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The Nazarbayev Billions: How Kazakhstan’s ‘Leader of the Nation’ Controls Vast Assets Through Charitable Foundations

The for­mer pres­i­dent — lay­ing low since the coun­try plunged into protest and vio­lence in ear­ly January — hid banks, hotels, and a $100 mil­lion jet in a net­work of foun­da­tions that answer only to him.

A pri­vate jet worth over $100 mil­lion. Banks and TV chan­nels. Billions in cash. Some of Kazakhstan’s most lux­u­ri­ous hotels, mul­ti­ple shop­ping cen­ters, and a golf course. But also less glam­orous pos­ses­sions: ware­hous­es, a pas­ta fac­to­ry, and at one point, even a land­scap­ing company.

There is no obvi­ous con­nec­tion between all of these busi­ness­es and assets, which are worth at least $8 bil­lion. But the per­son behind all of them is Kazakhstan’s long­time leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

He con­trols them through an unusu­al mech­a­nism: Four pri­vate char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions, all start­ed by him over the course of his long rule, osten­si­bly to help the peo­ple of Kazakhstan. But even while hand­ing out gifts to chil­dren or pop­u­lar­iz­ing the Kazakh lan­guage, these orga­ni­za­tions have secret­ly acquired stakes in dozens of businesses.

Some of the assets were trans­ferred to Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tions, or are still co-owned, by oli­garchs who owe their rich­es to the crony cap­i­tal­ism that flour­ished dur­ing his rule. In oth­er cas­es, the gov­ern­ment of Kazakhstan poured mon­ey into pri­vate com­pa­nies which were then acquired by the char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions. The result is that Nazarbayev’s non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions actu­al­ly own larg­er busi­ness port­fo­lios than many multi­na­tion­al conglomerates.

Kazakhstan’s “First President” and “Leader of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Since the foun­da­tions are non-prof­its, Nazarbayev does not for­mal­ly own their vast assets him­self. However, legal experts con­tact­ed by OCCRP explained that, under Kazakhstani law, the founder of a pri­vate foun­da­tion has ulti­mate con­trol over its assets. Many of the details, includ­ing how much was paid for the assets, are unknown — a con­se­quence of the fact that, unlike nor­mal busi­ness­es, they do not pub­lish annu­al reports.

But in a months-long inves­ti­ga­tion, reporters used com­pa­ny records in mul­ti­ple coun­tries to put togeth­er the most com­plete pic­ture to date of the vast wealth under Nazarbayev’s con­trol. Some of these facts have been pub­li­cal­ly avail­able, but remained unre­port­ed until now in part because crit­i­cal jour­nal­ism about the “Leader of the Nation” is a dan­ger­ous business.

These find­ings exem­pli­fy the cor­rup­tion and stark inequal­i­ty that has plagued Kazakhstan since it gained from the Soviet Union in the ear­ly 1990s. Under Nazarbayev’s long years of lead­er­ship, most Kazakhstanis have seen lit­tle ben­e­fit from their country’s vast min­er­al wealth, even as it lined the pock­ets of a cir­cle of bil­lion­aires, includ­ing mem­bers of Nazarbayev’s fam­i­ly and offi­cials close to him.

The sys­tem bare­ly changed after Nazarbayev resigned from the pres­i­den­cy in 2019. He installed a hand-picked suc­ces­sor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and retained con­trol of the secu­ri­ty council.

This explains why, after local protests against high fuel prices in Western Kazakhstan spread across the coun­try in ear­ly January, they quick­ly turned into demands for broad­er polit­i­cal change — and became per­son­al. The chant “Old man, leave!” became a main­stay of the demon­stra­tions. A pho­to­graph wide­ly shared online showed a top­pled stat­ue of Nazarbayev.

The pop­u­lar demon­stra­tions were accom­pa­nied by an appar­ent strug­gle for pow­er behind the scenes, with President Tokayev announc­ing on January 5 that he had tak­en over Nazarbayev’s role as head of the secu­ri­ty council.

Nazarbayev him­self has hard­ly been heard from since the unrest began, and his polit­i­cal influ­ence may be at its end. What will hap­pen to his bil­lions is still unclear.

