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A Bridge Too Costly? Kazakhstan's Longest Serving Governor Swims In Suspect Tenders

The construction of a new bridge on the Buqhtyrma water reservoir is under way in East Kazakhstan, but costs for the project have been soaring. (file photo)
The construction of a new bridge on the Buqhtyrma water reservoir is under way in East Kazakhstan, but costs for the project have been soaring. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- When people cross the frozen Buqhtyrma Reservoir in eastern Kazakhstan during the winter, they do so with their seatbelts unfastened so they can jump out of their vehicles in case the ice starts to crack.

In the summer, people can wait hours for a ferry to cross a dam that was built to service a hydroelectric power station during the Soviet era, which severs their easy access to the rest of the Kurshim district in the East Kazakhstan Oblast.

The body of water along the Irtysh River can be circumvented by road, but this almost doubles the distance to the industrial center of Oskemen, a city of more than 300,000 people.

Oskemen is the regional capital headed by political veteran and former Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov.

Thankfully, a bridge -- slated to be the longest in the country -- is being built.

But costs for the project have ballooned, fueling suspicions of corruption.

A recent investigation carried out by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service indicates that the company that secured the contract for the bridge is owned by two newly elected politicians with business ties to the governor's son, Talghat Akhmetov.

'A New Generation That Has Serious Knowledge'

For the people that live on the wrong side of the reservoir, in the villages of Kurshim that abut China, the 2025 completion date for the bridge cannot come soon enough.

In January, smartphone footage showed a tractor belonging to a local cooperative crawling across the ice of the Buqtyrma that authorities allow the population to cross from late December.

All of a sudden, two giant back wheels plunge below the surface, provoking shrieks from bystanders.

The tractor driver was able to escape, but a 72-year-old woman who was a passenger in a car that attempted to cross the reservoir before officials permitted passage last year was not so lucky.

“It’s scary. You are afraid that the ice will shatter,” said Mukhtar, a Kurshim local who spoke to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service.

“People are dying. How many people have died under the ice already?”

Progress on the 1.3-kilometer bridge is eagerly monitored by customers at a canteen on the shores of Buqtyrma Reservoir.

Builders estimate that about one-third of the work has already been completed.

The company building the bridge, OblShyghysZhol, once belonged to the state and was responsible for maintaining roads and bridges in the region, as well as running the Kurshim ferry crossing.

In 2018, OblShyghysZhol was transferred to Luqbek Tumashinov and Zhanbolat Qazanov in a trust.

By 2020, when the company secured the contract to build the bridge, it had been completely privatized.

Recent years have been very profitable for OblShyghysZhol, which the pair own via a holding company called Elkhon.

The company has continued to build and replace infrastructure across the oblast, with the reconstruction of Oskemen’s airport two years ago one of the company’s larger projects.

This year, OblShyghysZhol is to receive a further 20 billion tenge ($45 million), with the same sum already invested in the project.

As per the government-run portal for state tenders, the cost of the project has spiked from 26.2 billion tenge ($58.7 million) in 2020 to 60 billion tenge ($135 million) in 2022.

Danial Akhmetov (center) and businessman Luqbek Tumashinov (second from left, file photo)
Danial Akhmetov (center) and businessman Luqbek Tumashinov (second from left, file photo)

Akhmetov’s government has explained the cost increase as being linked to new parameters for the project, with a 17-kilometer road connection for the bridge not previously included in the project, as well as inflation in the cost of building materials.

But ties between the governor and the two businessmen are apparently tight and extend to their children.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service used public records to ascertain that Tumashinov and Qazanov founded with Talghat Akhmetov a company called CEMINCO in 2019.

That same year, Akhmetov appointed Eldar Tumashinov and Eldos Bairakhmetov to head a company called Irtys, which the regional government oversees.

Tumashinov and Bairakhmetov are the sons of Tumashinov and Qazanov, respectively, and are similar in age to Talghat Akhmetov, who is 38.

