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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 | © 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 | © 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 | © 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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