Spies, lies and the oligarch: inside London’s booming secrets industry

The bat­tle over fugi­tive bil­lion­aire Mukhtar Ablyazov stretch­es from Kazakhstan to Knightsbridge

1. The Kazakh connection

In 2009, a fugi­tive Kazakh oli­garch arranged a meet­ing in London with the head of an inter­na­tion­al pri­vate intel­li­gence agency. Mukhtar Ablyazov, a slim man in his mid-for­ties with reced­ing hair, a del­i­cate mouth and a flinty gaze, had fled to the UK ear­li­er that year as the Kazakh gov­ern­ment pre­pared to nation­alise his bank. So much mon­ey had gone miss­ing from that insti­tu­tion that Ablyazov’s ene­mies would call him the Bernie Madoff of the steppe.

But the chess-play­ing bil­lion­aire was also one of the few mem­bers of the Kazakh elite who had dared to cross Nursultan Nazarbayev, the for­mer Soviet republic’s ruler since 1989. The alle­ga­tions of grand loot­ing were, Ablyazov main­tained, mere­ly a vendet­ta waged by a regime that was itself gorg­ing on stolen wealth. He had bro­ken the code of loy­al­ty — a trans­gres­sion that Nazarbayev would not, he believed, allow to pass unpun­ished. “I saw the spies around me and I want­ed to hire a group to counter what the spies were doing,” Ablyazov told me recently.

The man that Ablyazov was to meet was Ron Wahid, the Bangladeshi-American founder of Arcanum Global. Wahid swathes Arcanum in mys­tique — its name comes from the Latin for secret — but he also likes to show off his polit­i­cal con­nec­tions. On the walls of his Knightsbridge offices hang signed pho­tographs of him with three US presidents.

People who have dealt with him say he pep­pers con­ver­sa­tion with hints that he worked with US intel­li­gence agen­cies before set­ting up Arcanum in 2006, although the biog­ra­phy on the com­pa­ny web­site makes no claim of any for­mal role. Superstar spies have graced Arcanum’s board, includ­ing the late Meir Dagan, for­mer head of Mossad.

Ablyazov and his asso­ciates say Wahid gave them the hard sell. He por­trayed Arcanum as “some sort of super ser­vice that has super resources at their dis­pos­al”, Ablyazov remem­bers. Wahid’s staff would bring phone-jam­mers to the meet­ings to pre­vent eaves­drop­ping, a pre­cau­tion Wahid says he rou­tine­ly uses but that Ablyazov took to be “them

Wahid already knew some­thing of the baroque pow­er strug­gles that spill out of Kazakhstan, a resource-rich Central Asian expanse of nomads and bil­lion­aires that forms a strate­gic ful­crum between Russia and China. Arcanum’s pre­vi­ous clients had includ­ed Nazarbayev’s estranged son-in-law. An Ablyazov asso­ciate who attend­ed some of the meet­ings recalls that Wahid “says he knows every­body in the Kazakh elite”.

Wahid — a port­ly man who trav­els by pri­vate jet, mix­es with the glit­terati and says some of his staff enjoy “above-topse­cret” secu­ri­ty clear­ance from the US gov­ern­ment — belongs to a boom­ing indus­try. It extends from CIA con­trac­tors to mas­ters of pro­pa­gan­da, from the off­shore accoun­tants who laun­der ill-got­ten wealth to the sleuths who try to fol­low the money.

Its prac­ti­tion­ers are often inves­ti­ga­tors by trade — for­mer spies, pros­e­cu­tors and jour­nal­ists — but they also include lob­by­ists and estab­lish­ment lumi­nar­ies. For hand­some fees, teams from this large­ly unreg­u­lat­ed indus­try will set about the extrac­tion, dis­sem­i­na­tion and, some­times, manip­u­la­tion of infor­ma­tion to serve a client’s agen­da and tar­get that client’s ene­mies — ene­mies who have, often, assem­bled a sim­i­lar team of their own.

The industry’s cur­ren­cy is secrets. Its ser­vices range from trac­ing fraud­sters’ assets to dark­er arts that include hack­ing, infil­tra­tion, hon­ey traps, black­mail and kid­nap­ping. On the front line are the pri­vate intel­li­gence agen­cies. Some of them have ben­e­fit­ed from the growth in out­sourc­ing by the law enforce­ment and spy agen­cies of the US and its allies — the source, Wahid says, of almost all Arcanum’s work.

But many firms have amassed exper­tise and trade­craft once monop­o­lised by state agen­cies and put it at the ser­vice of tyrants, oli­garchs and any­one else will­ing to pay. Their crit­ics say they have no friends, only invoic­es, but many in the busi­ness see them­selves as sol­diers of jus­tice in a glob­alised world, fill­ing a vac­u­um left by enfee­bled states and cash­strapped, anti­quat­ed law enforcement.

The indus­try is con­cen­trat­ed in the west because that is where the mon­ey is. Since the end of the cold war, the off­shore sys­tem has helped a grow­ing cohort of klep­to­crats and their cronies to chan­nel dubi­ous for­tunes into west­ern markets.

Officials in west­ern Europe and North America say bil­lions of dol­lars in dirty mon­ey pour in each year, main­ly through assets such as real estate. London, long a city of secrets, is the industry’s cap­i­tal. Many firms have tak­en offices in Mayfair, the exclu­sive, cos­mopoli­tan quar­ter where wealth and pol­i­tics mix.

The Ablyazov case mir­rors the “tour­na­ment of shad­ows” fought in the 19th cen­tu­ry by spies, sol­diers and for­tune­seek­ers from impe­r­i­al Russia and Britain in an attempt to con­trol Central Asia. Today, though, the polit­i­cal bat­tles of the for­mer Soviet Union are fought not in the parched val­leys east of the Caspian but in west­ern courts, par­lia­ments and media.

Dictators’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives tire­less­ly cur­ry favour at Westminster and on Capitol Hill. Oligarchs are fix­tures in London’s High Court list­ings. Rare is the busi­ness jour­nal­ist who has not spent lunch lis­ten­ing to the PRs of one recent­ly mint­ed bil­lion­aire smear anoth­er recent­ly mint­ed billionaire.

In the trade, a covert attempt to blacken a target’s name is known as ‘Black PR’

As they sized each oth­er up in 2009, Ablyazov says he asked Wahid to prove his worth by pro­vid­ing some valu­able intel­li­gence against Nazarbayev, but Wahid only offered doc­u­ments that Ablyazov had already acquired. (Wahid dis­putes this.) Ablyazov grew sus­pi­cious that Wahid was, in fact, play­ing a dou­ble game and work­ing for Nazarbayev’s regime. As he lis­tened to descrip­tions of Arcanum’s ser­vices, he start­ed to think that the meet­ings were a trap designed to lure him into ille­gal activ­i­ty in the UK, where he had claimed asy­lum, and decid­ed against hir­ing the firm.

