and social injustice were the catalyst of a nationwide protest in January that was officially labeled as an attempted coup and violently repressed.

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While it cannot be deemed comprehensive because it fails to account for the trust funds ultimately owned by public officials, the Forbes list nevertheless gives a clear idea of who has a firm grip in the country’s key economic sectors and what are their mutual ties.

Be it through family relations or through long-term business partnerships, Kazakhstan’s richest have become richer in the past years. The recent reshuffling of the assets controlled by the Nazarbayev family could be seen as a drop in the bucket, considering how marginal these businesses are in comparison with the family’s largest assets, both at home and abroad.

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