ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- How does public land suddenly become private?
For years that question has vexed Kazakh citizens who have watched stretches of green belonging to state institutions get gobbled up to make way for new housing, offices, and shopping malls.
The answer, they say, lies in elite connections, and for much of Kazakhstan’s more than 30 years of independence there was arguably no businessman better connected than Timur Kulibaev, the son-in-law of the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Kulibaev co-owns the country’s largest bank, Halyk, with his wife -- Nazarbaev’s second daughter, Dinara Kulibaeva -- and was for more than a decade chairman of the Atameken National Chamber of Entrepreneurs. The pair have a combined wealth of just under $8 billion, according to Forbes Kazakhstan.
The same website ranks Kulibaev as Kazakhstan’s second-richest businessman behind metals king Vladimir Kim, an oligarch who is viewed as tightly linked to Nazarbaev.
But there was a reconfiguration of the elite after the unprecedented bloody unrest that rocked Kazakhstan in January 2022 and caused at least 238 deaths.
Nazarbaev shed his remaining government positions and a constitutionally enshrined role as Leader of the Nation, stressing that all powers now lay with the man that he handpicked as president in 2019, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.
The strongman’s relatives followed suit, losing government positions and roles in charge of state corporations. Kulibaev stepped down from his role at Atameken.
But unlike other family members, he has remained in view, attending a business forum where Toqaev spoke in January and attending the new president’s inauguration, where Nazarbaev was also present, following a snap presidential election in November.
And, as a new investigation by RFE/RL shows, Kulibaev still has plans for major developments on some of the most desirable land in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. Property that was privatized in circumstances still not fully known.
Whether or not the magnate can keep the land amid the shifting political tides in Kazakhstan will be interesting to see.
Military Hospital To Hotel?
When protesters descended on Almaty by the thousands in early January last year their demand for Nazarbaev’s exit from politics, “Shal ket” (Old Man Out), was loud and clear.
Things turned violent on January 5, as the city’s presidential residence became the center of a bloody battle between protesters and government troops.
Lying across the street from the site of the residence that was badly burned and later demolished by authorities is a 3.8-hectare plot of land that has been derelict since 2014.
Before then it was the site of a building used as a military hospital by the Defense Ministry. The decision to raze the hospital and rebuild it on the outskirts of Almaty in 2010 generated opposition from retired military veterans while raising suspicions of insider deals.
“Certain people and structures have had their eyes on this land for some time. Only buildings of public importance should be on the central square of Almaty,” fumed Seitqazy Mataev, a former presidential press secretary and influential media owner.
Mataev wasn’t wrong about that.
RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service discovered that the company that built the new hospital at a reported cost of $23 million -- and the company that owns the plot across the street from the presidential residence -- are one and the same, Dostyk Stroi (Friendship Construction).
At the time, the centrally located plot was reported to be worth nearly twice as much as the hospital cost to rebuild. The value of the land has grown considerably since then.
Dostyk Stroi is owned by two companies, Joint Technologies and Kipros, both of which list Kulibaev as their ultimate beneficiary.
But how was the land privatized?
During the period in which Kulibaev’s company acquired the land, Almaty’s City Hall was headed by Akhmetzhan Esimov, while the defense minister was Adilbek Zhaqsybekov.
Among Nazarbaev’s numerous allies, these two were regarded as particularly loyal to the first family.
Esimov is sometimes cited by media as a blood relative of Nazarbaev.
Responding to a request by RFE/RL, the Defense Ministry said Esimov’s municipal government initially took control of the land before it was privatized.
The transfer of the land was signed by then-Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov on November 8, 2013.
Data on the government’s land registry site shows that the plot where the military hospital once stood is slated for a hotel, although the timeline for construction remains unclear and the land has stood idle for nearly a decade.
'High Quality Plots' Where Space Is Limited
On its website, developer Atlas Development describes Deniz Park, an office and residential complex currently under construction, as "the choice of those who seek to live and work in high quality spaces."
Deniz Park will include “a spacious lobby, terraces with lush greenery, and areas for informal meetings. The picturesque territory of the complex will organically and harmoniously fit it into the surrounding landscape.”
But the territory where Deniz Park is being built used to belong to the state-owned Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.
Two years ago it became known that two companies owned by Kulibaev, Omirex and Atlas Development, were beneficiaries of a deal to lease 0.8 hectares of the university’s land for the office and residential development that is close to the high-end Esentai Mall and the Ritz Carlton hotel.
RFE/RL has since learned that an adjacent plot of 1.8 hectares is completely owned by the Kulibaev-controlled company, Kipros.
This plot was first privatized in 2007 when Imangali Tasmagambetov was the mayor of Almaty. Al-Farabi Kazakh National University told RFE/RL last year that the deal was agreed to by City Hall, the Education Ministry, and a company called Esentai Development.
The day before the agreement was signed, Zhanseit Tuymebaev was appointed education minister in place of Birganym Aitimova. In a curious twist of fate, Tuymebaev is now the rector of the university.
RFE/RL was unable to find Esentai Development in a government database of registered companies. But in the past, a company with the same name was associated with Serzhan Zhumashov, who shares ownership of Esentai Mall with Qairat Boranbaev, a Nazarbaev in-law who is currently jailed on embezzlement charges.
It is not known when and by what means the land formerly owned by the university fell under the ownership of Kulibaev’s company.
It is also unclear how concerned authorities are about checking the legality of the privatization.
In October, the state Committee for the Management of Land Resources in Almaty told RFE/RL that it would begin an investigation of the land transfer, starting with a visit to City Hall.
Two months later, an official from the committee told RFE/RL that investigative activities have not yet begun.
City Hall told RFE/RL in January 2023 that the amount of land transferred from the university was initially larger, some 6.6 hectares. The majority of the land was returned to the university, the city said, leaving only the 1.8-hectare plot privatized.
The fate of the 0.8 hectares of land leased to Atlas Development and Omirex, on the other hand, is in the balance. In August 2022, the Committee for the Management of Land Resources in Almaty challenged the legality of the arrangement in court.
In October, the court returned the territory to the university. Atlas Development is appealing that decision.
Previous investigations by RFE/RL have found that members of the Nazarbaev family own dozens of lavish properties on massive tracts of land in Almaty and other parts of the country.
Naturally, they own plenty of eye-popping mansions in foreign jurisdictions, too, notably palatial homes in Switzerland and Germany.
One member of the Nazarbaev family who seems to have been forced to give up his land assets is Bolat Nazarbaev, the former president’s brother.
On February 2, the ruling Amanat party said that more than 300,000 hectares of land owned by Bolat Nazarbaev in the southern Zhambyl region and the oil-rich western Mangystau region had been confiscated by the government due to illegalities in the deals, with land owned by his companies in Almaty also under investigation.
The Amanat party was formerly called Nur Otan and was set up by Nursultan Nazarbaev. It is currently preparing for the March 19 parliamentary elections.
Kulibaev and his wife, in the meantime, are preparing to sell a minority stake in Halyk Bank, according to some media reports.
Eurasianet wrote that the couple’s apparent consideration of a sale “sparked chatter about whether this is a response to Astana’s efforts to curb the sway that Nazarbaev’s relatives have over Kazakhstan’s economy” since the January 2022 uprising was crushed.
The Kulibaevs had -- via their holding company ALMEX -- offered to sell Halyk shares in 2019, the year Toqaev became president.
At the time, ALMEX cited “multiple appeals by the international investment community” as justification for the decision.