We nev­er gave them a pro­pos­al for fight­ing Nazarbayev but, yes, we were work­ing for Kazakhstan at this time,” Wahid told me. The two sides had “a gen­er­al dis­cus­sion of our capa­bil­i­ties”, he said. But Wahid insist­ed that Arcanum In the trade, a covert attempt to black­en a target’s name is known as ‘Black PR’ nev­er does any­thing ille­gal. Ablyazov’s sug­ges­tion to the con­trary — part of a nar­ra­tive in which Arcanum is key to Nazarbayev’s cam­paign of per­se­cu­tion — was a “fan­ta­sy”, Wahid said.

Those London meet­ings rep­re­sent­ed the ear­ly exchanges in per­haps the most remark­able bat­tle the secrets indus­try has yet fought. A Financial Times inves­ti­ga­tion based on 30 inter­views and thou­sands of pages of court doc­u­ments, leaked emails and con­fi­den­tial con­tracts expos­es a saga in which Arcanum is just one piece on a chess­board that spans four con­ti­nents. It reveals how the mer­ce­nar­ies of the infor­ma­tion age are shap­ing the fate of nations.

Astana, the Kazakh capital

Born in 1963 to a fam­i­ly of mod­est means in a Kazakh vil­lage near the Russian bor­der, Ablyazov ditched a promis­ing career in nuclear physics to embrace the Wild West cap­i­tal­ism that took hold as com­mu­nism collapsed.

Across the for­mer Soviet Union, immense rich­es were avail­able to those with con­nec­tions and guile.

There were no laws,” he recalls. “I got into busi­ness by chance.” By import­ing pho­to­copiers, fax machines and com­put­ers, he rapid­ly made enough to buy a house for his young fam­i­ly. He cul­ti­vat­ed a ruth­less streak and by 1998 he was one of the rich­est men in the land, worth some $300m. He was also a lead­ing mem­ber of a con­sor­tium that won a pri­vati­sa­tion auc­tion with a $72m bid for what would become BTA Bank.

The man at the top of the tree, how­ev­er, was the same man who had been in charge in the Soviet days: Nazarbayev. As the author­i­tar­i­an with a ric­tus smile cement­ed his pow­er, those close to him made for­tunes. Petrodollars that poured in from Kazakhstan’s Caspian oil­fields went astray. A US cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tion in 2003 turned up what pros­e­cu­tors said were Swiss bank accounts con­trolled by Nazarbayev con­tain­ing $85m of bribes.

There’s not one mem­ber of this [Kazakh] elite that did not gain from the tran­si­tion from the state-owned planned econ­o­my to the mar­ket econ­o­my,” says Yevgeny Zhovtis, one of Kazakhstan’s few promi­nent human rights activists. “Either ille­gal­ly or semi-legal­ly, they became mil­lion­aires and billionaires.”

By the turn of the cen­tu­ry, Ablyazov had start­ed to mix pol­i­tics with busi­ness. He became min­is­ter of ener­gy in 1998 but resigned the fol­low­ing year. Nazarbayev sum­moned Ablyazov to his res­i­dence. “When I came in, he imme­di­ate­ly start­ed rant­i­ng at me,” Ablyazov recalls. He says that, when he crit­i­cised the pres­i­dent for lay­ing the foun­da­tions of a “clan-ocra­cy” and declined to rejoin the gov­ern­ment, Nazarbayev respond­ed: “Well, in that case, you’re going to have to give me a chunk.”

In Ablyazov’s telling, the pres­i­dent want­ed half of BTA Bank’s shares trans­ferred to his nom­i­nees, to ensure the businessman’s loy­al­ty. No such deal was reached and rela­tions dete­ri­o­rat­ed fur­ther when Ablyazov and some 20 oth­ers announced the for­ma­tion of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan in 2001. Although its stat­ed aim was incre­men­tal reform, Nazarbayev saw the par­ty as an intol­er­a­ble threat.“

Following what Zhovtis calls a “selec­tive pros­e­cu­tion” for abuse of his gov­ern­ment office, Ablyazov was jailed in 2002.

He emerged from a prison camp in 2003 after promis­ing Nazarbayev that he would refrain from pol­i­tics, but he soon began covert­ly fund­ing oppo­si­tion groups. He had retained his inter­est in BTA Bank, held on his behalf by a trust­ed asso­ciate, and in 2005 he became chair­man, over­see­ing rapid expan­sion across the region.

When the finan­cial cri­sis struck, the Kazakh author­i­ties declared that BTA was close to col­lapse — exag­ger­at­ing its dif­fi­cul­ties, Ablyazov says, in order to ful­fil Nazarbayev’s long-held aim to seize the bank. In January 2009, as it became clear that the gov­ern­ment was prepar­ing to nation­alise BTA, Ablyazov fled to London.

The Kazakh author­i­ties say that, once they start­ed to go through BTA’s books, they found it was miss­ing enor­mous amounts. Legal pro­ceed­ings to date have put the fig­ure at $4.2bn. Much of the mon­ey was owed to west­ern banks, includ­ing RBS, which had been bailed out by the UK tax­pay­er. Huge sums appeared to have flowed out to off­shore com­pa­nies whose own­ers were hidden.

The pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor whom BTA Bank recruit­ed to track down its miss­ing bil­lions was an ebul­lient for­mer mem­ber of the British military’s elite Special Boat Service. Trefor Williams works for Diligence, a cor­po­rate intel­li­gence firm whose smart London offices he has dec­o­rat­ed with James Bond posters. Williams is mus­cu­lar, with a lilt­ing North Wales accent. He has spent so long hunt­ing Ablyazov and his wealth that he refers to him almost fond­ly as Mukhtar.

Williams and his team watched as Ablyazov came and went from Carlton House, a man­sion on Bishops Avenue, the Highgate street known as Billionaires’ Row (two doors along from one report­ed­ly owned by Nazarbayev). They were look­ing on as Ablyazov and his asso­ciates — Britons among them — con­vened fre­quent­ly at an office in the heart of the City. “All these peo­ple could have worked from home and our job would have been much hard­er,” he told me. “But they need a semi-legit­i­mate gath­er­ing point. A lot of the time, it’s their downfall.”

In October 2010, Williams’s blood­hounds fol­lowed one of Ablyazov’s broth­ers-in-law to a self-stor­age facil­i­ty in Finchley, north London. BTA’s lawyers secured a court order to open the con­tain­er. Inside, among 25 box­es of doc­u­ments and a hard dri­ve, was a spread­sheet list­ing some of the thou­sands of off­shore com­pa­nies through which BTA’s bil­lions had flowed, a vir­tu­al trea­sure map of secre­tive tax havens. It was the key to what Williams describes as the biggest mon­ey-laun­der­ing oper­a­tion he had encountered.

Williams’ sleuthing pro­vid­ed ammu­ni­tion for Chris Hardman, an aggres­sive lawyer with the London firm Hogan Lovells. Hardman used evi­dence from the stor­age unit and oth­er finds to show flows of mon­ey from his client, BTA Bank, to the off­shore vehi­cles of its for­mer chair­man. In the Gothic splen­dour of London’s Royal Courts of Justice, Hardman racked up judg­ments against Ablyazov that would exceed $4bn. One judge said of the Kazakh oligarch’s attempts to con­ceal his own­er­ship of assets: “It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a par­ty to com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tion who has act­ed with more cyn­i­cism, oppor­tunism and devi­ous­ness towards court orders than Mr Ablyazov.”

