Ex-Stepson Talks in Family Feud The Long Arm of Kazakhstan's President
In a new book, the exiled former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev makes serious allegations that could further damage the country's reputation. The family feud -- which has links from Kazakhstan to Europe and Washington -- is a manifestation of the global resource grab in the Caspian Sea region.
Rakhat Aliyev doesn't tell his story until the schnitzel has been eaten and the silverware cleared away. Kazakhstan's self-proclaimed "Public Enemy No. 1" extracts files from bulging suitcases, which he identifies as documents he took with him when he went to Vienna, where he lives in self-imposed exile. Bodyguards are posted at the door to the Maria Theresia Suite at Vienna's five-star Hotel Sacher, where Aliyev has booked a silent spot for the meeting.
The first file, with the Soviet star embossed onto its blue leather binding, is apparently the KGB file of Kazakhstan's current prime minister, Karim Massimov. A photo in the file depicts a young, serious-looking man who, in 1982, sent a letter of application to the Soviet intelligence service. The KGB apparently took him up on his offer, and from then on he worked as an informer against his own people, under the code names "Nurbanu" and "Stager." The Kazakh public is currently unaware of its prime minister's unsavory past.
The next bag contains stacks of blank ballots from the 1999 presidential election, but without serial numbers. The ballots, says Aliyev, were distributed nationwide and falsified for the benefit of the man in power. Nursultan Nazarbayev -- chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan beginning in 1984 and, since 1991, the unchallenged president of the country -- won the 1999 election with 81 percent of the votes.
Between rococo mirrors and oil paintings of Austrian Empress Maria Theresia, Aliyev opens one case of incriminating documents after the next. They include copies of checks drawn on Liechtenstein banks, for amounts numbering in the millions, wiretapped conversations, telegrams from the CIA and a list of all intelligence employees working in Kazakhstan's embassies in Western Europe.
Forty-six-year-old Aliyev knows what he's talking about. Dressed casually in jeans and a sports jacket, he has worked as Kazakhstan's deputy intelligence chief, deputy foreign minister and as a private businessman -- until, in 2007, he announced his intention to run against Nazarbayev. The president, who was in the process of having the constitution amended so that he could be appointed president for life, was outraged over this act of insubordination within his own family. Aliyev was still married to Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga at the time.
Shortly thereafter, the divorce proceedings were pushed through Kazakh courts. Aliyev was dismissed from his post as ambassador to Austria and sentenced in absentia to two 20-year prison terms on charges of kidnapping, treason and attempting to overthrow the government.
Aliyev denies all charges. Austrian authorities refuse to extradite him to Kazakhstan, arguing that he could not be given a fair trial in the country. Aliyev has lived in hiding since 2007, hunted by Kazakh agents and watched by Austrian security forces. He spends his nights in various locations, and there are never fewer than two muscular bodyguards at his side. In January, police discovered a severed brake hose in one of his vehicles, which had been involved in a crash.
Now, though, this real-life espionage thriller has reached its preliminary climax. Last week, Berlin's trafo literary publishing house, which was founded in the early 1990s and focuses on problems in Eastern European countries, published Aliyev's long-awaited, tell-all book about the machinations of autocratic ruler Nazarbayev. The manuscript for "The Godfather-in-Law," treated like a state secret until recently, has already caused a stir among the powerful in the Kazakh capital Astana. The book has been published in German and Russian and no English translation is available yet.
In his 540-page book, Aliyev settles scores with the "the system of his godfather-in-law" Nazarbayev -- one that involves the systematic plundering of one of the world's most resource-rich nations, personal enrichment in the billions and senior Western politicians and PR agents trying to shield the ruler of Astana from international condemnation.
Aliyev's book, as an eyewitness account of the innermost details of a Central Asian natural resource oligarch's life, is a rarity -- provided his claims prove to be true. Aliyev was part of a system from which he continues to benefit today. "It would be difficult," he says, without so much as blushing at Vienna's Hotel Sacher, "for me to spend all my money."
Kazakhstan, with its rich natural resources, has much to offer its ruling class. Its steppes -- stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border in a country the size of Western Europe but home to only 15 million people -- conceal rich deposits of oil, natural gas, gold and uranium. The Aliyev case also creates a conflict of interest for the Austrian government. OMV, an Austrian oil and gas company, buys petroleum from Kazakhstan and is spearheading the consortium to construct the planned Nabucco natural gas pipeline. Good relations with President Nazarbayev are essential.
In the Aliyev case, Vienna has now become a secondary battleground in the struggle for political power and assets worth billions in Central Asia. An Austrian official was convicted in January and two others arrested on suspicion of accepting payments from Kazakh agents in return for information about Aliyev. Aliyev himself hopes to gain Austrian citizenship and is seeking to curry favor with the government, especially Interior Minister Maria Fekter. The conservative politician, nicknamed "Gravel Mitzi," a reference to her family's gravel pit, has ordered agents with the country's "Cobra" special forces unit and domestic intelligence to keep a close watch over Aliyev, thereby guaranteeing his safety.
Aliyev was advised against attending a press conference to unveil his book. The reputation of a country is at stake. Only a few kilometers from the Hotel Sacher, at the headquarters of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Kazakh officials are preparing for the important tasks they face next year when, on Jan. 1, 2010, their country assumes the 12-month chairmanship of the organization. It is a desperately needed triumph for the Nazarbayev regime, especially after the United States Department of State sharply condemned what it called "arbitrary arrest and detention" in Kazakhstan.
As head of Kazakhstan's permanent representation to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov will face the pinnacle of his career at the beginning of 2010. This is remarkable, says Aliyev, as he quickly reaches into a suitcase and pulls out a brown, Soviet-era notebook. The notebook, he explains, describes events surrounding KGB agent Abdrakhmanov, code name "Danko," including a statement of commitment dated Oct. 30, 1986. In the statement, the applicant pledges to pursue the righteous struggle against the "enemies of the Soviet nation."
According to Aliyev's information, Kazakhstan's prime minister, foreign minister and OSCE ambassador are all veterans of intelligence agencies, leading one to wonder whether the OSCE member states had any inkling of the kinds of people they would be asking to uphold the spirit of security and cooperation in Europe for an entire year.
"(Former German Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder was Kazakhstan's most determined advocate," says Aliyev. "The United States was more or less against the idea, but the chancellor apparently wanted to come off as the great facilitator in Central Asia." German interests in Kazakhstan are also likely to have played a role. To date, more than 500 German firms, most notably energy utility RWE, steelmaker Thyssen-Krupp and electronics giant Siemens, have invested about 4 billion ($5.4 billion) in the country.
- Part 1: The Long Arm of Kazakhstan's President
- Part 2: Tapping Kazakhstan's Natural Resources