Crossroads Asia

Another Wrinkle in Kazakhstan-Russia Relations?

The extradition of accused embezzler Mukhtar Ablyazov could complicate an already prickly relationship.

Another Wrinkle in Kazakhstan-Russia Relations?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After years of international pursuit, numerous court cases, and a stark civil rights backslide often framed as a result of his patronage, it appears Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov may finally be forced to return to the post-Soviet region. A French court in Lyon last week ruled that France had the right to extradite Ablyazov, who remains wanted for embezzling approximately $6 billion in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. As the Ukrainian government recently announced that it would not cooperate with Russian prosecutors, and as Kazakhstan and France do not maintain an extradition treaty, Russia remains the most likely destination for Ablyazov’s extradition.

The ruling represents another turn in what has been one of the most noted criminal pursuits in Kazakhstan’s history. After serving as energy, industry, and trade minister, Ablyazov fell afoul of the current Kazakh regime and joined the opposition in 2001. A year later he was accused and convicted of abuse of office, but was released in 2003 only after pledging to avoid entering politics. Sticking within the private sector, Ablyazov managed to swell BTA Bank into the country’s largest lender by the end of the decade. However, in the midst of both a deepening recession and accumulating loans of apparently questionable nature, Kazakhstan moved to nationalize the bank in early 2009. Claims of, and investigations into, the billions Ablyazov purportedly embezzled followed soon thereafter.

Ablyazov’s case – details of which can be found most thoroughly here – stands as a murky, distinctly post-Soviet admixture of oligarchic competition and international pursuit. The case has flowed through Kazakh, British, and French courts, with rulings and moments ranging from the seemingly decisive to the remarkable and preposterous. Ablyazov also presents Kazakhstan’s starkest case of an opposition figure framed as corrupt felon bent on using his funds for regime overthrow. Since Ablyazov fled the country, Kazakhstan has seen the greatest civil rights crackdown it’s yet known – framed, in large part, to claims that Ablyazov was funneling his earnings to support numerous non-governmental media sources. Kazakhstan’s beleaguered opposition has also seen further constriction since Ablyazov’s departure, with Vladimir Kozlov, head of the Alga opposition bloc, sentenced to seven years in 2012 after the government linked his work to Ablyazov. Even Ablyazov’s wife and six-year-old daughter have not proven immune from persecution. Their recent deportation from Italy to Kazakhstan was ruled “manifestly illegitimate,” and they have since received refugee status in Italy.

Despite the French ruling, Ablyazov’s extradition does not yet remain certain, as his lawyer reported they would appeal the ruling within the Court of Cassation. France has also seen swift backlash from the human rights community as a result of the ruling. But if and when Russian manages to land Ablyazov, Russian President Vladimir Putin would suddenly retain a significant card in the Kremlin’s leverage over Kazakhstan. Relations between the two nations over the past eight months have reached their lowest point in years – perhaps their lowest in the post-Soviet period – due to a confluence of Russian revanchism in Crimea, economic sag through the Eurasian Economic Union, and Putin’s recent and remarkable slight that ethnic Kazakhs claim no statehood until the fall of the Soviet Union. (Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev did not address Putin’s comments directly, but recently announced the coming celebration of “the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood.”)

Ablyazov, however, stands as Nazarbayev’s bête noire. There have been times when Astana has been seemingly focused on nothing other than tracking the former banker, and finding a means of punishing both him and his closest cohorts. He’s far from the “Kazakh Khodorkovsky” some have claimed, but should the Kremlin manage to land Ablyazov, he suddenly becomes a pawn in strained Russian-Kazakh relations – one firmly in the control of the Kremlin.