A spokesman for Nazarbayev did not respond to requests for com­ment. Three of Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tions did not respond either. The fourth told OCCRP that the for­mer pres­i­dent did not ben­e­fit from any of the assets it held, which were ded­i­cat­ed to secur­ing financ­ing for edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions named after him.

Kazakhstan’s cap­i­tal, Nur-Sultan, used to be called Astana but was renamed in Nazarbayev’s hon­or in 2019.

Thirty Years of Nazarbayev

Born into a peas­ant fam­i­ly, Nazarbayev joined the Soviet Communist Party in his ear­ly 20s and rose steadi­ly through its ranks. By the mid­dle of his career, he was at the top of the par­ty struc­ture in Soviet Kazakhstan, hold­ing posi­tions includ­ing prime min­is­ter and first sec­re­tary of the local Party branch. When the post of pres­i­dent was estab­lished in 1990, he was select­ed to fill it. Nazarbayev was over­whelm­ing­ly reelect­ed after the coun­try gained its inde­pen­dence the fol­low­ing year, set­ting the stage for decades of one-man rule.

Over that peri­od, Kazakhstan’s con­sti­tu­tion was amend­ed sev­er­al times to expand Nazarbayev’s pres­i­den­tial pow­ers and allow him — and only him — to run for reelec­tion as many times as he wished. His Nur Otan par­ty became the dom­i­nant force in a rub­ber-stamp par­lia­ment. Even as his regime repeat­ed­ly sup­pressed free­dom of speech and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion, it allowed a cir­cle of busi­ness­men close to him to amass enor­mous for­tunes and influ­ence after a wave of privatizations.

He was grant­ed full immu­ni­ty from scruti­ny or pros­e­cu­tion, which extends to any enti­ties found­ed by him. And in 2010, Nazarbayev also gained a new title — “Leader of the Nation.”

It was around this time that he began to estab­lish the foun­da­tions that would even­tu­al­ly come to hold bil­lions in assets.

One of these, the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan — Elbasy , had been estab­lished years ear­li­er as a pub­lic foun­da­tion, but in 2011 it was reclas­si­fied as “pri­vate,” and Nazarbayev was list­ed as its founder. (It was dis­solved in 2021.)

Nazarbayev found­ed two more pri­vate foun­da­tions, the Nazarbayev Foundation and the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, in 2009 and 2010. He found­ed anoth­er two, Demeu (“Support”) and Elbasy (“Leader of the Nation”), in 2013 and 2021.

For the New Year, the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation “ful­filled the dreams” of 228 dis­abled chil­dren by giv­ing them a doll­house, learn­ing tablets, sports­wear, and oth­er gifts.

The foun­da­tions’ sim­i­lar names and the way their activ­i­ties are report­ed make them dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish. Some don’t have web­sites, and those that exist can be mis­lead­ing: For exam­ple, a web­site for the Foundation of the First President once redi­rect­ed vis­i­tors to the site of the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation — which incor­rect­ly lists the for­mer foundation’s found­ing year as its own.

The Demeu and Elbasy foun­da­tions don’t appear to car­ry out pub­lic-fac­ing activ­i­ties. But the oth­ers have tout­ed their edu­ca­tion­al, social, and patri­ot­ic projects, which are fre­quent­ly report­ed in glow­ing terms in the large­ly pli­ant Kazakhstani media.

In 2011, anoth­er new law made the Nazarbayev Foundation respon­si­ble for fund­ing two major edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions: a net­work of sec­ondary schools and a flag­ship research university.

But there was more to this arrange­ment than it seemed.

An Endowment — and a Business Empire?

Located on a vast cam­pus on the out­skirts of Nur-Sultan, Nazarbayev University was found­ed in 2010 with a mis­sion to mod­ern­ize Kazakhstan’s high­er edu­ca­tion system.

The cre­ation of this edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion is a most impor­tant nation­al project, which I will over­see per­son­al­ly,” said Nazarbayev in a 2010 speech short­ly after the uni­ver­si­ty opened. “I am con­vinced that it will have a sys­tem­at­ic impact on the devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal, our entire state, and society.”