Ablyazov main­tains that he is the vic­tim of a strat­e­gy, com­mon in for­mer Soviet states, of deploy­ing com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tion to crush polit­i­cal oppo­nents — using the world’s most respect­ed courts to con­fer legit­i­ma­cy. He says his exten­sive use of finan­cial sub­terfuge is not a means to abet the amass­ing of illic­it wealth but to pre­vent it.

In a 2010 wit­ness state­ment, he said: “In Kazakhstan the assets of wealthy indi­vid­u­als such as myself are sub­ject to the threat of unlaw­ful seizure by the author­i­ties… This leads to an almost uni­ver­sal prac­tice among high net worth Kazakhstanis of hold­ing our assets through nom­i­nees, both cor­po­rate and individual.”

In February 2012, a British judge ruled that Ablyazov’s con­ceal­ment of assets that should have been declared under a freez­ing order left him in con­tempt of court. He sen­tenced the oli­garch to 22 months in prison. But Ablyazov would nev­er enter a British jail. He had vanished

Surveillance pic­tures gath­ered by inves­ti­ga­tors at pri­vate intel­li­gence firm Diligence in an attempt to trace Ablyazov

For a coun­try of 18 mil­lion peo­ple with an econ­o­my about half the size of Ireland’s, Kazakhstan has made a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large con­tri­bu­tion to the pri­vate intel­li­gence indus­try. Through the noughties, as its oli­garchs poured their for­tunes into west­ern assets and list­ed their com­pa­nies on west­ern stock exchanges, their appetites and rival­ries made lucra­tive work for these secre­tive firms. “At one point, lit­er­al­ly every­one I know in London was work­ing on Kazakhstan,” says a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor who worked on sev­er­al Kazakh dossiers. Another says all the mon­ey pour­ing in from the for­mer Soviet Union helped to make the pri­vate intel­li­gence game in London “very dirty”.

The British cap­i­tal, for cen­turies an entre­pôt for spies, mon­ey­men and emis­saries, has become the industry’s heart but the arche­typ­al cor­po­rate intel­li­gence firm was found­ed in New York. In 1972, Jules Kroll took skills he had honed expos­ing those who demand­ed kick­backs from the fam­i­ly print­ing busi­ness to found what became Kroll Inc. After 32 years of hos­tile takeovers, hostage nego­ti­a­tions and every­thing in between, Kroll sold the busi­ness for $1.9bn.

By then, rivals had sprung up. Some had links to pri­vate mil­i­tary con­trac­tors that prof­it­ed from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others were found­ed by CIA or MI6 alum­ni. The big accoun­tan­cy firms, includ­ing EY, Deloitte and PwC, set up cor­po­rate inves­ti­ga­tions arms. Scores of small out­fits emerged, spe­cial­is­ing in par­tic­u­lar regions or tech­niques. Some com­pa­nies fused sleuthing with pro­pa­gan­da, anoth­er boom indus­try. In 2006, FTI Consulting, a US inves­ti­ga­tions group, paid $260m to acquire the City PR firm Financial Dynamics.

The cor­po­rate intel­li­gence industry’s bread and but­ter is “due dili­gence”, back­ground research com­mis­sioned by one com­pa­ny into anoth­er that it wants to buy or do busi­ness with. Sometimes the work is shod­dy; one merg­ers and acqui­si­tions lawyer recalls being pre­sent­ed with “a page of googling”. But some inves­ti­ga­tors have such inti­mate knowl­edge of their spe­cial­ist areas and impec­ca­ble sources that they com­plain of giv­ing their clients more infor­ma­tion than they want to hear.

A by-prod­uct of all this is moun­tains of dirty laun­dry of the most pow­er­ful — and nefar­i­ous — busi­ness fig­ures and their polit­i­cal allies. The firms have become the keep­ers of globalisation’s secrets. And they have wound up in the mid­dle of some of the most colour­ful intrigues of recent years. Neil Heywood, a British busi­ness­man poi­soned by the wife of a pow­er­ful Chinese politi­cian in 2011, had advised Hakluyt & Co, pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors based in Mayfair. In January this year, a for­mer MI6 offi­cer called Christopher Steele went into hid­ing after being exposed as the author of a dossier of alle­ga­tions about Donald Trump’s Russian con­nec­tions, com­mis­sioned by Fusion GPS, a US inves­ti­ga­tions agency.

Some in cor­po­rate intel­li­gence see a high­er pur­pose for their endeav­ours, help­ing to uncov­er the machi­na­tions of the rich and pow­er­ful. But oth­ers are queasy. Aaron Sayne, a for­mer US cor­rup­tion lawyer who now con­ducts cor­po­rate inves­ti­ga­tions, says many in his field “hoover up sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion and use it for one pur­pose on day one and some com­plete­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry pur­pose on day two”.

He adds: “There are a lot of peo­ple who are walk­ing a very fine line between inves­ti­ga­tions and pub­lic rela­tions. They are doing inves­ti­ga­tions and it’s very quick­ly being spun or turned into muck­rak­ing. You see peo­ple start­ing to play faster and loos­er with the truth.”

The Ablyazov case has been a feed­ing trough for cor­po­rate intel­li­gence. Some firms have made mil­lions, among them Arcanum. True to its name, Arcanum is less than forth­com­ing about its work. What pub­lic announce­ments it makes large­ly relate either to polo, Ron Wahid’s abid­ing pas­sion, or to the lat­est appoint­ment of a retired mil­i­tary or intel­li­gence heavy­weight to its board.

Half a dozen pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors and lawyers with knowl­edge of Wahid’s work describe a man who cul­ti­vates an air of mys­tery but whose own intel­li­gence cre­den­tials are unclear. One US intel­li­gence oper­a­tive who has encoun­tered Wahid says he was “stone cold CIA” but a for­mer spy who has heard him dis­cuss intel­li­gence mat­ters is scep­ti­cal: “He likes to say he’s an ops guy, but the way he talks, you can tell it would nev­er have been like that.”

Another per­son with deep con­nec­tions in the CIA and oth­er US agen­cies says Wahid is “known to peo­ple in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty” but sug­gests that his access is part­ly the result of his largesse. Wahid’s recent polit­i­cal dona­tions include $376,580 to Jeb Bush’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and $100,000 towards Donald Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion. In a 2015 cor­po­rate fil­ing, Wahid describes him­self as an “entre­pre­neur”.

When we meet at his Knightsbridge office in August, Wahid is dressed in a grey suit. By the door stands a sil­ver chess­board on a mount­ing shaped like a fist. Leaning back in his chair, Wahid tells me there are gov­ern­ments he would not work for, nam­ing Russia and China. I ask how he came to deem Kazakhstan an accept­able client. He gives a prac­tised analy­sis. “Despite alle­ga­tions of a lack of demo­c­ra­t­ic process, President Nazarbayev has done an incred­i­ble job in main­tain­ing secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty in a coun­try that pre­vi­ous­ly had nuclear weapons. He has been extreme­ly use­ful to the US in our oper­a­tions in Afghanistan and in nuclear peace. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s the only coun­try that has stability.”

