The UK must use sanctions to help Kazakhstan’s people

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s ‘shoot to kill’ order dur­ing the recent unrest in Kazakhstan and numer­ous press reports expos­ing the cor­rup­tion of the country’s rul­ing elite pro­vides an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty for the UK gov­ern­ment to use its new sanc­tions regime on individuals.

January’s civ­il unrest in Kazakhstan – result­ing in at least 225 deaths – is a tragedy inflict­ed on the Kazakhstani peo­ple by a repres­sive klep­to­crat­ic regime. The UK gov­ern­ment should react to this bru­tal­i­ty and cor­rup­tion by tak­ing a stand about the impor­tance of human rights and the rule of law.

One of the main tools at the UK government’s dis­pos­al is the use of sanc­tions against indi­vid­u­als. Two types of sanc­tions could be deployed – Global Human Rights Sanctions, intro­duced in 2020, and Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions, intro­duced in 2021.

The cen­tral­iza­tion of wealth in the hands of a few peo­ple by con­trol­ling the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er and resources is a per­fect exam­ple of where the Global Anti-Corruption sanc­tions could be used

Both are mod­elled on the Global Magnitksy Act in the US, which itself is an exten­sion of the Magnitsky Act intro­duced in December 2012 as a way of pun­ish­ing Russian offi­cials respon­si­ble for the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison.

No evidence of ‘foreign terrorists’

The human rights sanc­tions tar­get indi­vid­u­als who are, or have been, involved in seri­ous human rights abus­es – mur­der, tor­ture, extra-judi­cial killing, or sim­i­lar. There is a strong argu­ment that Tokayev should be sanc­tioned for issu­ing an order to ‘shoot to kill with­out warn­ing’ those involved in the unrest, as no evi­dence has yet been pro­vid­ed for his claim the unrest was the result of ‘for­eign terrorists’.

There is some evi­dence to sug­gest armed groups took advan­tage of the pop­u­lar upris­ing, and rumours abound that mem­bers of the fam­i­ly of for­mer pres­i­dent Nursultan Nazarbayev were involved. If this is found to be the case, those indi­vid­u­als should also be added to the UK sanc­tions list so they are not able to enter the UK and can have their assets frozen once identified.

While pin­point­ing those respon­si­ble for the vio­lence may be dif­fi­cult, it is eas­i­er to prove the extent to which Kazakhstan’s rul­ing elite already ben­e­fit from ram­pant cor­rup­tion. Forbes’ list of the 50 rich­est Kazakhstanis fea­tures many mem­bers of the Nazarbayev fam­i­ly as well as sev­er­al of his advi­sors and asso­ciates. These fam­i­lies dom­i­nate a busi­ness sec­tor where there is no divid­ing line between state assets and pri­vate­ly held ones – accord­ing to KPMG, just 162 indi­vid­u­als own around 55 per cent of the wealth in Kazakhstan.

The cen­tral­iza­tion of wealth in the hands of a few peo­ple by con­trol­ling the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er and resources is a per­fect exam­ple of where the Global Anti-Corruption sanc­tions could be used, as they tar­get seri­ous cor­rup­tion in the form of either bribery or mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of property.

Once issued, a sanc­tioned indi­vid­ual is no longer be able to enjoy the spoils of cor­rup­tion held in the UK, which enables the coun­ter­ing of mon­ey laun­der­ing and klep­toc­ra­cy on a huge scale, and dis­rupts the sta­tus quo in kleptocracies.

There are grow­ing calls for such mea­sures to be used. In a recent speech to the UK par­lia­ment, Margaret Hodge MP called for the gov­ern­ment to ‘impose sanc­tions on the Kazakh oli­garchs, who have sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly robbed their peo­ple to line their own pock­ets’, nam­ing around 30 mem­bers of Kazakhstan’s elite who could be considered.

