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Kazakhstan Puts Fugitive Banker On Wanted List

Roman Solodchenko

Roman Solodchenko

ALMATY (Reuters) -- Kazakhstan's authorities have accused a senior banker of money laundering and theft after he criticized the government for nationalizing his bank and fled the Central Asian country.

The deepening financial crisis, which has led to a string of high-profile nationalizations in the Kazakh banking sector, has exposed tensions among Kazakhstan's ruling elite as the oil-rich Caspian nation faces its worst economic recession in a decade.

Roman Solodchenko, who was deputy head of the biggest Kazakh bank BTA, fled Kazakhstan with his family last week and accused the government of "destroying" BTA by taking it over last month.

The Prosecutor-General's office said it had put Solodchenko, 43, on its wanted list on suspicion of theft and money laundering as part of a broader probe into BTA activities.

"On March 21, due to his participation in theft being established...Solodchenko has also been declared wanted," the Prosecutor-General's office said in a statement.

Solodchenko could not be reached for comment. He has told local media he feared being turned into a scapegoat by the government as BTA, with total assets of $31 billion, struggles to survive the crisis.

The financial crisis has crippled Kazakhstan's once-booming economy. Growing public unease with the government's handling of the crisis has created fresh challenges to the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in power since 1989.

By fleeing Kazakhstan, Solodchenko joined a handful of Kazakh politicians and industry players, who have fallen out with the government and moved to Europe.

Former BTA chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov left Kazakhstan this year and is also wanted as part of the same probe. He has described accusations against him as politically motivated.

The government invested about $2 billion in BTA as part of its takeover, saying the bank would have otherwise collapsed.

The government says BTA might have to restructure some of its $12 billion foreign debt, raising concern about the broader health of Kazakhstan's once buoyant banking sector.

As the crisis takes its toll on the economy, officials expect gross domestic product to grow one percent this year after the economy expanded at an average rate of about 10 percent in 2000-2007.