With a turf war raging in Astana as president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s health declines, Kazakh oligarch Bulat Utemuratov reluctantly finds himself very much in the spotlight.
Although he’s very secretive, oligarch Bulat Utemuratov has been propelled into the center of palace intrigue in Kazakhstan. The object of an increasing number of articles on fake Internet news sites, Utemuratov, a confident of ailing president Nursultan Nazarbayev who has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet times, has become a punching ball for at least two camps vying for Nazarbayev’s favor. Despite his failing health the latter hasn’t chosen a successor.
Now entangled in any number of anti-corruption investigations, Patokh Chodiev, a Uzbekistan-born oligarch who is an ardent customer of Western corporate intelligence firms (IOL 792), has been Utemuratov’s nemesis for 20 years, working unceasingly to trip him up.
In addition, Utemuratov has to contend with the animosity of Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Now head of the foreign affairs, defence and security committee in Parliament in Astana, Dariga, a former chief of the national press agency, also specializes in private investigations and on-line propaganda (IOL 570). She even used her Facebook page recently to publicly criticize her son Aisultan whose nickname is “Nazarbayev’s trustee” in reference to his grandfather. All that augurs rather badly for the atmosphere at end-of-year festivities in Astana.
Investigations Piling Up
But what interests investigators the most about Utemuratov are his business dealings. An inquiry launched in the Netherlands in 2008 but still underway, remains of extreme interest to Dutch sleuths. It involves the transfer of funds to Kazakh offshore companies from the sale of Kazakh zinc to the Swiss trading group Glencore (IOL 785). Glencore went on in 2011 to buy part of Utemuratov’s shares in the former state-owned zinc company, KazZinc. Two years later the mogul sold off his remaining 29% to the country’s sovereign fund, Samruk-Kozyna.
A fortune accumulated far from prying eyes
A former leading government security and diplomatic official, Bulat Utemuratov chaired Kazakhstan’s Security Council between 2003–2008. The panel oversaw the country’s intelligence agencies, with the KNG in the forefront. He then went on to head Nursultan Nazarbayev’s presidential administration between 2006 and 2008. Since then, however, Utemuratov has devoted himself entirely to his business affairs. Having acquired shares in former state- owned companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he owes his reputation as Kazakhstan’s richest man to the sale of his interests in KazZinc to Glencore (see opposite) as well as the sale of ATF Bank to BankAustria, a subsidiary of Italy’s UniCredit in 2007. He now presides over an empire based primarily on the Verny Capital holding group. It owns several major assets, such as the Ritz Carlton hotels in Moscow and Vienna. In Kazakhistan Utemuratov also controls luxury Roxos Borovoye hotel on the banks of Lake Suchie that’s a favorite haunt of the country’s elite. Utemuratov equally controls several financial establishments in the country, including the Forte Bank and Kassa Nova Bank. A partner in the region of Russian telecoms giant Veon (formerly Vimpelcom) through Limnotex Developments, he controls the Kazakh operator Kar-Tel. But he’s also highly active in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where he acts as Nazarbayev’s special envoy and- alongside Veon — controls the local operator Sky Mobil. He’s equally a beneficiary of the Cypriot trust fund Crowwell Investments. And in the Swiss canton of Zug he has close ties with Menacrest, VIP Kazakhstan Holding and VIP Kyrgyzstan Holding.