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Glamorous Oil Tycoon Makes Waves Back Home For Kazakh First Family

  • Farangis Najibullah

Goga Ashkenazi was previously little-known in her native Kazakhstan, where the state tightly controls the media.

Goga Ashkenazi was previously little-known in her native Kazakhstan, where the state tightly controls the media.

Goga Ashkenazi has experienced a meteoric rise, from small-town Kazakh girl to prominent fixture of British high society.

She was born Gaukhar Berkalieva, the youngest daughter of an irrigation engineer in Taraz, located in southern Kazakhstan's remote Zhambyl region.

Today the tall, striking 31-year-old Ashkenazi boasts an Oxford education, resides in a mansion in London's prestigious Holland Park, and oversees a business empire that spans several countries.

Her success has made her a media star in Britain and Russia, but Ashkenazi 's success and close relations with the Kazakh president's inner circle are also seized upon by his detractors.

Despite the attention paid to her abroad, she was little-known in Kazakhstan, where the state tightly controls the media. But that began to change this year, when foreign broadcasters began focusing on Ashkenazi and her relationship with a billionaire presidential son-in-law.

Princess And Others

On July 6, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's 71st birthday, the private, Bishkek-based K+ television station aired the first part of a documentary on Ashkenazi.

The documentary, "Princess and the Poor," explores her intimate ties to Timur Kulibaev, who has been married for more than 20 years to President Nazarbaev's daughter, Dinara, with whom he has three children.

More recently, the head of Samruk-Kazyna -- a state holding company that controls major sectors of the Kazakh economy, including energy, transport, and gold and uranium -- has fathered a child with Ashkenazi.

"Princess and the Poor" draws clear contrasts between Ashkenazi's high-flying existence and the plight of ordinary Kazakhs, including oil-sector workers struggling to make ends meet.

Earlier this year, Russia's NTV followed Ashkenazi on winter holiday to an affluent Swiss ski resort, and at work in Dubai.

In the NTV interview, Ashkenazi's complained about the "bad image" media in Russian-speaking countries have imposed on her.

Ashkenazi did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for an interview for this story. But she has made no secret of the that fact that she was once Kulibaev's longtime mistress, or that he is the father of her young son, Adam, born in December 2007.

Unknown Back Home

According to British media reports, Ashkenazi and Kulibaev first met in 2005, when she was married to Californian hotel heir Stefan Ashkenazi. Kulibaev stayed married to Dinara, while Ashkenazi's marriage soon ended in divorce.

But the whole affair has largely been kept out of the public eye in Kazakhstan, where the father-of-three Kulibaev enjoys a reputation as a family man.

"Pro-government media and official Astana remain silent about Ashkenazi because it's a touchy issue that would lead to many uncomfortable questions about her access to the oil sector and powerful oil kings, namely Timur Kulibaev," said Bulat Abilov, a Kazakh businessman and opposition politician.

"Knowing her unofficial relationship with Timur Kulibaev, pro-government media and other private publications in Kazakhstan practically do not write about Ashkenazi," Abilov said. "The media are both prohibited and afraid to touch this subject, because it's a very sensitive topic."

Not Exactly 'Rags To Riches'

Ashkenazi was sent to a private boarding school in England at the age of 13, and went on to study modern history and economics at Oxford University. Praised by former classmates for her sharp intelligence, Ashkenazi made her first useful contacts during her Oxford years.

By the time the nouveau riche from oil-rich Kazakhstan began purchasing properties in Britain, she was well entrenched as a rising businesswoman.

Today she moves in the circles of the creme de la creme of Britain's high society -- including European royals as well as a string of international oligarchs and Hollywood stars -- but she makes much of her money in Kazakhstan.

She is founder and CEO of the private Kazakh oil and gas company MunaiGaz Engineering Group, and is director of the MMG Global Consulting Group, which deals with investment in Kazakhstan. In a recent interview, she said her next target for conquest is the Kazakh gold-mining industry.

Although her romance with Kulibaev -- considered by some observers to be a potential Nazarbaev successor -- has ended, she admits that he continues to help her in business ventures. And while her personal relations with Kulibaev might get the headlines, it is her unique access to Kazakhstan's lucrative oil sector that gets Kazakhs whispering.

"In Kazakhstan, there is a double-standard with the moral side of such issues," said Aidos Sarym, an Almaty-based expert on social and political issues. "Many people know about extramarital affairs, mistresses, and illegitimate children of businessmen and politicians, but it doesn't take a heavy toll on their reputation. We don't yet have such a culture where politicians' or businessmen's careers depend on such matters."

But "what really annoys people," Sarym added without naming names, "is the real fact that the wealth of the nation is being stolen."

Another Family Scandal

The reputation of Kazakhstan's first family has already suffered a scandal due to Nazarbaev's estranged former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev.

Aliev was married to the president's eldest daughter, Darigha. Aliev reportedly fell out of presidential favor when serious doubts were cast over his loyalty to Nazarbaev . Now, he is wanted in Kazakhstan on serious charges, including murder and kidnapping.

At a time when Kazakh lawmakers are coming under fire for their dalliances with polygamy, might the president take corrective action as the infidelity of another of his sons-in-law attracts attention?

Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition party Algha, predicts this as "unlikely," and in fact "high moral and ethical standards" might actually "become a problem for him."

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