Wahid says his world view is inspired by Ronald Reagan’s cru­sade against com­mu­nism. Arcanum says it has worked with the FBI, Interpol, New Scotland Yard and the US jus­tice depart­ment. Wahid declined to spec­i­fy any of these cas­es. I asked each of the agen­cies if they would con­firm that they had worked with the firm but none of them did. Ablyazov says Arcanum is “cer­tain­ly in the upper ech­e­lons of the spy agen­cies that have done work against me”.

Emails seen by the FT, which Wahid does not dis­pute, show Arcanum charged Kazakhstan $3.7m for work up to the end of 2012 alone. Wahid con­firms what the emails sug­gest: that Arcanum reports to some of Nazarbayev’s most senior offi­cials while being for­mal­ly com­mis­sioned, at var­i­ous times, by Kazakhstan’s for­eign lawyers, includ­ing City firm Reed Smith as well as US and Swiss firms. I ask what Arcanum has done for Kazakhstan in its pur­suit of Ablyazov since those meet­ings in 2009. “Asset trac­ing,” Wahid says, as well as “devel­op­ing the legal strat­e­gy and deal­ing with inter-agency co-operation.”

When Ablyazov went to ground to avoid prison in the UK, those pur­su­ing him and his mon­ey start­ed to pay clos­er atten­tion to his asso­ciates. Chief among them was anoth­er exiled Kazakh busi­ness­man, Ilyas Khrapunov, who is mar­ried to Ablyazov’s daugh­ter. Kazakhstan accus­es him of being a key lieu­tenant in a world­wide oper­a­tion to stash clan­des­tine wealth, includ­ing his father-in-law’s, in assets rang­ing from a lux­u­ry Swiss hotel to US real estate linked to Donald Trump.

Lawyer Peter Sahlas with Ablyazov’s daugh­ter Madina at a press con­fer­ence in Paris in 2015 © Getty

Switzerland has declined to extra­dite Khrapunov and his rel­a­tives — so, Khrapunov says, Kazakhstan has come to Switzerland look­ing for them. In cor­re­spon­dence with the Swiss author­i­ties, the Khrapunovs’ lawyers say that the fam­i­ly and its rep­re­sen­ta­tives have been sub­ject­ed to a sur­veil­lance cam­paign that amount­ed to ille­gal espi­onage, includ­ing bug­ging and a bar­rage of boo­by-trapped emails. They name Arcanum among the agen­cies they believe have played a role in this cam­paign against them. In 2014, the Swiss author­i­ties launched a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion into the matter.

I asked Arcanum about the Swiss inves­ti­ga­tion and was told it had nev­er bro­ken Swiss law and enjoyed “a very good work­ing rela­tion­ship with Swiss author­i­ties”. The com­pa­ny said: “Swiss pros­e­cu­tors did not lodge any com­plaints against Arcanum as their exam­i­na­tion found the accu­sa­tions base­less.” The Swiss attorney-general’s office told me that, after the Khrapunovs won a court rul­ing in 2016 over­turn­ing a deci­sion to sus­pend the probe, the inves­ti­ga­tion resumed and is “ongo­ing”. It declined to give fur­ther details.

Wahid accepts that his inves­ti­ga­tors have inter­ro­gat­ed for­mer employ­ees of the Khrapunovs — though he denies claims made in a sworn state­ment by Ilyas’ for­mer sec­re­tary that an Arcanum inves­ti­ga­tor gave her the impres­sion he could get her immu­ni­ty from crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. And while Wahid declines to dis­cuss the mat­ter, five peo­ple famil­iar with it say that Arcanum played a role in per­suad­ing at least one of the fix­ers in Ablyazov’s alleged money­laun­der­ing net­work to switch sides.

Ablyazov’s sup­port­ers say that Arcanum is a cog in a “repres­sion machine” that the Nazarbayev regime has assem­bled in order to extend its pow­er beyond Kazakhstan’s bor­ders. “Absurd,” coun­ters Wahid. “To assert that our work sup­ports ‘repres­sion’ would mean you claim that the UK, French, Swiss and US gov­ern­ments and laws are com­plic­it with Kazakhstan’s ‘repres­sion machine.’” He adds: “Our work is pure­ly strate­gic and not oper­a­tional. We don’t go dig­ging in people’s trash. Other firms might do that.”

At one time Ablyazov was believed to be using a res­i­dence in a leafy sub­urb out­side Rome

In pri­vate, many of the inves­ti­ga­tors in the Ablyazov affair took Wahid’s line that their work has been beyond reproach but that oth­ers may have gone too far. Likewise, west­ern con­sul­tants and Kazakh offi­cials blame each oth­er for adopt­ing out­landish tac­tics. As the hunt for Ablyazov spread across Europe, it left a trail of ques­tion­able meth­ods, trig­ger­ing scan­dals or crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions in at least six west­ern coun­tries. The alleged offences range from improp­er inter­fer­ence in the judi­cial process to ille­gal espi­onage and kidnapping.

In December 2012, a few months after Ablyazov dis­ap­peared, Aleksandr Pavlov, his body­guard, was arrest­ed as he arrived in Spain. The Kazakh author­i­ties sought his extra­di­tion to face alle­ga­tions of assist­ing Ablyazov’s grand theft and plot­ting a ter­ror­ist attack that was nev­er car­ried out. A Spanish court refused Pavlov’s asy­lum appli­ca­tion but the dis­sent­ing judges wrote that “we find our­selves faced with a polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion, under the guise of a claim for com­mon crimes”; they warned that Pavlov might be tor­tured in Kazakhstan. Pavlov appealed and his case dragged on; there were alle­ga­tions that Kazakh offi­cials inter­fered with the Spanish judi­cial process.

Pavlov’s deten­tion came after Kazakhstan had put out an Interpol alert for him fol­low­ing Ablyazov’s dis­ap­pear­ance from Britain. These Red Notices are designed to assist inter­na­tion­al co-oper­a­tion in the appre­hen­sion of fugi­tives. But their deploy­ment, by the Russian gov­ern­ment and oth­ers, against polit­i­cal ene­mies is start­ing to under­mine the Interpol sys­tem. In March this year, the par­lia­men­tary assem­bly of the Council of Europe issued a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the abuse of the Interpol sys­tem for polit­i­cal ends.

Among a list of exam­ples, it declared that “dozens of fam­i­ly mem­bers and sup­port­ers” of Ablyazov were “being per­se­cut­ed, includ­ing through Red Notices”. Interpol would not com­ment on the Ablyazov case but said that although
the “over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Interpol Red Notice requests by mem­ber coun­tries raise no issues at all”, it had “com­pre­hen­sive­ly over­hauled and enhanced all its super­vi­so­ry mech­a­nisms” in the past two years.
Pavlov even­tu­al­ly won asy­lum in Spain. But the search for his boss went on.

