How Kazakhstan’s ‘leader of the nation’ controls vast assets through charitable foundations


These results illustrate the flagrant corruption and inequality that has plagued Kazakhstan since it took over from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. profiting 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.

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

The popular protests were accompanied by an apparent power struggle 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 an end. What will happen to his billions is still unclear.

A spokesperson 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 he held, which were dedicated to securing funding for the educational institutions that bear his name.

Thirty years of Nazarbayev

Born into a peasant family, Nazarbayev joined the Soviet Communist Party in his early twenties and steadily rose through the ranks. In the middle of his career, he was at the top of the party structure in Soviet Kazakhstan, holding posts such as Prime Minister and First Secretary of the local Party branch. When the position of president was created in 1990, he was chosen to fill it. Nazarbayev was overwhelmingly re-elected after the country gained independence the following year, paving the way for decades of one-man rule.

During this period, Kazakhstan’s constitution was amended several times to expand Nazarbayev’s presidential powers and allow him – and only him – to stand for election as many times as he wished. His Nur Otan party emerged as the dominant force in an approval parliament. Even as his regime repeatedly cracked down on free speech and political opposition, he allowed a circle of businessmen close to him to amass huge fortunes and influence after a wave of privatizations.

He obtained full immunity from control or prosecution, which extends to all entities founded by him. And in 2010, Nazarbayev also got a new title – “Leader of the Nation”.

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

One of them, the Foundation of the first President of the Republic of KazakhstanElbasy , 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 disbanded in 2021.)

Nazarbayev founded two other private foundations, the Nazarbayev Foundation and the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundationin 2009 and 2010. He founded two others, abode (“Support”) and Elbasy (“Leader of the Nation”), in 2013 and 2021.

The similar names of the foundations and the way their activities are reported make them difficult to tell apart. Some do not have websites, and existing ones can be misleading: for example, a website for the First President’s Foundation once redirected visitors to the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation site, which incorrectly lists the year of foundation of the former foundation as his own. .

The Demeu and Elbasy foundations do not appear to carry out public activities. But the others have touted their educational, social and patriotic projects, which are frequently reported in glowing terms in the largely docile Kazakh media.

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

But there was more to this arrangement than meets the eye.

An endowment – and a business empire?

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

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

Along with 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 approximately $5 billion between 2010 and 2021. This is a disproportionate amount of Kazakhstan’s education budget, especially since the university and the schools enroll only a small proportion of the country’s students.

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

The Nazarbayev Foundation has no website, publishes no reports, and has not publicly disclosed how much money it has received from outside donors or from Nazarbayev himself.

Contacted by reporters, its board chairman Aslan Sarinzhipov provided an official document which revealed that in 2019 he received $1 billion from undisclosed donors and made $200 million in revenue from placement.

Sarinzhipov wrote in an email that in the decade since its inception, the Nazarbayev Foundation has donated $46.5 million to fund research activities, laboratory equipment, student support and research. other educational expenses. (This is equivalent to about 1% of the public funding the university and schools received during the same period.)

Although it was established in 2009, company 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 the university had created an investment fund called Pioneer Capital Invest and used it to acquire a Kazakh bank called ExpoCredit for $30 million.

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

These stakes would later change, with the Nazarbayev Foundation’s share decreasing to 62% by July 2021.

With its new top backer, Pioneer Capital embarked on a shopping spree by acquiring a major Kazakh lender called Tsesnabank. The latter had belonged to the family of Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, former head of the presidential administration of Nazarbayev, but had to be rescued by the government after being mismanaged.

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

Photo: James O’Brien

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