Kazakhstan's feuding first family

When the president of an oil-rich former Soviet republic where the ruling family runs everything fal

The political soap opera that is Kazakhstan's ruling family - a strange case of Borat-meets-the-Borgias - took a dramatic twist last month when the autocratic president, Nursultan Nazar bayev, suddenly declared his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev to be public enemy number one. Like all the best soap operas, it has a plot that is often difficult to make sense of.

A few months ago, Aliyev was the heir apparent in this former Soviet republic, rich in oil and gas, in central Asia. Now he's on the run from a team of spooks, despatched by his father-in-law to Vienna, where Aliyev was the Kazakh ambassador until late May.

His extraordinary fall from grace, and presidential politics in Kazakhstan as a whole, owe more to The Sopranos than The West Wing. These guys even talk like Hollywood hoods. The day the Kazakh authorities obtained a warrant for Aliyev's arrest, a spokesman for the interior ministry accused him of running a Mafia-type network in the country and beyond. "The head of this criminal group," the spokesman added, referring to the former favourite, "is currently Rakhat Aliyev, who has been put on the international wanted list."

Nazarbayev has been in power in Kazakhstan, a geopolitical link between China, Russia and Europe, since 1989. Yet his regime is notorious for its corruption, and that is partly why the spat between the president and his son-in-law is so devastating. Up until now, Nazarbayev has not only been one of the most ruthless leaders in central Asia, he has also been the most nepotistic, a Eurasian King Lear. Rival daughters compete for influence. For example, Aliyev's wife, Dariga, the eldest of the president's three daughters, is also the leader of the "opposition" party Asar, which merged with her father's ruling Otan party last year. One younger sister, Dinara, is married to Timur Kul ibayev, a powerful oligarch with political ambitions of his own who may have turned the president against his other son-in-law.

In the latest extraordinary twist, Dariga announced in mid-June that she had divorced Aliyev by fax. He in turn claimed that his signature on the divorce document was a forgery.

The family feud has been rumbling for years. Kuli bayev is alleged to have presented Nazarba yev with documents in 2001, outlining a plan by Aliyev to stage a coup. Four years later, however, Kulibayev inexplicably fell out of favour and was sacked as head of the state oil company Kaz MunaiGaz, while Aliyev, who had been exiled to Austria as ambassador, was suddenly recalled and appointed deputy foreign minister - triggering speculation that he was back in favour. Oddly, Nazarbayev seems to use the embassy in Vienna as a kind of diplomatic sin bin. In February, Aliyev was posted back to Austria after he was alleged to have organised the kidnapping of two bankers, Abilmazhen Gilimov and Zholdas Timraliyev, who fell out with him over the planned takeover of Nurbank, one of Kazakh stan's big gest banks. Timraliyev is still missing.

The plot may be rather hackneyed, but then Almaty, the business capital of Kazakhstan, is a B-movie kind of place, full of star-struck extras and unlikely walk-on roles. It has the bustle of an oil boomtown. New office buildings and luxury housing developments are always popping up. Well-to-do locals and western oil company employees fill bars such as Stetson and nightclubs like the Petroleum Club, where expensive prostitutes court jet-lagged customers.

American companies have invested billions of dollars in Kazakhstan, whose potential oil reserves are as high as 110 billion barrels. That's far smaller than for Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil producer, but about five times higher than estimated US reserves.

Regime change

Big business is forced to rely for stability on its political ties to the Nazarbayev family, and for the past 18 years this stranglehold on power has yielded a fairly safe environment for western investors. However, the talk in the bars of Almaty this past week kept returning to the dangers of regime change, as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where the former president Askar Akayev was deposed in 2005. His removal led to a carve-up of the economy, much of which was controlled by his family. Central Asia watchers have always believed that Nazarbayev would prevent a similar outcome in Kazakhstan by handing over power to a member of his own family or inner circle. But the public run-in with Aliyev could spell the end for "Operation Successor".