In March 2013, Amit Forlit, an Israeli pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor, com­mis­sioned an Italian detec­tive agency called Sira Investigazioni. The fee would be €5,000, accord­ing to a let­ter seen by the FT, and the task to locate a res­i­dence believed to be used by Ablyazov in the leafy Roman sub­urb of Casal Palocco. The detec­tives appear to have deliv­ered the goods. Six weeks lat­er, a Kazakh police bureau trans­mit­ted a mes­sage to its coun­ter­part in Rome request­ing that Italian offi­cers raid an address there. On May 29, they did so.

Ablyazov was not there but his wife, Alma Shalabayeva, was, bear­ing a diplo­mat­ic pass­port issued by the Central African Republic. She was tak­en into cus­tody. Two days lat­er, agents arrived at the house where the couple’s six-yearold daugh­ter had been stay­ing since her mother’s deten­tion. A pair of Kazakh diplo­mats escort­ed moth­er and child on to a pri­vate plane. Within hours, they were in Kazakhstan.

In Italy, out­rage ensued. The depor­ta­tion was declared unlaw­ful; the office of the UN’s high com­mis­sion­er for human rights called it an “extra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion”. In mid-July, Enrico Letta, then prime min­is­ter, said it had brought “shame and embar­rass­ment” on the nation. Kazakh author­i­ties released the pair, who returned to Italy and were grant­ed asy­lum. A crim­i­nal case for kid­nap­ping against Italian offi­cials, police offi­cers and, in absen­tia, the Kazakh diplo­mats involved began in September this year. (Forlit did not respond to requests for com­ment; Sira declined to com­ment. Neither has been charged.)

While this unfold­ed in Rome, Trefor Williams — who, like Wahid, says he had noth­ing to do with the kid­nap­ping — was still try­ing to locate Ablyazov for BTA Bank. After 18 months of false leads, a Ukrainian lawyer who attend­ed a London court hear­ing caught the atten­tion of Williams’ team and led them to France. Deploying a sleuth in a biki­ni and anoth­er who spent hours shuf­fling over a zebra cross­ing to allow a close inspec­tion of pass­ing vehi­cles, the Diligence blood­hounds homed in on a man­sion near Cannes. It proved to be Ablyazov’s opu­lent hide­out. They alert­ed the police, who in July 2013 sent in an armed unit, appre­hend­ing Ablyazov and tak­ing him to a near­by jail.

Kazakhstan has no extra­di­tion treaty with France but Russia and Ukraine do. Each had charged Ablyazov with finan­cial crimes relat­ed to BTA Bank; they asked France to hand him over. The west­ern front of the war between Nazarbayev and Ablyazov was approach­ing its cli­mac­tic bat­tle. Now, more than ever, the side that could con­trol how Ablyazov was per­ceived would have the deci­sive advantage.

Tell that c*** you work for that we’re bring­ing him and all this crim­i­nal shit down around his ears

The British cap­i­tal is seen by many as the heart of the pri­vate intel­li­gence indus­try. According to one inves­ti­ga­tor: ‘At one point, lit­er­al­ly every­one I know in London was work­ing on Kazakhstan’

The British cap­i­tal is seen by many as the heart of the pri­vate intel­li­gence indus­try. According to one inves­ti­ga­tor: ‘At one point, lit­er­al­ly every­one I know in London was work­ing on Kazakhstan’

At five min­utes past mid­night on August 27 2015, Peter Sahlas’ phone chimed. Sahlas, a Canadian human rights lawyer, is boy­ish in looks but tena­cious in his work. He has worked on Ablyazov’s case since the oli­garch first fled to London. One lawyer on the oth­er side accus­es him of ignor­ing the evi­dence of malfea­sance with “Nelsonian blind­ness”. But Sahlas is adamant that he would not have spent long years fight­ing — some­times unpaid — if he did not tru­ly believe in his client. “Some things are more impor­tant than mon­ey,” he says, “like when a client’s case is a mat­ter of life or death.”

The mes­sage was from a num­ber Sahlas did not recog­nise. “Dear Peter Sahlas,” it began, “please tell that bald-head­ed c*** that you work for that we are bring­ing him and all this crim­i­nal shit down around his ears.” It went on for a few more lines, then con­clud­ed: “And just to be clear, you Quebec piece of shit, you are going to lose your shirt along the way. Have a fun time.” It was signed “PR”.

Baffled, Sahlas respond­ed. “Hello, sure, I will pass on your mes­sage,” he wrote. “But who is it from?” The reply came: “Patrick Robertson. Have that name etched on your col­lec­tive memory.”

During a 25-year career as what he calls a “strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions advis­er”, Patrick Robertson has sought to bur­nish the image of fig­ures such as the Chilean dic­ta­tor Augusto Pinochet and the dis­graced British politi­cian Jonathan Aitken. He is well-con­nect­ed among the Conservative estab­lish­ment: Margaret Thatcher was hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Bruges Group, the Eurosceptic organ­i­sa­tion he co-found­ed in 1989.

The web­site of World PR, Robertson’s Panama-reg­is­tered firm, car­ries a quo­ta­tion from an oth­er­wise dis­parag­ing arti­cle in the London Evening Standard: “Patrick Robertson’s ener­gy and entre­pre­neur­ial skill is phe­nom­e­nal. He is a very mod­ern fig­ure. He under­stands net­work­ing and the pow­er of the media. He has charm and a remark­able abil­i­ty to make peo­ple trust him.” The web­site also calls Robertson “a key play­er in Kazakhstan and Central Asia”.
Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has hired a long line of pro­pa­gan­dists to tend its image. Corruption scan­dals have ham­pered the leader’s efforts to be seen as a states­man, as have elec­tion vic­to­ries in which he scored more than 90 per cent, laws that effec­tive­ly facil­i­tate mon­ey-laun­der­ing and evi­dence of wide­spread tor­ture by secu­ri­ty services.

The Kazakh elite appears to have a taste for the mas­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tors of British pol­i­tics. When police respond­ed to an oil work­ers’ strike in 2011 — one sup­port­ed by Ablyazov — by shoot­ing dead at least 12 pro­test­ers, the pres­i­dent took advice from Tony Blair on a speech to man­age the fall­out. (Blair’s Institute for Global Change told me: “Our con­sis­tent advice was that the gov­ern­ment should estab­lish a full and thor­ough inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion on the events.”) When Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a Kazakh min­ing house that list­ed on the London Stock xchange in 2007, became engulfed in alle­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, a senior Kazakh offi­cial took sound­ings from for­mer Labour min­is­ter Peter Mandelson.

Ablyazov believes he’s the most clever per­son and that he will get away with it

In the bat­tle of per­cep­tion with Ablyazov, Kazakhstan has turned to top-of-the-range London PR outfits.

Portland Communications, found­ed by Tim Allan, a for­mer deputy press sec­re­tary to Blair, picked up the BTA Bank account. Shortly after Ablyazov was grant­ed asy­lum in the UK in 2011, some­one using a Portland IP address altered his Wikipedia page, until a mod­er­a­tor noticed and cried foul.

Portland told me “the changes were car­ried out in order to cor­rect inac­cu­ra­cies… designed to dis­tort the truth about Ablyazov’s fraud­u­lent activ­i­ties”. It said “no attempt was made by Portland to deceive or to dis­guise the ori­gin of these changes” but that, after its work was dis­cov­ered, it trained its staff in “the most up-to-date stan­dards”, includ­ing a vis­it from Wikipedia’s founder.

