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As Kazakhstan burns over inequality, the elite’s wealth is safe and sound in London

London is home to some £530m in luxury property owned by the country’s ruling class

4 January 2021: people in Aktau protest against liquefied natural gas hike | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Protests in Kazakhstan started quietly this week. A sudden increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas, popular as a secondary fuel for its low cost, sparked public meetings in towns in western Kazakhstan, the home of the country’s natural resources sector.

But five days later, and the system built since the 1990s by Kazakhstan’s first family, the Nazarbayevs, and their associates, looks to have been shaken.

The government has resigned, former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has been stripped of his role as chairman of the country’s Security Council, and protesters have attempted to storm government administration buildings amid a state of emergency. After a request by president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russian troops have now entered the country. Dozens of protesters have allegedly been killed by law enforcement in the city of Almaty, according to a local police spokesperson.

Four thousand miles away in London, though, the UK assets of the Kazakhstani ruling class are sitting quietly. The Central Asian state’s elite owns at least £530.4m of luxury property in London and the southeast, according to data released in a recent report by Chatham House. Some £330m of that luxury property is owned by the extended Nazarbayev family.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge told openDemocracy that the extent of “the property the Kazakh ruling family owns in London demonstrates how the UK is implicated in the actions of this authoritarian regime”.

The property portfolio of the extended Nazarbayev family, which includes the former president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, her son Nurali Aliyev, Nazarbayev’s billionaire son-in-law Timur Kulibayev and Kairat Boronbayev, a Kazakhstani businessman whose daughter was married to Nursultan’s Nazarbayev’s grandson, has ranged from £140m of property between 215 and 237 Baker Street to a luxury mansion on London’s Bishops Avenue, known as ‘Billionaires Row’. In 2007, Kulibayev purchased a mansion, Sunninghill Park, from Prince Andrew – for £3m over its asking price.

Nazarbayev family property has previously attracted the attention of UK law enforcement. In 2020, the National Crime Agency (NCA) brought an Unexplained Wealth Order case against three properties, claiming that they had been purchased with funds embezzled by Rakhat Aliyev, the father of Nurali. That case was later thrown out by a High Court judge, who found that the NCA’s claim was “unreliable”. Speaking at the time, Aliyev said that the NCA had “pursued a groundless and vicious legal action, including making shocking slurs against me, my family and my country”.

Sunninghill Park, the former home of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, was sold to Timur Kulibayev for £15m in 2007. It has since been demolished | (c) David Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Other Nazarbayev regime allies have also purchased property in the UK. A daughter of copper magnate Vladimir Kim owns a £27.5m apartment in One Hyde Park, the mammoth luxury development on the edge of the capital’s central green space. Banker Aigul Nuriyeva, whom Rakhat Aliyev once named as a manager of the first family’s finances (a claim denied by Nuriyeva at the time), owns an £5.6m property in Regents Park.

“This figure of £530m is likely to be the tip of the iceberg,” said Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow at Chatham House who has researched corruption in Central Asia. “We only learned about some of the big UK properties thanks to the Unexplained Wealth Order and associated investigations. There’s likely to be much more.”

But it’s not only regime insiders who store their wealth in London, the city’s capacity for storing wealth has also attracted their opponents, including banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, whose dramatic fall from grace led to his pursuit across Europe by the Kazakhstani government over the past decade. Ablyazov, who has publicly backed the current protests, has owned five properties in the UK capital, two of which cost £18m each. He currently resides in France, after losing his UK asylum status for failing to reveal assets.

“The state has been used by the ruling elite around the Nazarbayev family and their key associates, to amass an enormous amount of wealth for these few families. And they’ve done that through their control of the oil and gas industry,” said John Heathershaw, associate professor of international relations at the University of Exeter and a co-author of the recent Chatham House report.

He points to the luxury lifestyles and wealth of the Kazakhstani ruling family and their associates as a potential driver of the current protests.

“Over the years, people in Kazakhstan have come to find out about these lifestyles, and this has built up to create enormous resentment,” Heathershaw said, highlighting some of the protest demands regarding subsidiaries of state companies as well as early retirement, and increases to child benefits and pensions.

November 2015: Nursultan Nazarbayev and Dariga Nazarbayeva meet Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of York | (c) PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Though president Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned after 29 years in charge in 2019, his system of distributing Kazakhstan’s economic benefits to the elite, rather than the people, has remained in place. According to a 2019 report by KPMG, 162 people in the country own 50% of its wealth. Indeed, secret payments and offshore vehicles have long been a feature of elite life in the country, where US and UK energy giants vied for access to its oil and gas fields in the 1990s.

“What is coming out of these protests is a real critique of the whole nature of the country’s political economy,” said Heathershaw.

As Kazakhstani journalist Dmitriy Mazorenko pointed out recently to openDemocracy, inequality in the country has deteriorated during the global pandemic, when the country’s official list of billionaires rose from four to seven – yet many have resorted to loans to make ends meet among high prices and inflation.

Whether that critique reaches London will likely depend on UK government and law enforcement. The former has dragged its heels on introducing financial transparency measures, such as overseas property ownership registers and new verification powers for Companies House, which could help reveal the extent of elite wealth in the UK; the latter have, so far, had few successes in tackling potentially suspicious wealth.

Until the UK starts taking responsibility for facilitating the transfer of extreme wealth by elite groups in authoritarian states, the trails will continue to lead to British Virgin Islands companies, secret share allocations and multi-million-pound London property. And that’s a shameful reputation for ‘Global Britain’.

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