Nazarbayev University.

Alongside the uni­ver­si­ty, a net­work of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary schools called the “Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools” was also created.

Both insti­tu­tions are gen­er­ous­ly fund­ed by the state, receiv­ing about $5 bil­lion between 2010 and 2021. This was a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of Kazakhstan’s edu­ca­tion bud­get, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that the uni­ver­si­ty and the schools host only a small pro­por­tion of the country’s students.

Most edu­ca­tion­al endow­ments are set up by uni­ver­si­ties to receive dona­tions, invest them, and use the prof­its to fund their needs. But unlike such endow­ments, the Nazarbayev Foundation does not belong to the edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions it’s sup­posed to fund. Instead, it is a pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion per­son­al­ly found­ed and con­trolled by Nursultan Nazarbayev. Confusingly, both the uni­ver­si­ty and the schools also set up their own cor­po­rate “devel­op­ment funds,” which they real­ly do control.

The Nazarbayev Foundation has no web­site, does not pub­lish any reports, and has not pub­licly dis­closed how much mon­ey it has received from exter­nal donors or Nazarbayev himself.

When con­tact­ed by reporters, the chair­man of its board, Aslan Sarinzhipov, pro­vid­ed an offi­cial doc­u­ment which revealed that, as of 2019, it had received $1 bil­lion from undis­closed donors and made $200 mil­lion in invest­ment income.

Sarinzhipov wrote in an email that, in the decade since its cre­ation, the Nazarbayev Foundation had paid $46.5 mil­lion to fund research activ­i­ties, lab­o­ra­to­ry equip­ment, stu­dent sup­port, and oth­er edu­ca­tion­al expens­es. (This is equiv­a­lent to about 1 per­cent of the state fund­ing the uni­ver­si­ty and the schools received over the same period.)

Though it was estab­lished in 2009, cor­po­rate records show that the Nazarbayev Foundation appeared to have no invest­ment activ­i­ty until 2019, the year of Nazarbayev’s retirement.

By then, the two cor­po­rate foun­da­tions owned by the schools and uni­ver­si­ty had estab­lished an invest­ment fund called Pioneer Capital Invest, and used it to acquire a Kazakhstani bank called ExpoCredit for $30 million.

Now the Nazarbayev Foundation joined the par­ty, acquir­ing 75 per­cent of Pioneer Capital and leav­ing the oth­ers with just a quar­ter between them. (The amount it paid for this stake is unknown.)

With its promi­nent new backer, Pioneer Capital went on a shop­ping spree, acquir­ing a major Kazakhstani lender called Tsesnabank. The lat­ter had belonged to the fam­i­ly of Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, a for­mer head of Nazarbayev’s pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion, but had to be saved by the gov­ern­ment after being mismanaged.

Since then, Pioneer Capital has acquired sev­er­al oth­er banks, an inter­net mar­ket­place, mobile oper­a­tors, ware­hous­es, shop­ping malls, and even a pas­ta factory.

The total val­ue of its assets is a stag­ger­ing $7.8 bil­lion, includ­ing U.S. Treasury bills, Kyrgyz and Kazakh state bonds, and $3.4 bil­lion in cash. It earned more than $500 mil­lion in prof­its in 2020.

In response to reporters’ ques­tions about its invest­ments, the Nazarbayev Foundation’s board chair­man, Sarinzhipov, wrote that the orga­ni­za­tion is a “clas­sic endow­ment fund … by anal­o­gy to the best inter­na­tion­al prac­tice (the endow­ment funds of Harvard, Stanford, Duke).” He not­ed that Nazarbayev “does not have prop­er­ty rights” to its assets and “can­not with­draw mon­ey from the orga­ni­za­tion under any circumstances.”

The Foundation’s char­ter, which the Foundation pro­vid­ed to reporters, does indeed state that its sole pur­pose is to fund its edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion. But it also stip­u­lates that the first chair­man of its high­est exec­u­tive body, the Supreme Board of Trustees, is Nursultan Nazarbayev — and that he has con­trol over the Foundation, includ­ing the con­tents of the char­ter itself.