By the time of Ablyazov’s cap­ture in France, the kid­nap­ping in Italy and oth­er scan­dals had taint­ed the per­cep­tion of Kazakhstan’s motives. In ear­ly 2014, as Ablyazov pre­pared to appeal against a French court rul­ing that he could be extra­dit­ed, con­fi­den­tial mem­os for senior Kazakh offi­cials out­lined a strat­e­gy pro­posed by FTI Consulting. “MA’s objec­tive will be to win pub­lic opin­ion,” FTI said, rec­om­mend­ing a counter-attack.

As well as cul­ti­vat­ing French MPs, FTI dis­cussed using “search engine opti­mi­sa­tion” so Google results for Ablyazov would be more like­ly to say “fraud­ster” than “dis­si­dent”. And it pro­posed pay­ing a Swiss non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tion for an osten­si­bly inde­pen­dent report con­demn­ing Ablyazov. The NGO, the Organised Crime
Observatory, told me it turned down the offer. FTI declined to comment.

In the trade, a covert attempt to black­en a target’s name is known as “black PR”. One prac­ti­tion­er defines the tac­tic as “putting [out] the neg­a­tives of your oppo­nents, with­out any fin­ger­prints”. In extreme form, it has shak­en whole nations, such as South Africa, where the dis­cov­ery of a cam­paign that stirred racial ten­sion recent­ly brought down the cel­e­brat­ed British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

On the face of it, Patrick Robertson’s work for the Kazakh PR cam­paign against Ablyazov was straightforward.

Correspondence seen by the FT shows that in mid-2014 BTA Bank agreed a £3.25m con­tract for World PR to make and dis­trib­ute a doc­u­men­tary paint­ing Ablyazov as his ene­mies in Kazakhstan wanted.

However, Peter Sahlas came to sus­pect that there was more to Robertson’s role. After Robertson con­tact­ed him, Sahlas trawled a trove of offi­cial emails that had been pub­lished online — the so-called Kazaword leak that the country’s author­i­ties blame on Ablyazov’s asso­ciates. He found cor­re­spon­dence from ear­ly 2014 in which Robertson arranged to meet a top Kazakh offi­cial in Washington. There was noth­ing unusu­al about that, except for a strange email dat­ing from the same time. It con­tained an unsigned memo propos­ing to use research for a doc­u­men­tary as a cov­er for espi­onage against the “Little Man”.

This would involve “covert oper­a­tions” sub­ject­ing Ablyazov and his entourage to “cyber assaults” and “sab­o­tage”.

There would be “media manip­u­la­tion glob­al­ly”. The pro­pos­al went on: “We will be con­tact­ing every­one whether they be friend, asso­ciate, fam­i­ly mem­ber in Little Man’s life and he will find that we are in every aspect of his exis­tence, fur­ther under­min­ing his confidence.”

Sahlas noticed that the text of the email was writ­ten in the same dis­tinc­tive font that World PR uses (although that could eas­i­ly have been copied). The sender’s Gmail account appears as “Peter Ridge”, a name no one involved in the affair seems to know. The email had been ini­tial­ly sent to a pri­vate account appar­ent­ly belong­ing to a top Kazakh diplo­mat. The diplo­mat sent it on to the lead­ing Kazakh offi­cial that Robertson had arranged to meet in Washington days lat­er with the mes­sage that it was “in rela­tion to your meet­ing in DC”.

Either Robertson was behind this pro­posed strat­e­gy or some­one has tried to make it appear that he was. Sahlas says that he and oth­ers close to Ablyazov have been sub­ject­ed to some of the tac­tics described in the “covert oper­a­tions” email — includ­ing by the mak­ers of an unflat­ter­ing doc­u­men­tary on Ablyazov.

I asked Robertson whether he wrote the email under a pseu­do­nym. He told me: “We nev­er com­ment on any aspect of our work for our clients, so I will not do so on this occa­sion. However, since the fact of our client rela­tion­ship with BTA is online (as a result of an unfor­tu­nate leak), let me be clear: the con­tents of the doc­u­ment you have asked me to com­ment on bears no resem­blance to the con­tract that we signed with BTA Bank.”

Robertson’s SMS exchanges with Sahlas went on for three months. They ranged from foul-mouthed threats to invi­ta­tions “to start nego­ti­a­tions on bring­ing you covert­ly on to our side”. In his final mes­sage, in October 2015, Robertson left open the offer “to arrange your exit from that cesspit you’ve attached your­self to”. Sahlas did not take up the invi­ta­tion. A few months lat­er, he and his client would score a spec­tac­u­lar victory.

The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Astana, the cap­i­tal city of Kazakhstan

Astana, the cap­i­tal that Kazakhstan’s rulers raised out of the steppe, has the feel­ing of a set­tle­ment that grew by com­mand rather than the grad­ual accu­mu­la­tion of human­i­ty. The streets are clean and order­ly; the grass verges enjoy con­stant tend­ing. Architect Norman Foster’s vast, slop­ing yurt gleams at one end of the main boule­vard. All around are five-star hotels and west­ern fast-food chains.

Marat Beketayev, the jus­tice min­is­ter, belongs to the young, cos­mopoli­tan gen­er­a­tion of Kazakh lead­ers whose stat­ed goal is to turn a land that has endured cen­turies of sub­ju­ga­tion into a mod­ern, con­fi­dent state. Before our inter­view, he shows me a cor­ri­dor bear­ing por­traits of his pre­de­ces­sors, point­ing out two from the 1930s whose tenures end­ed when Stalin jailed them.

Beketayev only turned 40 in August. He has risen fast. In a mel­liflu­ous voice, he explains that he grew up in a vil­lage where most jobs were in the three Soviet pris­ons near­by, one of which was run by his father. Perhaps, he accepts, that explains his inter­est in the law.

Beketayev has been at the heart of the Nazarbayev’s government’s efforts to use west­ern legal sys­tems to bring down Ablyazov. “Really what Kazakhstan wants is to make sure that crim­i­nals and cor­rupt peo­ple who want to steal mon­ey in Kazakhstan and go abroad don’t get an oppor­tu­ni­ty to laun­der the mon­ey with the help of lawyers,” he says. Kazakhstan’s lawyers and lob­by­ists urged agen­cies such as the UK’s Serious Fraud Office to open crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions into Ablyazov, to no avail. “We under­stand the lim­its of pub­lic expen­di­ture, we under­stand all the con­straints, but we want them to do more, because only work­ing togeth­er can we achieve prop­er rela­tions.” Calmly but firm­ly, he adds: “We real­ly want London to do more in order to make sure that all the mon­ey com­ing to London is clean.”

With the author­i­ties in London and else­where in the west seem­ing­ly unwill­ing to go after the illic­it mon­ey flows from which their economies were ben­e­fit­ing, Beketayev says that Kazakhstan had no choice but to do the job itself. I ask about Ron Wahid. “What we think is valu­able in our rela­tion­ship with Arcanum is their knowl­edge and exper­tise because they hire peo­ple from for­mer law enforce­ment and from intel­li­gence. These are the peo­ple who have worked with such crim­i­nals for their whole lives.”

