The global financial crisis has already caused the downfall of any number of successful and influential bankers. But the dismissal of Mukhtar Abliyazov, until recently chairman of Bank Turan-Alem (BTA), Kazakhstan's largest privately owned bank, is unique in that it raises the possibility of a new round of political infighting within the upper echelons of the country's leadership.
Born in May 1963, Abliyazov was one of a handful of bright young Kazakhs whom President Nursultan Nazarbaev promoted to senior positions in the mid- to late 1990s. In 1997, Abliyazov was appointed head of the national power grid KEGOC, and the following year he was named minister for energy, industry, and trade.
But in the fall of 2001, together with Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, governor of Pavlodar Oblast, Abliyazov formed an opposition party, Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK), that quickly built up a sizeable membership. As outlined by Abliyazov in a statement he released on June 28, 2002, the party's aims "were not that radical: we only demanded the removal from power of members of President Nazarbaev's family and the introduction of elections for the post of provincial governor." DVK also campaigned for greater freedom of the media.
Retribution came within months. In late March 2002, Abliyazov was arrested on charges of abuse of power and embezzling some 557.7 million tenges ($3.7 million) as KEGOC head. He and other oppositionists claimed those charges were politically motivated. After a one-month trial, Abliyazov was sentenced in late June 2002 to six years' imprisonment and fined 500 million tenges.
In April 2003, Abliyazov petitioned Nazarbaev for a presidential pardon, and was duly released from jail on May 14, two days before his 40th birthday. He publicly vowed not to engage in politics. Instead, he went into business and was elected chairman of BTA in May 2005.
In September 2007, the Europe Business Assembly named BTA the "Best Enterprise of Europe" in the Eurasian banking sector, and Abliyazov personally as top manager. But BTA was badly hit by the global economic crisis, and in early February the Kazakh government's sovereign wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, stepped in, sacking Abliyazov and his deputy, Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov and purchasing a 78.14 percent stake in BTA for $2.06 billion, the "Financial Times" reported on February 3.
Loyalty Not Enough
In an extensive interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on February 19, by which time he had left Kazakhstan, Abliyazov discussed at length the political background to the government takeover of BTA. He charged that the move was part of a broader, illegal "recarving-up of economic spheres of influence."
But he declined to comment on who specifically might be behind that redistribution of assets, other than to point out that primary responsibility for the economy is shared by Prime Minister Karim Masimov, National Bank Chairman Grigory Marchenko, and State Financial Agency Supervision head Elena Bakhmutova.
Masimov told journalists on February 2 that Abliyazov had been dismissed for acting in a manner detrimental to the interests of depositors and creditors, and in violation of the law. Abliyazov responded by accusing the government of "raiding" the private sector in an attempt to "confiscate all businesses that they did not build up themselves." He said that approach betrayed the government's "economic incompetence and political shortsightedness."
Abliyazov said that he has no doubt that a criminal case has been prepared against him. "All these lies are aimed at creating the moral justification for [affirming] that he [meaning Abliyazov] is a criminal," he told RFE/RL. "And the entire law enforcement system starts working to substantiate those claims."
In a situation where influential financial groups have total control of the media, Abliyazov continued, he considers it "pointless" to comment further. He did, however, indirectly reject media speculation that the real reason for Nazarbaev's displeasure was that he had gone back on his pledge of 2003 to retire completely from politics and was quietly channeling funds to the Kazakh opposition.
Abliyazov went on to suggest that Nazarbaev, with whom he had an hour-long discussion in late January about the economic situation as a whole, including a possible devaluation of the tenge, was being provided with false information by members of his entourage.
"I think they are simply deliberately deceiving the head of state, misinforming him, misrepresenting the situation not only with regard to the bank but within the economy, the financial sector as a whole," Abliyazov said. "The government kept trying to reassure [people] that everything was fine even after the problems became clear. Now, unfortunately, they are trying to mislead the president, too. I think they try to mislead him about everything, and that is the main problem."
Abliyazov rejected as unlikely the suggestion that in order to make a successful career in business in Kazakhstan, it is imperative to declare publicly not simply one's loyalty to the president, but that you are "a product of the president," or even "a soldier of the president."
"I think the example with our bank demonstrates that loyalty in this context counts for nothing," he said. "I don't know what more is necessary. Possibly the size of your business. It's difficult to say what else you need to say to acquire the chance to engage in big business in this country. You should probably ask those who have succeeded in doing so."