Rakhat Aliev, the exiled former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, seems to have found safe haven from the long arm of Kazakhstan's law. But that might not be the case for some of his powerful former associates, two of whom have reportedly been questioned by Kazakh authorities in recent days.
At the same time, another former colleague of Aliev's has claimed that an attempt was made to kidnap him in Vienna, a charge that Austrian authorities are investigating.
Alnur Musaev, who served as head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) from the late 1990s until 2001, with Aliev as his deputy, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that on September 22, a group of armed men attempted to abduct him and his translator -- the second such attempt against him in recent months.
Musaev said he and his translator were attacked by "four men armed with pistols, who tried to neutralize us physically so they could either kill us inside the car or take us somewhere -- I'm not sure. It is being investigated right now."
Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia declined to confirm the identity of a Kazakh national who was involved in an incident in Vienna on September 22, but he did indicate that a person of special status had been injured. "There had been an injury of somebody from Kazakhstan...on Monday," he told RFE/RL's Kazakhs Service, but added, "We don't tell you about special persons -- it's not allowed."
Former security chief Alnur Musaev claims he was attacked in Vienna
Both Aliev and Musaev have been tried and convicted in absentia of corruption, and Kazakhstan has sought, so far unsuccessfully, to have the men extradited to serve their terms. Since seeking refuge in Austria last year, the two men have publicly criticized Kazakhstan's government and made allegations of rife corruption. Other Associates Under Fire
In Kazakhstan, other former elites reportedly found themselves being questioned and even facing charges, including another former head of Kazakhstan's KNB, Nartai Dutbaev, and Serik Burkitbaev, a former head of oil and gas giant KazMunaiGaz.
Both men are seen to have links to Aliev, a physician by training whose fortunes took a drastic turn for the better when he married President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha. His stock continued to soar after Kazakhstan became independent, and he went on to serve in a number of top government posts, including deputy KNB chief.
Aliev left that position just before Dutbaev arrived to take over the KNB, which he led from 2001-06. Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on September 23 that Dutbaev was being questioned and had been placed under house arrest, fueling speculation about possible ties to the Aliev case. The circumstances of Dutbaev's questioning are vague, and the KNB subsequently denied reports that he was under house arrest. The mystery widened with reports that Dutbaev had been appointed deputy head of KazAtomProm on September 25.
This followed a September 9 report by the Kazakh Internet news site Liter that former KazMunaiGaz chief Burkitbaev was being questioned for his ties with Aliev.
There were also reports that within 24 hours of Dutbaev's reported questioning, other businessmen and opposition figures had been arrested.
KNB spokesman Mukhtar Anarbekov declined to discuss Dutbaev, and denied that the others were being investigated for involvement with the president's former son-in-law. "All individuals currently under investigation by the KNB at this moment are being brought to trial for deeds they have committed, deeds committed by them personally," he said.
Burkitbaev headed KazMunaiGaz for just three months, allegedly falling out of favor due to his connections with business associates of the former presidential son-in-law, who retained shares in a key Kazakh gas company the government wished to acquire. Burkitbaev succeeded in buying back the shares in Mangistaumunaigaz, but was replaced shortly afterward.
The Kazakh newspaper "Vremya" reported earlier this month that Burkitbaev faces charges of embezzlement. Internet site Liter has reported that the accusations are based on the former KazMunaiGaz chief's possible role in a series of recorded phone conversations that purportedly took place between high-ranking government officials. The calls, portions of which have been released on websites critical of the Kazakh government, appear to involve both current and former officials discussing activities that were at least unethical, and possibly criminal.
Aliev is widely suspected to be behind the leak of the conversations. Burkitbaev's name has entered the fray due to his former position as head of Kazakhtelekom in the mid-1990s -- leading to speculation that he may have possessed the knowledge and ability to help tap phones and record the conversations.Mutual Accusations
Aliev spoke with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on September 23 and dismissed such accusations against Burkitbaev. "You cannot even take this seriously. [The charges] are coming from the National Security Committee," Aliev said.
Aliev said the only people capable of doing the things Burkitbaev is accused of are working for the KNB itself. "Tapping telephones, eavesdropping on e-mail, and control over the Internet are the responsibility of the National Security Committee," Aliev said. "An organization like Kazakhtelekom doesn't have the know-how to tap phones and take information from mobile phones and landlines. This is all done exclusively by the special information service of the National Security Committee."
Aliev has a reputation as a ruthless businessman who used his family connections and state positions to acquire vast holdings within oil-rich Kazakhstan. He was also seen as having an eye on the country's top post, something that was unlikely to escape the notice of his powerful father-in-law.
Aliev was convicted in absentia on numerous charges ranging from illegal business activities to plotting to overthrow the government.
Aliev had taken a post as ambassador to Austria when the first round of criminal charges were made against him in May 2007. Just days later, a court in Kazakhstan granted his wife Darigha a divorce.
Presumably no longer enjoying the protection offered by being a family member the president, Aliev chose to stay in Austria. The Austrian authorities later declined to extradite him, saying he was unlikely to receive a fair trial back in Kazakhstan.
One thing that is certain is that the Aliev affair comes at a bad time for the Kazakh government, which has been working feverishly to improve the country's poor image regarding its respect for basic rights and anticorruption efforts as it prepares to take over the OSCE rotating chairmanship in 2010.
The Kazakh foreign minister, currently visiting the United States, is slated to meet next week with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Edige Magauin and Erzhan Karabek of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report