And why the need for all the pro­pa­gan­dists? “Because, I think, we were los­ing this PR war.” I ask about the pro­posed “media manip­u­la­tion” strat­e­gy and Patrick Robertson’s role. “He may think that we were inter­est­ed in such things,” the min­is­ter says. “I only met him sev­er­al times. I don’t remem­ber him propos­ing such an approach.” He went on: “It is fun­ny for me to hear that we could be regard­ed as peo­ple who are able to use such mech­a­nisms and such methods.”I ask why that’s fun­ny.“ It’s not the way we’re used to working.

Marat Beketayev, Kazakh jus­tice minister

Beketayev was the offi­cial who met Robertson in Washington and to whom the mys­te­ri­ous “covert oper­a­tions” email was sent. After our inter­view, I asked Beketayev’s office some ques­tions about it. The reply said: “We do not com­ment on infor­ma­tion that was obtained by ille­gal and unlaw­ful means. Anyone read­ing that infor­ma­tion should bear in mind that it may have been manipulated.”

Other cor­re­spon­dence seen by the FT, as well as inter­views with inves­ti­ga­tors involved, indi­cate that, in par­al­lel with BTA Bank’s pur­suit of its miss­ing bil­lions, Beketayev has direct­ed an inter­con­ti­nen­tal strat­e­gy against Ablyazov. He has liaised with Reed Smith, Kazakhstan’s long-stand­ing London lawyers, PR and intel­li­gence agen­cies, includ­ing Arcanum, and west­ern politicians.

Asked about the more out­ra­geous tac­tics moot­ed by some of the con­sul­tants on Kazakhstan’s dol­lar, Beketayev sug­gests that west­ern agen­cies saw work­ing for a post-Soviet repub­lic as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to indulge in the dark arts.

Frankly, there were many peo­ple approach­ing us with such pro­pos­als.” The tech­niques on offer were “dis­turb­ing, arrang­ing some kind of scan­dals, hack­ing emails, things like that. This is sim­ply stu­pid. This works maybe for a short peri­od of time but, in the long run, if you engage in such things, you will nev­er be tak­en seri­ous­ly by oth­er countries.”

Kazakh dis­si­dents and inter­na­tion­al human rights activists who sup­port Ablyazov’s cause argue that, even if he did improp­er­ly divert mon­ey, he is guilty only of play­ing by the klep­to­crat­ic rules that gov­ern the Kazakh elite. I put it to Beketayev that while Ablyazov has been relent­less­ly pur­sued, pro-regime oli­garchs with dubi­ous pasts have pros­pered. “It is true that there was a peri­od of time when it was pos­si­ble to get away with crimes,” he says. “And step by step, this time is going away. We’re a young coun­try. When the Soviet Union col­lapsed, there were no legal mech­a­nisms what­so­ev­er. But still it was pos­si­ble for us to keep gen­er­al order and because of gen­er­al order, because of the strong pow­er of the pres­i­dent, we had a sta­ble time to develop.”

I relay Ablyazov’s argu­ment that he was forced to use off­shore secre­cy to pro­tect his for­tune. “It’s a nice sto­ry from him because he wants to keep his stolen mon­ey and any oth­er sto­ry wouldn’t stand. He has noth­ing else to say and he’s not the first per­son to use the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion card in order to pro­tect him­self from crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. But when you see exam­ples of oppo­si­tion lead­ers, how many of them live in lux­u­ry vil­las in the south of France? How many of them give mon­ey to their chil­dren in order to invest in a devel­op­ment project in New York, a devel­op­ment project in Geneva?”

Dusk is falling over the glitz of Astana. I ask what Beketayev makes of Ablyazov him­self. “I per­son­al­ly believe that this guy is mad,” he says. “He’s not afraid of being caught because he believes that he’s the most clever per­son and he will get away with it.”

Ablyazov (sec­ond left) and lawyers, includ­ing Sahlas (right), cel­e­brate his release from prison in Paris last year

Ablyazov’s fam­i­ly and lawyers were on ten­ter­hooks as December 9 2016 dawned. Ablyazov had spent three years in French pris­ons. Later that day, the Conseil d’Etat, France’s high­est court for such mat­ters, would announce its deci­sion on whether he should be extra­dit­ed to Russia.

The odds were not good. The French prime min­is­ter, Manuel Valls, had approved the Russian extra­di­tion request, which had tak­en prece­dence over Ukraine’s. Only once before, in 1977, had the Conseil d’Etat denied an extra­di­tion request on the grounds that it was an attempt to use crim­i­nal alle­ga­tions for polit­i­cal ends. Ablyazov would be a sit­ting duck in a Russian jail, his peo­ple feared. Moreover, they con­sid­ered Russian assur­ances that it would not hand over the cap­tive to Astana to be worthless.

Russian pros­e­cu­tors had opened their own inves­ti­ga­tion into Ablyazov’s activ­i­ties in their coun­try, where BTA had a sub­sidiary. Many of the real estate projects that had alleged­ly helped to drain the bank were based there but Ablyazov’s teams argued that the inves­ti­ga­tion amount­ed to polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion at Kazakhstan’s behest.

Ablyazov’s lawyers say sev­en inves­ti­ga­tors and oth­er offi­cials involved in the Russian case had also had a hand in the Sergei Magnitsky affair, in which the young audi­tor and lawyer died in prison after expos­ing cor­rup­tion, prompt­ing US sanc­tions against those deemed respon­si­ble. And leaked emails sug­gest­ed that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Nazarbayev’s regime exert­ed influ­ence over the crim­i­nal probes into Ablyazov and his asso­ciates in Russia.

In France, too, Ablyazov had cause to be unnerved. Arcanum had hired Bernard Squarcini, chief of domes­tic intel­li­gence dur­ing Nicolas Sarkozy’s pres­i­den­cy. Days before the extra­di­tion hear­ing, an inves­ti­gat­ing mag­is­trate, who was prob­ing whether Squarcini had improp­er­ly put his old intel­li­gence con­tacts at the ser­vice of pri­vate clients, had writ­ten to Ablyazov inform­ing him that he may have been a vic­tim in the case.

Ablyazov’s team prayed that France would not fol­low the UK exam­ple. Lawyers and lob­by­ists work­ing for the Kazakh gov­ern­ment had repeat­ed­ly asked the UK to rescind his asy­lum, a sta­tus that helped to val­i­date his argu­ments. In January 2014, the British gov­ern­ment informed Ablyazov of its inten­tion to do just that. A memo by Reed Smith report­ed that John Howell, a con­sul­tant work­ing for the Kazakh gov­ern­ment, con­sid­ered that the government’s move was “being dri­ven by the [then] home sec­re­tary, Theresa May, as part of a wider ‘clean-up’ of asy­lum deci­sions that have been tak­en in recent years in respect of indi­vid­u­als who have abused the sys­tem and rules”.

