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Politics Infuse Kazakh Bank Rescue

A BTA branch in Almaty, one of more than 20 around Kazakhstan.
A BTA branch in Almaty, one of more than 20 around Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan's government this week dismissed the head of that country's largest private bank, BTA, and increased the state's ownership stake in it to more than 78 percent.

Astana says the move is a temporary measure meant to rescue the bank from the current economic crisis, and stops short of nationalization. But because the dismissed bank head, Mukhtar Ablyazov, is a former opposition party leader, the action is also steeped in politics.

The bank action raises a question heard increasingly these days in the former Soviet states, including Russia: Are governments taking over banks for economic or political reasons as they respond to the global economic crisis?

The crisis and the drop in oil prices have hit Kazakhstan. The country's economy has enjoyed growth rates of up to 10 percent over the past years, but slowed last year to 8.5 percent. Growth is certain to fall further as Western economies contract and demand less energy.

At the same time, Kazakhstan has gone through a similar housing market boom-and-bust cycle to the United States and many European countries. The rising cost of building materials and credit have resulted in thousands of people being left without homes for which they have already paid because developers can not complete them.

Now, faced with the prospect of growing social dissatisfaction, governments appear tempted to tighten their grip on both the political and economic levers of power. As the case of BTA suggests, one action can sometimes achieve both goals at once.

Political Backdrop

Ablyazov, the dismissed chairman of the board of directors of BTA, is well-known in Kazakhstan for his cofounding of a movement in 2001 -- the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan -- that was sharply critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The criticism brought Ablyazov a six-year prison sentence in 2002, but he was pardoned after serving less than a year. As a condition of his release in May, 2003, he agreed never again to engage in politics.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, the ousted director of BTA, spent a year in prison in connection with his opposition activities.
Exactly why he was removed from BTA this week is unclear. Removed along with him was the first deputy chairman of the bank, Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced only that the dismissed executives "recognize that their actions do not correspond to the interests of the bank's depositors and creditors and to the requirements of current legislation."

At the same time, the government said it would provide the equivalent of more than $2 billion to BTA through SamrukKazyna, the holding company for all enterprises under state control. The capital injection is in exchange for equity that will increase the government's share holdings in the bank to over 78 percent.

The government said in a statement that the measure "guarantees the stability of the bank and banking system of the Republic of Kazakhstan." It also said the move has a "provisional character" and "is not nationalization."

Ablyazov called the takeover a "government raid" on the private sector at the expense of the bank's shareholders, management, partners, and customers.

'New Redistribution'

The removal of Ablyazov surprised some observers because it came just two weeks after he met with Nazarbaev in a public show of apparent solidarity.

Following that January 20 meeting, Ablyazov said "the general situation in the financial sector of Kazakhstan is stable. The influx of money allocated to the state will have a positive impact on the economic situation in the country."

But there has always been public speculation that Ablyazov continues to support the opposition and opposition press. That speculation is likely to be fueled further by the suddenness of his removal.

Zauresh Battalova, an opposition leader and former lawmaker, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that she sees combined political and economic motives to the takeover.

"We have a crisis in the country and our government is unable to cope with it," Battalova said. "It is busy not with trying to preserve our standard of living but with protecting its own shares and investments. What is happening now is a new redistribution of property in the country."

President Nazarbaev's country has an economy that's larger than the other four Central Asian republics' combined.
She adds, "I agree with Ablyazov that this is 'raiding' if there are no contracts of sale and it does not take into account the [bank's] voting shareholders."

In announcing the takeover, the government also said it was negotiating with the Russian state bank Sberbank for further injection of capital into BTA.

Ablyazov has been replaced by another member of BTA's board of directors, Arman Dunayev. The former chairman of the Kazakh National Bank, Anvar Saidenov, has been appointed as a special adviser to Dunaev.

The Kazakh government has pledged $15 billion to help its economy weather the global economic downturn fund. The amount represents more than one-third of the total $51 billion in the country's National Fund, which was established in 2000.

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