Officials in Kazakhstan announced in 2001 that they were planning to build a new recreational park in the foothills of Almaty, the former capital and largest city of the oil-rich Central Asian country.
The local government allocated 61 hectares of land along the road leading to the picturesque Alma-Arasan Gorge in Almaty's Bostandyq district. Initially, the new park was to be named 21st Century.
The construction work lasted nearly a decade before the city park was officially opened in the summer of 2011. It also received a new name: the Park of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
In early January, protests over a sudden fuel-price hike quickly spread across Kazakhstan and led to violent clashes in Almaty and elsewhere. The protests quickly morphed into wider complaints against corruption, political stagnation, and widespread injustice.
Much of their anger appeared directed at Nursultan Nazarbaev, the first president who had ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since 1989 before handing over power in 2019. However, he was widely believed to remain in control behind the scenes.
In November 2011, a statue of Nazarbaev was unveiled at the park's entrance. A month later, the authorities established a new public holiday, the Day Of The First President, to be celebrated on December 1 each year.
A new investigation by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service has revealed that Nazarbaev and his family have obtained 135 hectares of land adjacent to the park in the sought-after suburban area to add to their vast portfolio of luxury real estate.
The land -- more than twice the size of the park -- is hidden behind high fences and thick rows of tall trees. It's divided into several sections, some of them with exclusive mansions complete with helipads, summer pavilions, and a children's playground. Some plots are undeveloped.
Land registry and cadaster records list Nazarbaev, his three daughters, and two other women linked to the family as private owners of the real estate in the area. Several other plots are registered in the name of companies that can be traced to Nazarbaev and his family.
But it's not clear how or when the Nazarbaevs became the private owners of this land that once belonged to the state. No official information has even been made public about the Nazarbaevs' sprawling estate in Bostandyq.
All The Best For The Children
According to official documents, one of the plots of land belongs to Dinara Kulibaeva, the second daughter of Nazarbaev. The 7.5-hectare area borders the Zhailau golf club and the Oqzhetpes sanatorium. The latter is officially registered as the property of the presidential administration.
Images from Google Earth show three large mansions on the plot, with a road connecting the properties to one another. Another smaller house, a decorative pond, and a summer pavilion had been added by 2015.
The buildings do not appear on the Russian digital mapping services 2GIS or Yandex.Maps.
The properties are officially registered as House N1, Zhailau Microdistrict, with Kulibaeva shown as the sole owner since 2006. Kulibaeva's husband, Timur Kulibaev, is registered as a resident of the property.
According to Forbes magazine, Dinara and Timur Kulibaev's combined net worth of $5.8 billion makes them the wealthiest family in Kazakhstan.
The neighboring site -- registered as House N2, Zhailau Microdistrict -- belongs to Nazarbaev's third daughter, Aliya Nazarbaeva and her husband, Dimash Dosanov. It appears that the 2.8-hectare plot hasn't been developed.
A house that once stood there was demolished in 2019, but there has been nothing built in its place.
According to official records, the next three plots -- with a total area of 6.5 hectares -- belong to Darigha Nazarbaeva, the former president's eldest daughter, who is also a member of parliament.
A 2,350-square-meter mansion, which is also registered as Nazarbaeva's private property, is near completion.
There is another plot of land nearby that at some 2.4 hectares is smaller in size compared to other residences. Official documents show that it's owned by a business company called the DLS Group. Darigha Nazarbaeva has in the past been registered as the sole founder of the DLS Group.
A House Befitting The Head Of The Family
There is another large area next to the three sisters' plots that belongs to the head of the family, former President Nazarbaev.
RFE/RL's investigation revealed that the total area is nearly 13 hectares, although the land-registry record documents only half of its actual size.
Google Earth images show a single house surrounded by several rows of trees. There is also a small artificial lake and a tennis court on the site.
During the Soviet era, the property belonged to the state and was an official residence of the first secretary of Kazakhstan's Communist Party, the highest office in the country. Nazarbaev moved into the house in 1989 when he was appointed first secretary.
During Nazarbaev's presidency, Kazakhstan passed the Law on the First President, giving Nazarbaev the right to transfer his official residence and dacha into his private ownership after leaving office.
It's not clear whether Nazarbaev would argue that he received the house according to the First President legislation, although it was privatized by him long before his surprise resignation in 2019.
The former grace-and-favor house is not the only residence the former president owns in this exclusive neighborhood.
A new 2,350-square-meter mansion was erected in the adjacent 8.5-hectare plot in 2018. The residence boasts two helipads, a wood outbuilding, and a garden pond.