Sarinzhipov did not respond to reporters’ ques­tions about what would pre­vent Nazarbayev from mov­ing assets out of the Foundation for his own ben­e­fit, if he chose to do so. Though there is no evi­dence that this has hap­pened so far, sev­er­al maneu­vers by Foundation struc­tures raise questions.

In 2020, a new lay­er of cor­po­rate own­er­ship was added: Pioneer Capital moved its banks, ware­hous­es, shop­ping malls, and all the rest to a new hold­ing com­pa­ny it estab­lished in the United Kingdom called Jusan Technologies.

Then, the fol­low­ing year, a mys­te­ri­ous com­pa­ny called QAZ42 Investment acquired a 3 per­cent stake in Jusan Technologies and its bil­lions of assets, effec­tive­ly dilut­ing the Nazarbayev Foundation’s share. For this stake, worth over $200 mil­lion, it paid just $20 million.

It is impos­si­ble to deter­mine who is behind this com­pa­ny and its high­ly lucra­tive deal, since not even the coun­try of its incor­po­ra­tion is known. Reporters only man­aged to learn of it because of a U.K. cor­po­rate filing.

The Foundation has also begun to use espe­cial­ly secre­tive cor­po­rate struc­tures based in Luxembourg, which has already allowed it to secret­ly acquire a 24-per­cent stake in a major Kazakhstani mobile operator.

Hotels, TV Stations, and Landscaping

Nazarbayev’s oth­er three foun­da­tions also went on a shop­ping spree since his res­ig­na­tion from the presidency.

In August 2020, an air­plane described by Business Insider as a “fly­ing pent­house” depart­ed an out­fit­ting facil­i­ty in Indianapolis. It stopped in Zurich and Malta before land­ing in its new home base: Nur-Sultan.

The sto­ry of the appar­ent acqui­si­tion of this Airbus ACJ320neo — a high-end jet worth over $100 mil­lion — illus­trates the con­fla­tion of the pri­vate and the offi­cial in Nazarbayev’s post-pres­i­den­tial life as the nation’s elder statesman.

Nazarbayev play­ing golf at the Nurtau golf club — owned by his Elbasy Foundation.

The brand-new air­plane was acquired from a Swiss avi­a­tion out­fit­ter and import­ed into Kazakhstan by the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, a fact that is only known because reporters obtained a doc­u­ment stat­ing that it had received an exemp­tion from import controls.

It is now oper­at­ed by Berkut Air, a state air­line that is sub­or­di­nate to the pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion. And though it’s unknown whether the foun­da­tion for­mal­ly owns the plane, there is com­pelling evi­dence that it is used by Nazarbayev.

The airplane’s move­ments have been removed from most flight track­ing ser­vices, but reporters obtained infor­ma­tion about a por­tion of its flights from the Open Sky Network, a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that col­lects air traf­fic data.

They show that on June 30, 2021, the plane flew from Kazakhstan to Moscow. On the same day, the Kremlin announced that Nazarbayev had held a “work­ing meet­ing” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (In thank­ing Putin for his hos­pi­tal­i­ty, Nazarbayev joked: “I’m a free man now — haven’t been pres­i­dent for three years!”)

The plane also made a num­ber of trips with­in Kazakhstan, two of which reporters were able to match with Nazarbayev’s vis­its to a tourism hub and an arche­o­log­i­cal site.

The foun­da­tions’ oth­er acqui­si­tions are no less lux­u­ri­ous. As with the plane, the source of most of the mon­ey used to acquire them is unknown. But in sev­er­al cas­es, the com­pa­nies acquired by Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tions had first received fund­ing from the Kazakhstani gov­ern­ment, essen­tial­ly mean­ing that pub­lic funds had dis­ap­peared into pri­vate hands.

Among them is The St. Regis Astana, a hotel in the cen­ter of Nur-Sultan that opened in September 2017. Operating under a lux­u­ry brand owned by Marriott International, it adver­tis­es itself as “the most pres­ti­gious address in the cap­i­tal city.”

