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Secretive Offshore Maneuvers Enriched Unofficial Third Wife of Kazakhstani Leader Nursultan Nazarbayev

The unof­fi­cial third wife of Kazakhstan’s for­mer pres­i­dent Nursultan Nazarbayev received $30 mil­lion appar­ent­ly for almost noth­ing, leaked off­shore doc­u­ments reveal.

Now 40 years old, Kurmanbayeva is the artis­tic direc­tor of two state-run dance insti­tu­tions and owns sev­er­al firms involved in bal­let and nation­al dance. But what­ev­er income she earns from her cul­tur­al work must pale in com­par­i­son to the for­tune she received from the depths of Nazarbayev’s inner circle.

The pay­ment of $30 mil­lion fol­lowed a num­ber of share trans­fers involv­ing six off­shore com­pa­nies, all but one reg­is­tered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Because the ter­ri­to­ry is a noto­ri­ous haven for off­shore secre­cy, the trans­ac­tion would have remained hid­den for­ev­er — if not for the Pandora Papers.

The set of mil­lions of off­shore doc­u­ments were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with OCCRP and oth­er media part­ners around the world, pro­vid­ing an inside look at how pow­er­ful and wealthy peo­ple use secre­tive shell com­pa­nies to move money.

In the Kurmanbayeva affair, the doc­u­ments reveal the involve­ment of two men long rumored to be Nazarbayev’s con­fi­dants: Oligarchs named Vladimir Ni and Vladimir Kim who made their for­tunes in Kazakhstan’s noto­ri­ous­ly cor­rupt nat­ur­al resource sector.

The $30 mil­lion pay­ment to Kurmanbayeva was struc­tured as a sale, in which she gave up her stake in a mys­te­ri­ous BVI com­pa­ny that appeared to do no busi­ness. She received the mon­ey two months after Ni’s 2010 death from a com­pa­ny tak­en over by his daugh­er; Kim was a wit­ness to the payment.

Reporters reached out to Nazarbayev, Kim, the Ni fam­i­ly, and Kurmanbayeva for com­ment on this sto­ry. None responded.

The Birth of Two Fortunes

An eth­nic Korean, Ni was born in Soviet Russia and moved to Kazakhstan as a young man to work in gov­ern­ment. In the mid-1980s, he served as Nazarbayev’s assis­tant when the old­er man became the Soviet republic’s prime minister.

Ni remained near the top after the country’s inde­pen­dence, first respon­si­ble for Nazarbayev’s sched­ule and oth­er admin­is­tra­tive pres­i­den­tial affairs and then for man­ag­ing prop­er­ty belong­ing to the pres­i­den­tial apparatus.

This placed him near the seat of pow­er just as Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era min­ing cor­po­ra­tions entered pri­vate hands. Ni is said to have led the mid-’90s pri­va­ti­za­tion of Zhezkazgantsvetmet, one of Kazakhstan’s lead­ing min­ing com­pa­nies — includ­ing the sale of a stake to Samsung, the Korean multinational.

During this peri­od, he opened the door to the com­pa­ny for Kim, his younger pro­tege. The two men had like­ly known each oth­er since the Soviet era as part of Kazakhstan’s close-knit eth­nic Korean community.

After the com­pa­ny was trans­formed into Kazakhmys, a new large­ly pri­vate min­ing giant, Ni retired from gov­ern­ment ser­vice and joined its board of direc­tors. By 2000, his mentee Kim had grown to new heights, becom­ing the company’s pres­i­dent and board chair­man. (The two men lat­er switched places, with Ni becom­ing chair­man instead.)

Both Samsung and the Kazakh gov­ern­ment start­ed sell­ing their shares in Kazakhmys in 2001, with­out dis­clos­ing the buy­ers. It was not until 2005, when Kazakhmys went pub­lic in London, that it revealed the com­pa­nies that owned it. Several years lat­er, Global Witness, an anti-cor­rup­tion group, used this infor­ma­tion to dis­cov­er that Kim was its largest share­hold­er, hold­ing near­ly 39 percent.

He nev­er explained in detail how he could afford such a stake.

Of course, no one gave me shares of Kazakhmys. I start­ed pur­chas­ing them from the very begin­ning,” he said in a rare 2007 inter­view, “because I believed in the suc­cess of the reforms car­ried out by our president.”

He did, how­ev­er, make a gen­er­ous gift to his men­tor. In 2006, Kim donat­ed a 2.5 per­cent stake in the com­pa­ny to Ni, report­ed­ly for his “great ser­vices to the com­pa­ny.” The val­ue of this pack­age was esti­mat­ed at £135 million.

A secret audio record­ing made pub­lic in 2007 by Nazarbaev’s for­mer son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, shed light on the rela­tion­ship between Kazakhstan’s then-pres­i­dent and the country’s top businessmen.

The sto­ry was revealed in a report by Global Witness. The voic­es heard on the record­ing, as well as the way the speak­ers address each oth­er, sug­gest that the con­ver­sa­tion was between Nazarbayev, Ni, and Kim.