When overseeing Eldar Tumashinov’s latest promotion last year -- to chief of one of the subordinate districts in East Kazakhstan -- Governor Akhmetov hailed the younger Tumashinov as a “top class specialist” and the emergence of “a new generation that has serious knowledge.”

OblShyghysZhol was an immediate beneficiary of Tumashinov junior’s new role as head of the Glubokoye district, with authorities there signing eight contracts worth nearly $2.5 million for infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, Bairakhmetov became head of the regional administration’s Department of Entrepreneurship and Industrial and Innovative Development this year.

Old Faces Of New Kazakhstan

Although businessmen foremost, Tumashinov and Qazanov are also climbing the political ladder.

After three terms on East Kazakhstan’s regional council, Tumashinov was elected in March to the national parliament as a member of Kazakhstan’s ruling party, Amanat.

In the same elections and representing the same party, Qazanov also won a seat on the regional council.

At one point in his parliamentary campaign, Tumashinov responded to controversy surrounding his business interests during a live question and answer session on Instagram.

Fielding a query about whether his business partnership with the governor’s son had helped OblShyghysZhol secure the contract for the Kurshim Bridge, Tumashinov denied knowing the younger Akhmetov at all before appearing to threaten the anonymous inquirer.

“If you ask a question like that again, I’ll find you and talk to you in person,” Tumashinov said.

Speaking to RFE/RL correspondents in parliament this week in the wake of the publication of the investigation, Tumashinov changed his tone.

The lawmaker admitted to “cooperation, but not corruption” with the region’s governor and credited RFE/RL’s reporting as an important safeguard to prevent officials and businessmen “going too far.”

But Tumashinov refuted suggestions of nepotism by pointing out that he and the governor are from different clans. “So what is he, my uncle?” Tumashinov asked rhetorically.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev presented the March parliamentary elections as the latest step in a political reset after bloody unrest last year that saw his once-overbearing mentor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, sidelined following an awkward period of power-sharing between the pair.

Toqaev has trumpeted a “New Kazakhstan” since then, but his critics have been quick to point out that they see exhibits of “Old Kazakhstan” everywhere.

Governor Akhmetov is one of them.

From the beginning of independence, the 68-year-old has held important political positions at the city, regional, and national levels, rising to become prime minister for four years between 2003 and 2007 before being eased into a two-year stint as defense minister.

Holding his present post since 2014, he is the longest serving among Kazakhstan’s current crop of oblast governors and one of only three such heads not to be replaced after the deadly unrest of January 2022.

Not everyone is celebrating his longevity.

Residents in the village of Maraldy in East Kazakhstan's Kurshim district fear the bridge project will damage their water supply. (file photo)
Residents in the village of Maraldy in East Kazakhstan's Kurshim district fear the bridge project will damage their water supply. (file photo)

In 2021, a group of businessmen held a press conference to criticize what they saw as collusion between his administration and friendly businessmen during tenders.

At the same time, another group of businessmen held a press conference in support of Akhmetov, framing the dissatisfied entrepreneurs as “a cast of losers.”

Luqbek Tumashinov was among the speakers in the second group.

A second investigation published by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service pointed to commercial ties between Talghat Akhmetov and another young entrepreneur -- the son of the late former Tourism Minister Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov -- who owned interests in gold mining developments in the oblast.

That project is facing sustained resistance on the part of villagers in Maraldy, who say the development will pollute the water supply and leave the village’s pastoral population with no place to graze their livestock.

Asked by an RFE/RL journalist if Akhmetov’s ties to businessman Shynghys Dosmukhambetov constituted a conflict of interest in the context of the mining project, Akhmetov answered briefly: “I don’t know anything…I’m not familiar [with that issue].”

“If everything is within the law, the work will go on,” Akhmetov continued at the April 12 briefing in Oskemen. “But if something happens contrary to the law, everything will be stopped.”

Written by Chris Rickleton based on reporting by Tasqyn Bolatuly

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