It’s a slap in the face to the PM of France. It’s a slap in the face to Putin. It’s a slap in the face to the Kazakhs

Ablyazov’s refugee sta­tus was “con­sid­ered to be a prob­lem for UK-Kazakh rela­tions and there is a pro-Kazakhstan push by David Cameron, who is keen to dri­ve the rela­tion­ship for­ward”. The pre­vi­ous year, Cameron had become the first UK prime min­is­ter to vis­it Kazakhstan, sign­ing con­tracts worth £700m. (The Home Office and Howell declined to com­ment; Reed Smith did not respond to a request for comment.)

As the judges start­ed to deliv­er their find­ings, Sahlas lis­tened intent­ly for signs of which way the court would go. Then, he recalls, he heard the words: “Mutual con­fi­dence does not mean mutu­al naivety.” He felt a thrill. The court reversed the prime minister’s deci­sion to grant Russia’s extra­di­tion request. Sahlas told me after­wards: “It’s a slap in the face to the PM of France. It’s a slap in the face to Putin. It’s a slap in the face to the Kazakhs. Jurisprudentially, it’s an earthquake.”

In Astana, Beketayev detect­ed ulte­ri­or motives in this deci­sion tak­en at a time of the worst cri­sis of rela­tions between Moscow and the west since the cold war. “I think this was about — and I have to be care­ful here — this was not more about Ablyazov, this was more about glob­al pol­i­tics,” he told me.

Ablyazov trav­elled from prison to a rent­ed apart­ment in Paris for a hearty meal of Kazakh pilaf. He picked up his gui­tar and sang the song he per­forms in moments of tri­umph, a num­ber about cheat­ing death. Then the fight­back began.

The inter­me­di­ary who brought me to my meet­ing with Ablyazov in April fol­lowed a cir­cuitous route to ensure we were not tailed to his com­fort­able apart­ment. The oligarch’s asso­ciates fear that, fol­low­ing their vic­to­ry in the courts, the risk of an assas­si­na­tion — the last resort of post-Soviet pol­i­tics — has risen. Years ago in Moscow, Ablyazov says his secu­ri­ty team dis­cov­ered a sniper’s nest near his house. When he was in London, the police warned him of a threat to his life. Pro-gov­ern­ment fig­ures dis­miss such con­cerns but at least two Kazakh oppo­si­tion lead­ers have died in sus­pi­cious circumstances.

I found Ablyazov jug­gling mobile phones and lap­tops as he waged a social media cam­paign against Nazarbayev. He had lost weight in prison and was wear­ing a white T‑shirt and jeans. He gave me his busi­ness card. It said sim­ply: “Mukhtar Ablyazov: politi­cian.” I asked if he was afraid. “I’ve been liv­ing in this state for 17 years already,” he said, so he felt like “tem­pered steel”. For now, Ablyazov is hop­ing to be allowed to remain in France. But he told me, mat­ter-of-fact­ly, that he had set a two-year timetable to remove Nazarbayev from office and install him­self as Kazakhstan’s inter­im leader until a west­ern-style par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cy is in place.

If Ablyazov holds any aces, they are the secrets he learnt from his years on the inside of the Kazakh elite. His strat­e­gy now is to tar­get the Achilles heel of what he sees as Nazarbayev’s klep­toc­ra­cy — the dis­par­i­ty between the pros­per­i­ty of rulers and the strug­gles of the ruled.

Why does the Kazakh cop­per work­er earn one-sixth of what his Chilean col­league earns? Answer: because Nazarbayev runs the thing. I show his assets, his hous­es, the cash… and I say, ‘He’s steal­ing from you.’ And it’s very easy for me to do, because every large indus­tri­al enter­prise is owned by Nazarbayev. He is extreme­ly vulnerable.”

Two can play that game. Diligence and oth­ers remain hot on the trail of Ablyazov’s assets and are feed­ing what their inves­ti­ga­tors find into ever more court claims. In June, a Kazakh court con­vict­ed Ablyazov in absen­tia of crimes includ­ing organ­is­ing a crim­i­nal group and embez­zle­ment. He was sen­tenced to 20 years. Nonetheless, some of those who have spent years pur­su­ing Ablyazov express bit­ter frus­tra­tion at what they feel is his suc­cess in craft­ing an image of a post-Soviet dis­si­dent designed for west­ern media consumption.

Ablyazov and his allies have been bat­tling against the British rul­ings that have frozen his for­tune and con­fis­cat­ed his assets. In July, Interpol’s gov­ern­ing body can­celled the Red Notices against him issued at the behest of the Kazakh, Russian and Ukrainian authorities.

Lawyers in the ven­er­a­ble courts off Chancery Lane pri­vate­ly despair of the tac­tics that are being employed. Each side’s lawyers accus­es the oth­er side’s oper­a­tives of hack­ing emails — some of them nom­i­nal­ly pro­tect­ed by legal priv­i­lege — then offer­ing them as evi­dence, pro­fess­ing not to know whence they came.

I have asked a score of inves­ti­ga­tors, lawyers, experts and influ­en­tial Kazakhs which Ablyazov they con­sid­ered to be the real one: the des­per­a­do or the dis­si­dent. Most answered: both. Ablyazov is a prod­uct of a place and a time where there was lit­tle dis­tinc­tion between mon­ey and pow­er. Any action that involves the for­mer nec­es­sar­i­ly involves the lat­ter, and vice versa.

Assume for a moment that Ablyazov is right, or at least that he is on the clean­er side of a dirty game and might beat Nazarbayev in a fair elec­tion. It is easy to imag­ine oth­ers who have chal­lenged author­i­tar­i­an regimes find­ing their task hard­er — impos­si­ble, even — had they faced a transna­tion­al free­lance “repres­sion machine” of the sort Astana has assem­bled. It tilts the bal­ance in favour of strong­men with access to state coffers.

And if Ablyazov is, as his many ene­mies and sev­er­al respect­ed British judges main­tain, an auda­cious fraud­ster, then all that the Kazakh-fund­ed lob­by­ing, med­dling and smear­ing has achieved is to bol­ster the nar­ra­tive of per­se­cu­tion that let him escape being called to account. The real los­er, one Astana busi­ness­man observes, is the Kazakh bud­get, which has poured tens, per­haps hun­dreds, of mil­lions of dol­lars into the accounts of west­ern firms.

On my last evening in Astana, I sat in the lob­by of a down-at-heel hotel talk­ing to Yevgeny Zhovtis, the vet­er­an human rights cam­paign­er. I asked him what he made of the glob­al indus­try that has grown up to serve the world’s klep­to­crats and their rivals, laun­der­ing their mon­ey, bur­nish­ing their image and fight­ing their bat­tles. “It’s a ques­tion for west­ern soci­eties,” he told me. “What are they doing with their insti­tu­tions and politi­cians? Our cor­rupt­ed elite has not cor­rupt­ed itself.”

Written by Tom Burgis is the FT’s inves­ti­ga­tions correspondent

Illustration by Evelin Kasikov, pho­tographed by Benjamin Swanson, with por­trait by Vasantha Yogananthan

Photographs: Vasantha Yogananthan; Eva Vermandel; Bloomberg; AFP/Getty Images; Paris Match/Getty Images

Original Article : https://www.ft.com/content/1411b1a0-a310-11e7-9e4f-7f5e6a7c98a2

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