In the record­ing, Kim is heard con­vinc­ing the pres­i­dent that an Airbus A330 they had pur­chased for him was appro­pri­ate for his use. “It’s too big,” the pres­i­dent objects.

Nursultan Abishevich,” Kim replies, “you are your­self big­ger than the plane!”

It has been pur­chased already,” he con­tin­ues. “May I ask you a ques­tion? Do you like the plane?”

Of course I do,” says Nazarbayev. “But it’s mighty big.”

Nursultan Abishevich, let the next Kazakh pres­i­dents fly small­er planes,” Kim replies. “We have one pres­i­dent, let him fly a big­ger plane. This will be a plane like Putin’s.”

After the release of the record­ings, Ni and Kim told reporters the record­ings were fake, and said that their com­pa­ny, Kazakhmys, had pur­chased the plane for its own use, and that they then sold it to the government.More

The Mysterious $30 Million

As is com­mon for very wealthy peo­ple from this part of the world, Kim and Ni owned a num­ber of off­shore com­pa­nies for var­i­ous rea­sons, some unknown.

But one of them is of par­tic­u­lar inter­est: In July 2008, Ni became the share­hold­er of a com­pa­ny reg­is­tered in the BVI called EMES Holding & Finance (in which Kim was also involved ). Unexpectedly, Ni’s part­ner in this com­pa­ny was a 27-year-old woman not known for any great wealth: Nazarbayev’s unof­fi­cial third wife, Kurmanbayeva.

EMES is not known to have done any busi­ness or to have owned any­thing valu­able, and its pur­pose was unclear. But steps appear to have been tak­en to keep it a secret: Just weeks lat­er, she acquired anoth­er gener­ic off­shore com­pa­ny, Ladra Services, to which her shares in EMES were transferred.

Over the next two years, the com­po­si­tion of EMES’s share­hold­ers changed sev­er­al times for unclear rea­sons. By March 2010, EMES was owned by two off­shore com­pa­nies: Kurmanbayeva’s Ladra Services and anoth­er one owned by Ni.

When Ni died that September, the arrange­ment appears to have reached some kind of con­clu­sion. Just two months after his death, anoth­er BVI com­pa­ny called Godel Partners paid Kurmanbayeva $30 mil­lion for Ladra Services (and the 50 per­cent stake in EMES it held).

Unlike the oth­er com­pa­nies in this saga, Godel’s own­er­ship struc­ture con­tains an extra lay­er of secre­cy. The com­pa­ny was owned by a so-called nom­i­nee firm, explic­it­ly designed to stand in as the own­er for hun­dreds of com­pa­nies and keep their own­er­ship a secret.

However, three sep­a­rate pieces of evi­dence con­nect Ni, Kim, and Kurmanbayeva:

  • Kim was a wit­ness to the deal, with his sig­na­ture, like Kurmanbayeva’s, appear­ing on the document.
  • When Godel was dis­solved sev­en years lat­er, among its ben­e­fi­cial own­ers were Ni’s daugh­ter Viktoriya and her husband.
  • About two years after Ladra Services was pur­chased from Kurmanbayeva, the com­pa­ny divest­ed itself of its shares in EMES — which went to a com­pa­ny owned by Ni’s daughter.

A Ballet and a Banquet Hall

Though Kurmanbayeva’s close­ness to the Leader of the Nation has been known for years, very lit­tle about her life has been report­ed in the Kazakhstani press.

Practically the only avail­able infor­ma­tion is pre­sumed to have come from Rakhat Aliyev, the for­mer hus­band of Nazarbayev’s eldest daugh­ter Dariga, who was already in exile when he is believed to have pub­lished pass­port pho­tos of Kurmanbayeva and her chil­dren dur­ing his feud with the Nazarbayev fam­i­ly. (Aliyev died in an Austrian jail in 2015, alleged­ly by suicide.)

The first and last time Kurmanbayeva and Nazarbayev were pub­licly seen in the same place was when she was among hun­dreds of peo­ple who attend­ed his last annu­al address to the nation as pres­i­dent at his res­i­dence in 2018.

But Kazakhstani com­pa­ny records show that the pres­i­dent and his unof­fi­cial third wife also had busi­ness connections.

As it turns out, Kurmanbayeva was the founder of a com­pa­ny that estab­lished the Astana Ballet in 2012.

According to the group’s web­site, it was found­ed “at the ini­tia­tive of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.” His foun­da­tion took over the com­pa­ny less than a year lat­er, and then passed it on to the gov­ern­ment. Kurmanbayeva remains involved as its art manager.

Strangely, Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tion also dealt with Kurmanbayeva on a very dif­fer­ent project. For two months in 2013, it owned a com­pa­ny called Astau that Kurmanbayeva had found­ed in 2006. Then she became its own­er again.

The соm­pa­ny owns and oper­ates a ban­quet hall, spa, and beau­ty salon in Nur-Sultan city center.

Judging by its tax records, it does very lit­tle busi­ness. But its Instagram account shows off a sparkling ban­quet hall, hap­py guests, and dish­es laden with food.

OCCRP Kazakhstan by  Miranda Patrucic, Ilya Lozovsky 

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