The residence's official owner is the Directorate for Real Estate Management LLP, which was founded by the Elbasy Fund. That fund belongs to Nazarbaev, who holds the title of "elbasy," or leader of the nation.
Keeping It In The Family
Among the landowners in the area is 37-year-old Korlan Sharipbaeva, whose father, Kairat Sharipbaev, is thought to be married to Darigha Nazarbaeva. Sharipbaev had been the chairman of the board of Kazakhstan's monopoly gas trader, KazTransGas, until he was fired earlier this month after widespread unrest that engulfed the country.
Meanwhile, construction is under way on three hectares nearby. According to official documents, the presidential administration has the right to use this land until the end of 2023.
When contacted by RFE/RL, the presidential administration said "a state-mandated project is being implemented at the site."
The construction work is being carried out by the Swiss company B&A Contractors. The company is part of the Mabetex Group, which has constructed several state buildings in Kazakhstan, including the Aqorda presidential palace, the parliament, an airport, and an opera and ballet theater in the capital, Nur-Sultan.
Nephew's 'Wife' Gets A Palace, Too
Nazarbaev's relatives have also received land in the upper part of the territory, some 2 kilometers from the Park of the First President.
There are five large wooden cottages, a one-story wooden house, and a mansion located in the area surrounded by high fences.
The 12.5-hectare territory also includes at least 15 separate plots of land that are being prepared for development. Construction seems to be in full swing at one of the plots.
In addition, there are two large multicar garages, warehouse-like facilities, and an outbuilding.
There is large palace at the center of the territory that stands out among the other buildings because of its massive size. There is a helipad, a children's playground, and a sports field in the yard, which is fenced.
But there are no walls or barriers between the other plots and houses in the area.
An old map of Almaty shows that a dairy farm in this area had been demolished and that construction of new buildings had begun by 2012.
According to official documents, the exclusive dwellings are owned by Asel Bakhtiyar-qyzy, who is believed to be the wife of Nazarbaev's nephew, Kairat Satybaldy. The couple reportedly have three children.
Satybaldy is one of the richest people in Kazakhstan. In 2018, Forbes estimated his net worth at $163 million. The total assets of Skyline Investment Company S.A., which is registered in Satybaldy's name in Luxembourg, amounted to $266 million in 2018.
The Almaly Corporation And Its Real Owners
The RFE/RL Kazakh Service investigation revealed that the remaining 85 hectares of the 135-hectare territory is registered as a private estate owned by a company called Almaly.
Almaly is one of many firms established during the period of mass privatization of state properties in the 1990s.
In 1998, the Economic Department of the presidency and the central government was transformed into a joint-stock company, KHOZU, and numerous state-owned buildings, lands, and businesses were transferred to it.
Among them were many official buildings, hotels, restaurants, and kindergartens, as well as the well-known state farm Alatau, located in Almaty.
The state-owned KHOZU was later turned into a private limited company, called the KHOZU Corporation. Accordingly, all of its land, buildings, and businesses became private property.
A longtime Nazarbaev aide, Vladimir Ni, was appointed the head of the corporation. After Ni's death in 2010, the KHOZU Corporation was renamed Almaly.
According to Almaly's tax records, it has an annual revenue of about 16 billon tenges ($36.7 million).
One of the two founders who also manages Almaly through the Nauryz Corporation is Noord Holland Trading Company B.V., which is registered in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, Nazarbaev famously urged Kazakhs "not to hide" their money abroad.
"Look, all offshore havens are being exposed. It will bring disgrace to [their owners], it will be their nightmare," Nazarbaev said in 2013. "That's why [you should] invest your money in Kazakhstan. Don't be afraid."
The second founder of the Almaly Corporation is Vertex Holding. It belongs to billionaire businessman Vladimir Zhumanbaev, who is on the board of directors of copper-mining giant KazakhMys.
Nazarbaev associate Ni had served as the chairman of the board of KazakhMys until his death.
Almaly's estate includes 46 hectares of agricultural land that has been leased by Citic Orchard, a fruit and nut farming company.
Citic Orchard is linked to the Singapore-registered Citic Agriculture and a Kazakh company, Agriland, which was founded by three former business associates of Timur Kulibaev. The fourth founder of Agriland is a private company owned by him.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service has asked Nazarbaev, his relatives, and government agencies for comment on how the family obtained private ownership of the land in Almaty's Bostandyk. It had not received a response at the time of publication.