After the hotel opened in September 2017, Nazarbayev was invit­ed on a tour.

The St. Regis is owned by a Kazakh com­pa­ny called Turion Investment Group, which built the $189-mil­lion hotel with the help of an $85-mil­lion loan from the Development Bank of Kazakhstan. Loans from this state-owned bank — which is meant to pro­mote eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment out­side of the country’s nat­ur­al resource sec­tor — have at times gone to regime insid­ers, a prob­lem President Tokayev has acknowl­edged. On January 11, 2022, he con­ced­ed that it had “turned into the per­son­al bank of a select group of peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing finan­cial, indus­tri­al, and con­struc­tion groups.”

In fact, one of Turion Investment Group’s share­hold­ers was Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of Nazarbayev and one of the wealth­i­est busi­ness­men in Kazakhstan. Less than a year after the hotel opened, Kulibayev’s share (the size of which is unknown) was trans­ferred to Nazarbayev’s Demeu Foundation. For unknown rea­sons, it then went back to Kulibayev and his wife, and Nazarbayev’s daugh­ter Dinara, in December 2021.

In Turkey, anoth­er five-star hotel owned by a Nazarbayev foun­da­tion received even more direct state support.

In the ear­ly 2000s, Nazarbayev’s Presidential Affairs Department The Presidential Affairs Department is a state agency that works to sup­port the day-to-day activ­i­ties of the Kazakh pres­i­dent, his fam­i­ly, and oth­er top officials.joined two pri­vate Kazakh com­pa­nies to devel­op a hotel on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, where he report­ed­ly often vacations.

The Rixos Beldibi, which opened in 2004 out­side the resort city of Antalya, was built on land that the Turkish gov­ern­ment grant­ed Kazakhstan for tourism development.

The Rixos Beldibi hotel.

One of the pri­vate com­pa­nies that took part in the deal was owned by the “Kazakh trio,” the same three busi­ness­men who donat­ed to Nazarbayev’s uni­ver­si­ty fund (and had report­ed­ly invest­ed in the con­tro­ver­sial Trump SoHo project). As of 2010, the first year that data is avail­able, the remain­ing major­i­ty stake of 55 per­cent was held by the Kazakhstani government.

But by 2013, just 30 per­cent remained with the state and a con­trol­ling stake of 69 per­cent had been trans­ferred to the Foundation of the First President. After a reor­ga­ni­za­tion, the con­trol­ling share was trans­ferred to the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation.

Other major assets owned by Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tions include anoth­er hotel, a golf course, a bal­let the­ater, and sev­er­al media out­lets. One of these, an online pub­li­ca­tion called Caravan, fre­quent­ly cov­ers the char­i­ta­ble activ­i­ties of the foundations.

In one case, reporters found, a land­scap­ing busi­ness owned by two of Nazarbayev’s foun­da­tions between 2012 and 2018 received $6.5 mil­lion in state con­tracts dur­ing his time in office.

A Pensioner Reemerges

Nazarbayev appears to be lay­ing low in the wake of the wide­spread protests, vio­lence, and for­eign inter­ven­tion that have shak­en Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, President Tokayev appears to be con­sol­i­dat­ing power.

While arrest­ing thou­sands of peo­ple, Tokayev has also made crit­i­cisms of Nazarbayev’s stew­ard­ship of the coun­try that would have been unimag­in­able just a few months ago, com­plain­ing of a pow­er­ful clique of oli­garchs whose stran­gle­hold on Kazakhstan’s econ­o­my had led to seri­ous inequalities.

It’s unclear, how­ev­er, what will hap­pen to the bil­lions of dol­lars in assets that are still under con­trol of Nazarbayev’s foundations.

Meanwhile, Nazarbayev reap­peared on January 18, giv­ing a speech in which he denied any con­flict with­in the Kazakhstani elites, endorsed Tokayev’s author­i­ty and planned reforms, and described him­self as a “pen­sion­er” tak­ing a well-deserved rest.

He made no men­tion of his char­i­ta­ble work.

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