Sanctions send shockwaves

Chatham House’s recent report on klep­toc­ra­cy indi­cates Kazakhstan’s elite owns £530 mil­lion of prop­er­ty in the UK, so sanc­tion­ing indi­vid­u­als along with the civ­il recov­ery of these prop­er­ties would send shock­waves to the Nazarbayev fam­i­ly and the rul­ing elite which relies on the UK as a safe haven.

The UK par­lia­ment recent­ly launched a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) – chaired by Sir Iain Duncan-Smith MP and Chris Bryant MP – on the UK’s sanc­tions regime to bring focus to the process of using sanc­tions to tar­get high-pro­file indi­vid­u­als respon­si­ble for human rights abus­es and involve­ment in corruption.

There is a strong argu­ment that Tokayev should be sanc­tioned for issu­ing an order to ‘shoot to kill with­out warn­ing’ those involved in the unrest

At the launch, Bill Browder – who led the cam­paign to intro­duce the Magnitsky Act in the US – explained that the polit­i­cal prag­mat­ics of sanc­tions tar­get indi­vid­u­als and not regimes. This allows gov­ern­ments to con­tin­ue to do busi­ness with repres­sive klep­toc­ra­cies, but also sends a mes­sage that abuse and cor­rup­tion will not be tolerated.

In 2020 the UK indi­vid­u­al­ly sanc­tioned mem­bers of the Belarus gov­ern­ment, includ­ing its pres­i­dent Alexander Lukashenka, in response to that government’s crack­down on pop­u­lar protests dur­ing the 2020 pres­i­den­tial election.

Looking at the avail­able evi­dence, it is easy to make the case that indi­vid­u­als in Kazakhstan should be sanc­tioned for the same rea­son. Belarus and Kazakhstan are sim­i­lar in terms of the lack of polit­i­cal rights and civ­il lib­er­ties, and the Belarus protests did not even lead to the mass killings seen in Kazakhstan.

But where the coun­tries dif­fer is that Belarus has not expe­ri­enced the same amount of cap­i­tal flight into the UK, in large part because it is poor­er – its 2020 GDP was only $60.26 bil­lion com­pared to Kazakhstan’s $169.8 billion.

UK tolerance of kleptocracy

Some may also point to bet­ter polit­i­cal rela­tions between the UK and Kazakhstan com­pared to UK rela­tions with Belarus, and that the lat­ter lacks the oil, gas, and min­ing deposits which have lured UK com­pa­nies to Kazakhstan.

But the UK would not need to impose trade restric­tions on Kazakhstan as it did with Belarus, mere­ly tar­get indi­vid­u­als respon­si­ble for human rights’ abus­es and corruption.

The ques­tion remains how much the UK gov­ern­ment – described as ‘unashamed­ly com­mer­cial’ by its for­eign sec­re­tary Liz Truss in her December 2021 speech at Chatham House – wants to employ sanc­tions even on indi­vid­u­als no longer in pow­er as it tries to secure new trade deals post-Brexit.

The Chatham House research shows there is a strong cul­tur­al tol­er­ance of klep­toc­ra­cy in the UK along with a lack of gov­ern­men­tal atten­tion gen­er­al­ly on Central Asia – and this huge flow of for­eign cap­i­tal also part­ly funds the UK economy.

But the appar­ent­ly wil­ful blind­ness regard­ing the ori­gin of klep­to­crat­ic flows is short-sight­ed because it pos­es a threat to the rule of law and demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions by allow­ing them to be sub­vert­ed by mon­ey. A change in atti­tude char­ac­ter­ized by a will­ing­ness to hold per­pe­tra­tors of cor­rup­tion and abuse to account is the first step, even if those per­pe­tra­tors are so-called allies of the UK.

Targeting the most pow­er­ful sends a mes­sage to oth­ers and could have a cor­rec­tive knock-on effect on those cur­rent­ly in pow­er. And it pun­ish­es those who grew rich at the expense of ordi­nary citizens.

Original arti­cle source: CHATHAM HOUSE

Thomas Mayne, Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Ben Keith, Barrister, 5SAH