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Golden Boy Bishimbaev Goes On Trial In Kazakhstan


Before his recent travails Kuandyk Bishimbaev had been rising rapidly through the ranks of Kazakhstan's elite. (file photo)

Though just 37 years old, Kuandyk Bishimbaev has already been Kazakhstan's deputy minister of industry and trade, deputy chairman of the sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, chairman of the national holding company Bayterek, and economy minister.

But his current title is court defendant, as his trial got under way on November 7.

Bishimbaev is accused of accepting bribes when he was head of Bayterek, but there is far more to this story than allegations of an official engaging in corrupt practices.

Bishimbaev is the product of an elite educational program -- known as Bolashak -- that was founded and is strongly supported by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Bishimbaev's case has shed some light on the Bolashak program and family connections that can be used to propel a young career.

And Bishimbaev's current incarceration might be at least partially the result of a power struggle between much higher officials.

Born in 1980 in the south-central city of Kyzylorda, Bishimbaev finished high school at age 15 and went on to graduate from the Kazakh State Academy of Management in Almaty at age 19.

Meteoric Ascent

Scholarships from the Bolashak program supported Bishimbaev's later studies at George Washington University (GWU) in the United States.

At age 26, Bishimbaev was named deputy minister of industry and trade before going on to enjoy a meteoric ascent over the next decade, which culminated in his appointment as national economy minister in May 2016 at age 36.

Bishimbaev barely lasted six months in that position after being abruptly sacked later that year in December, sparking various theories about his sudden fall.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

Strangely, it was Nazarbaev who explained the dismissal on December 30 when he told a meeting of Foreign Ministry officials that Bishimbaev was fired in connection with an investigation into activities at Bayterek when Bishimbaev was chairman.

Bishimbaev was then detained on January 10 of this year on charges of accepting bribes when he headed Bayterek.

After Bishimbaev was taken into custody, questions arose about how he moved up so quickly and, inevitably, there was a focus on the Bolashak program.

Before going further, it is necessary to say that the Bolashak program could correctly be termed a success and Nazarbaev deserves credit for promoting it.

The Bolashak program sends students to study abroad, many at some of the world's leading universities.

Anyone who has attended a major Central Asian Studies conference, such as the annual Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) conferences, would have seen students from the Bolashak program.

They are usually incredibly dedicated, bright, and multilingual (in my experience at least).

Other "graduates" of the Bolashak program include Almaty Mayor Baurzhan Baybek, 42, and his deputy Erlan Aukenov, 32; West Kazakhstan Province Governor Altay Kulginov, 39; former Shymkent Mayor and now a secretary in the ruling Nur-Otan Party, Gabidolla Abdurahimov, 41; and the chairman of the board of the Association of Financiers, Magzhan Auezov, 41.

Qualification Questions

There have been accusations that some of the nearly 12,000 students who have been in the Bolashak program over the roughly two decades of its existence entered due to family connections.

Bishimbaev is an example. While no one disputes his intelligence, there are now questions about his two university degrees.

About the same time Bishimbaev completed his work at GWU, he also completed work at the Muhammad Khaydar Dulati University in the southern Kazakh city of Taraz.

It is unclear what Bishimbaev's attendance record was at the university in Taraz, but it is certain his father, Valikhan, became the rector at the university shortly before records show the younger Bishimbaev finishing his studies there.

The details of Bishimbaev's climb to deputy minister of industry and trade are not clear but eventually he does seem to have come under the wing of Kairat Kelimbetov.

Kelimbetov has been in the Kazakh government since 1997 and has, since then, been minister of economy and budget planning, minister of economic development and trade, chairman of Samruk-Kazyna, head of the state oil and gas company (KazMunaiGaz), chief of the national railway company (Kazakhstan Temir Zholy), and head of the National Bank of Kazakhstan.

He is now the director of the Astana International Finance Center.

Former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov (file photo)
Former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov (file photo)

Before Kelimbetov's career started to taper off, Bishimbaev found a new patron, Karim Masimov, a former prime minister and currently the head of the Committee for National Security (KNB).

The amount of money Bishimbaev is accused of taking in bribes is some $2 million, not an insignificant sum but -- by Kazakh standards -- it is petty cash.

Someone took a special interest in Bishimbaev after he was named national economy minister and tracked Bishimbaev's activities when he was Bayterek chief from 2013 to 2016.

That someone appears to be Kairat Kozhamzharov.

Dramatic Fall

Kozhamzharov has spent nearly 20 years in the financial police or agencies that fight corruption. Since September 2016 he has been the chairman of the state Agency for Civil Affairs and Fighting Corruption.

And he is seen as a rival to Masimov.

But there is one more element worth mentioning. Kozhamzharov studied in St. Petersburg and one of his classmates was Russia's current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

That would explain how Kozhamzharov has become so powerful that he could vie with Masimov, but it does raise some interesting questions about who is supporting Kozhamzharov.

So, it is possible Bishimbaev's fall is part of a much bigger struggle between Kozhamzharov and Masimov, though that does not necessarily mean Bishimbaev is innocent of the charges against him.

Which would be an additional blow to Nazarbaev.

Nazarbaev was pushing a youth movement in Kazakhstan's government in recent years until Bishimbaev was arrested.

Bolashak is not only an investment in Kazakhstan's future, it is also a guarantee for Nazarbaev's legacy.

These talented young cadres have been well educated at state expense but also well indoctrinated into Nazarbaev's system of governance. Their purpose is to lead Kazakhstan to a brighter future while preserving the memory of Nazarbaev's contributions to the country.

Bishimbaev had attained the highest position yet of any of the Bolashak graduates, so his fall is all the more dramatic.

And if Bishimbaev's political demise comes as the result of a battle between powerful officials, it would even be distressing to Nazarbaev, who will turn 78 in July.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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