Most of the people I spoke to in Kazakhstan saw the edict against Aliyev as part of a broader move by Nazarbayev to consolidate his authority after he signed constitutional amendments in late May that in effect allow him to stay in power for life. In the wake of the criminal charges against Aliyev, the Kazakh authorities shut down the KTK television channel and Karavan newspaper, both controlled by the president's son-in-law. He protested to western journalists about this attack on media freedom. But many critics in Kazakhstan believe that Aliyev is cynically exploiting democratic slogans to further his own career.

"What we have now reflects the true situa-tion in Kazakhstan's political structure," says Amir zhan Kosanov, deputy head of the Social Democratic Party. "In other countries, you have a political debate in parliament or at election time. Here the system is based on the family. Even the so-called opposition is family-based."

Amazingly, considering how much he has benefited from being part of Nazarbayev's close-knit, and corrupt, post-Soviet family, Aliyev is now trying to reposition himself as an opposition leader. Suddenly, he is making himself available to journalists such as myself who have spent years trying to get interviews with the president's son-in-law. His strategy is clear - the same strategy as has worked (so far) in the case of the Russian exile Boris Berezovsky. The Kazakh president has sent a team of lawyers led by the deputy prosecutor general to Vienna in order to extradite Aliyev from Austria, where the outcast has applied for political asylum.

When I spoke to Aliyev on the telephone, he accused his father-in-law of a "retreat to the tota litarian Soviet past", and he was especially keen to portray his own fall from grace as a product of political principle, not organised crime.

"I decided a few months ago that I wanted to run democratically for the presidency," he said in Russian. "This came as a shock to my father-in-law, who thinks anybody who voices a dissenting political opinion is guilty of a crime.

"At the beginning of the year, I informed Nazarbayev again that I was planning to stand for the leadership in 2012, when his term runs out. I think the news made him panic because soon after that, all the nonsense about Nurbank, the robbery and kidnapping, all those lies, began."

I asked about the power struggle being conducted in full public view, and in particular about Nazarbayev's other political rival, the former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, whom I had met in England a few weeks earlier. Upon being sacked in 1997, Kazhegeldin, too, was accused of corruption. He now lives in exile in London, where he campaigns for a popular uprising in Kazakhstan on the lines of the "colour" revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Such an outcome is not impossible, but seems unlikely, given significantly higher approval rates for Nazarbayev's leadership in comparison with the toppled regimes. Nevertheless, Aliyev predicted that politics in Kazakhstan would become less stable as a result of the latest scandal.

"The president does not tolerate rivals," he said. "He has spent his whole career outlawing dissent and pluralism in Kazakhstan. I am just the latest victim. To be honest with you, I am shocked by the unlawful manner in which our president behaves. People get arrested without evidence or the right warrants, and you hear many credible reports of suspects being tortured in custody.

"Then you have the financial crimes, the seizures of businesses for political motives. Here again, I am a victim because my newspaper and TV channel have been shut down by prosecutors taking orders directly from our president. Now they have stripped me of my ambassador's job, and this was done because the interior minister ordered it. Do you understand? The interior minister! Not even the foreign minister. I can't believe such things happen in other countries. I am going to fight this repression. I want to mobilise the opposition, but it will be hard work because, frankly speaking, the opposition does not exist."

The scale of the task facing Aliyev if he is to challenge his father-in-law for the presidency was evident from the somewhat muted response of Kazakhstan's very few independent politicians to the emergence of this unexpected ally. The Kazakh opposition may be weak and fragmented, but it is also unconvinced by Ali yev's conversion to democratic values.

"Supporting Aliyev just because he is against Nazarbayev at the moment is not the thing a serious politician would do," said Oraz Zhandosov, co-leader of the radical Real Ak Zhol Party.

The other known unknown, as it were, is the impact of Aliyev's divorce. Will renouncing her husband keep the door open for Dariga to succeed her father? There had been rumours since 1998 that Aliyev and Dariga, a mezzo-soprano, were leading separate lives. She always defended him in the past, but now she seems to have bowed to pressure from the Kazakh Lear himself. The stage is set for a Shakespearean denouement.

This article appears in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror