Kazakhstan’s former president linked to $7.8bn in assets in UK company
Experts urge British government to unmask offshore owners of UK-registered firms after uncovering of vast assets linked to Nursultan Nazarbayev
Article updated 4 July 2022*
Kazakhstan’s former president of 30 years has been linked to $7.8bn of assets via a UK company, it has been revealed.
The extent of the wealth under the control of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s personal foundation emerged in a joint investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Kazakhstani online publication Vlast, and Kyrgyzstani media organisation Kloop.
“This investigation really joined the dots on what was already suspected about the wealth that could be under Nazarbayev’s control, but the $8bn figure is likely just scratching the surface,” said Ben Godwin, head of analysis at PRISM Political Risk Management, which advises investors in Kazakhstan and the wider region.
“Kazakhstani society still considers the Nazarbayev family to be ever-present behind the scenes, despite the fact he stepped down as president two years ago – and that’s what the wave of protests earlier this month was about. They were against Nazarbayev directly.”
Nazarbayev ruled Soviet Kazakhstan, and then independent Kazakhstan, between 1989 and 2019, when he stepped down as president. This paved the way for current leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who claimed following the violence that shook the country this month that ‘financial-industrial groups’ under Nazarbayev had benefited disproportionately during the first president’s rule.
During his 30-year reign, Nazarbayev, his family and connected businessmen are believed to have profited enormously from the country’s vast reserves of oil, gas and metals. A recent report by Chatham House suggested that Nazarbayev family members own property worth at least £330m in the UK.
These fresh revelations of assets linked to the Nazarbayev Foundation control came as British MPs criticised the UK’s role in protecting Kazakhstani elite wealth.
An opaque network
The trail that links Nazarbayev to the assets is somewhat opaque. It begins with a group of schools and a university, both of which are controlled by Nazarbayev’s charitable foundations.
The schools and university in turn own two corporate foundations.
In 2019, the year Nazarbayev stepped down as president, those corporate foundations set up an investment fund called Pioneer Capital Invest, according to the investigation by OCCRP, Vlast and Kloop.
One of the personal foundations controlled by Nazarbayev, the Nazarbayev Foundation, then took a 75% stake in Pioneer Capital Invest. In July 2021, this stake decreased to 62%.
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The Nazarbayev Foundation does not operate a website, publish reports or disclose its sources of funding. A spokesperson for the foundation said Nazarbayev himself could not withdraw its funds and that the foundation did not have an “end beneficiary owner” and could legally “fund only [Nazarbayev] university and schools”. According to the foundation’s charter, Nazarbayev chairs its Supreme Board of Trustees and has control over the organisation.
Pioneer Capital then proceeded, according to OCCRP, to buy “banks, an internet marketplace, mobile operators, warehouses, shopping malls, and even a pasta factory” across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia – leading to a portfolio of assets worth billions.
This includes Kazakhstan’s Jusan Bank and Optima Bank in Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russian banks Kvant Mobile and ATB (Asia-Pacific Bank).
In 2020, Pioneer Capital’s assets were transferred to a UK company, Jusan Technologies Limited, which had been set up in March of that year. In its company accounts made up to 31 December 2020, Jusan reported $7.8bn in total assets, including $3.3bn in cash or cash equivalents.
A November 2021 confirmation statement for Jusan Technologies reported that Pioneer Capital Invest – in which the Nazarbayev Foundation has a 62% interest – has a controlling stake in the company.
Who else owns Jusan Technologies?
Minority stakes in Jusan Technologies are owned by Yerbol Orynbayev, a banker in charge of Kazakhstani holding company Jysan Technologies. Another company, on which OCCRP could find little information, QAZ42 Investment took a 3% interest in Jusan Technologies in 2021, for which it paid just $20m for an interest potentially worth over $200m.
Until October 2021, Jusan Technologies listed three ‘persons with significant control’: Aslan Sarinzhipov, head of the Nazarbayev Foundation; Yevgeniy Pan, the director of a bank owned by Jusan; and Orynbayev.
The UK Companies House website currently lists no persons with significant control for the business.
In its 2020 accounts, Jusan described itself as an “investment holding company [...] with business interests in Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan”. Its subsidiaries, the company said, were “composed of large, growing and market-leading companies operating in [...] banking, e-commerce, telecommunications, logistics & retail and other financial sectors such as brokerage, insurance, and wealth management”.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Sarinzhipov, chair of the board at the Nazarbayev Foundation, said the “net assets of Nazarbayev Fund, which is a university endowment fund, are $1.2bn”.
The Nazarbayev Foundation, he said, was “not connected in any way” to any other charitable foundation controlled by Nazarbayev.
Speaking to OCCRP, Sarinzhipov said the Nazarbayev Foundation was a “classic endowment fund… by analogy to the best international practice (the endowment funds of Harvard, Stanford, Duke)”.
He added that Nazarbayev himself “does not have property rights” to the foundation’s assets and “cannot withdraw money from the organisation under any circumstances”.
Godwin told openDemocracy: “Why a fund for the benefit of the population needs an asset like a bank, or shopping mall, or all these numerous assets listed, is unclear.
“There seem to be reasonable questions about whether the Nazarbayev family can, in fact, access, use or dispose of these assets given the lack of transparency in the structure.”
When asked by openDemocracy why the assets were held via a UK company, Sarinzhipov said that the UK is “a good jurisdiction for holding companies (and British law)” and that neither Nazarbayev “nor any member of his family have any control over Jusan Technology nor can take over control”. He added: “It works only for university and schools. And this is protected by UK law as well.”
For transparency campaigners in the UK, the revelations over the wealth tied to the former Kazakhstani president are a reminder of problems associated with Britain’s corporate transparency regime.
“Clearly, there are concerns over governance and transparency in this structure – there seems to be little stopping Nazarbayev from selling these assets – but it may not be his personal cash cow,” said Thomas Mayne, a visiting fellow at Chatham House who has researched corruption in Central Asia.
“If this is the former president’s private wealth, then the question is: why put it in such a public structure?”
Ben Cowdock, investigations lead at Transparency International UK, said that the OCCRP investigation “highlighted the incredible wealth amassed by Kazakhstan’s political elite during their time in power”, which, on this occasion, had been “revealed as a result of Britain's corporate transparency regime”.
“If the British government was to deliver its longstanding promises to strengthen Companies House and unveil offshore owners of property here, then we might have a fuller view of suspect Kazakh funds entering and moving through our economy,” Cowdock added.
A spokesperson for Nazarbayev did not respond to requests for comment from OCCRP.
*Update, 4 July 2022: Since publication we have been contacted by a representative of Jusan Technology Ltd and Nazarbayev Foundation, who has made the following points, which we are happy to include here.
Jusan Technology has, in fact, net assets of US$1.6bn. (The number in the headline of this article represents its gross assets.)
Nazarbayev Foundation says that it no longer holds any interest legally or beneficially in Jusan Tech or its assets. Majority ownership of that company has passed to a US entity whose parent company is a registered US non-profit organisation.
Jusan Tech says that Nursultan Nazarbayev does not control it, it is not a subsidiary of his foundation and Nazarbayev does not control its assets. Nazarbayev Foundation likewise says that Nazarbayev does not control it and that he has no legal or beneficial interest in its assets.
Nazarbayev Foundation asserts that its objectives are a matter of Kazakh law and cannot be changed without parliamentary approval.
Both the foundation and the company say that their corporate structure is not opaque and strongly reject any negative inference in that respect. In particular, both bodies reject any inference that Jusan Tech exists to hold or conceal funds acquired by Nazarbayev.
Jusan Tech rejects any inference that QAZ42 may have purchased shares in it at an undervalue. It has told openDemocracy that the QAZ42 transaction was valued under guidance from a Big Four international accounting firm.
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