Bulat Abilov and a group of other dissidents from Kazakhstan are spearheading a lobbying campaign across Europe in an attempt to seize control of the Central Asian country’s vast and

lucrative assets, according to a new report. According to the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), Abilov and the other exiled politicians are waging a lobbying and public relations campaign in the UK and EU and have courted a string of influential western politicians.

But questions are now being raised about the chequered past of these campaigners amid growing evidence of corruption.

Bulat Abilov, for example, is a former politician in the Nur Otan party of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The one-time oligarch grew rich in the 1990s thanks to his close relationship with the ex-president.

Another member of the lobbying group is Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former prime minister of Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev. Kazhegeldin was accused by the US Department of Justice of receiving bribes worth at least $6 million while running Kazakhstan in the 1990s.

Their new lobbying campaign began in December when Abilov flew to London, where he held meetings with leading British anti-kleptocracy experts and politicians as part of lobbying efforts to impose sanctions on Kazakh oligarchs.

According to social media posts, Abilov also met veteran anti-corruption campaigner Margaret Hodge MP to discuss his campaign group, the Foundation for Asset Recovery (Elge Qaitaru), which was established last year in the wake of deadly riots that swept the country.

According to the FPC, Bulat Abilov and the Elge Qaitaru Foundation may now be working on an informal basis with the incumbent president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The FPC said: “During his inauguration speech on 26 November [2022], Tokayev explicitly prioritised, ‘returning all the assets illegally withdrawn from the country’. He stated that ‘the Government will prepare a draft law, which will regulate the necessary procedures to return the funds illegally transferred abroad’… As Abilov is an insider, apparently in favour with Tokayev, this suggests that there is real intent in Tokayev’s speech.”

Yet there are growing questions over Abilov’s credibility, which could damage President Tokayev’s own reputation if it emerges that the businessman is working for him.

Besides Abilov’s close links to ex-president Nazarbayev, critics have also accused the businessman of using similar shady money-making tactics as other infamous oligarchs such as former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, ordinary Kazakhs were given privatisation vouchers which represented shares in previously state-owned companies.

Abilov convinced thousands of ordinary Kazakhs to invest millions of dollars’ worth of vouchers into Butya Capital, his investment fund set up in 1991. But rather than pay out dividends, Abilov reportedly kept the money himself, according to the allegations.

Meanwhile, Akezhan Kazhegeldin has turned his attention to the EU with the hope of securing sweeping sanctions against Nazarbayev’s allies and the ex-leader's family.

In an interview, Kazhegeldin announced plans to file sanction requests and supporting evidence with the EU’s European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which handles fraud, corruption and money laundering crimes.

According to the FPC: “Since the inauguration, the Kazakhstani Initiative on Asset Recovery (KIAR) of former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin has begun to partner with a more recent initiative is the Elge Qaitaru Fund, founded by Orazaly Yerzhanov and Bulat Abilov.”

It added: “Abilov, Yerzhanov and Kazhegeldin may have an informal mandate from the president to aid the asset recovery process by providing credible documentation of illegal sources of wealth to overseas authorities.

“Given the centrality of the UK to the development of kleptocracy in Kazakhstan, it is not unsurprising that the first trip by Abilov, Yerzhanov and Kazhegeldin was to the UK.”

But Kazhegeldin has also faced corruption allegations. During the Soviet era, Kazhegeldin was a spy for the KGB in Moscow where he was entrusted with some of the most important secretive tasks. After Kazakhstan became independent, Kazhegeldin moved into politics in Kazakhstan and faced a slew of corruption allegations.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) concluded that as prime minister, Kazhegeldin was handed “unlawful payments” of $6 million as part of the massive bribery scandal known as Kazakhgate.

Alongside another high-ranking Kazakh official, Kazhegeldin was identified as a key politician alleged to have taken bribes from American middleman James Giffen, who was negotiating corrupt oil deals in Kazakhstan.

After escaping Kazakhstan, Kazhegeldin was convicted of abuse of office after prosecutors identified examples of the ex-prime minister allegedly receiving bribes to sell public assets at vastly reduced prices. The Kazakh Supreme Court sentenced Kazhegeldin to 10 years in prison.

Kazhegeldin now lives in exile in London. For years he lived in a luxurious £3.75 million townhouse in the affluent area of Belgravia. Photo. by Ninaras, Wikimedia commons.

George Bailey,
Investigative Journalist