Top Kazakh Oligarchs And Dozens Of Government

Two decades ago, at a meet­ing with top busi­ness lead­ers in his oil-rich Central Asian coun­try, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is famous­ly known to have lost his tem­per.


“I have cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for you,” he said. “And you don’t pay tax­es. You take your earn­ings abroad or buy real estate and luxuries.”

“I could take any of you to court by the hand!”

It was a point­ed threat in a coun­try with a polit­i­cal­ly com­pro­mised judi­cial sys­tem that’s often lit­tle more than a tool in the hands of those in power.

Nazarbayev would go on to rule Kazakhstan for anoth­er 18 years before step­ping down in 2019 — though not before anoint­ing him­self “Leader of the Nation.” The sys­tem he built and over­saw, which revolves around patron­age, favor-trad­ing, and com­pe­ti­tion over polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic resources — is still in place. Some Kazakhs have amassed huge rich­es, but those seen as unloy­al have been ruth­less­ly crushed.

So it may come as lit­tle sur­prise that, dur­ing his rule, the regime’s sur­veil­lance appears to have been deployed against top Kazakh oli­garchs. At least four major play­ers, includ­ing a close friend to Nazarbayev, are on the list.

Their phone num­bers were among 92 iden­ti­fied on a leaked list of near­ly 2,000 num­bers linked to Kazakhstan believed to have been select­ed for tar­get­ing with Pegasus, a sophis­ti­cat­ed spy­ware tool devel­oped by Israeli sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny NSO Group. The oper­a­tor of the soft­ware appears to be the gov­ern­ment of Kazakhstan.

Among the most promi­nent names select­ed for tar­get­ing is Bulat Utemuratov, once the rich­est man in Kazakhstan and a close friend and advis­er to Nazarbayev. His num­ber appeared in the data — along with his wife, two sons, and sev­er­al employ­ees. The list also includ­ed Alibek Kulibayev, the nephew of Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, and two of his per­son­al assistants.

The arm of the regime opendemocracy appears to have stretched far beyond its bor­ders. Among those select­ed was Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugi­tive for­mer head of BTA Bank, who the gov­ern­ment has accused of steal­ing bil­lions from its cof­fers. The well-known regime oppo­nent has been liv­ing in France for nine years.

Without foren­sic analy­sis, it is impos­si­ble to tell whether these devices were indeed suc­cess­ful­ly breached.

But the oli­garchs select­ed for tar­get­ing “are the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in Kazakhstan,” said Nate Schenkkan, Director of Research Strategy at U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House. “So it doesn’t sur­prise me that the secu­ri­ty ser­vices are try­ing to mon­i­tor them and sur­veill them. … That’s where the most pow­er­ful polit­i­cal threats have always come from.”

Earlier, OCCRP revealed that some of Kazakhstan’s most senior offi­cials were also on the list. Among them is for­mer prime min­is­ter Bakytzhan Sagintayev, cur­rent pres­i­dent Kassym Jomart-Tokayev, and prime min­is­ter Askar Mamin.

But the list also con­tains phone num­bers belong­ing to a num­ber of oth­er senior offi­cials, includ­ing a region­al gov­er­nor, for­mer and cur­rent min­is­ters, and heads of state companies.

The dozens of num­bers sug­gest that the entire Nazarbayev regime, prac­ti­cal­ly from top to bot­tom, was being spied on — most like­ly by its own secu­ri­ty services.

The avail­able data points to a par­tic­u­lar focus on the inner cir­cle of Nazarbayev, who also named him­self Chairman of the Security Council for life. The Kazakh Security Council con­trols the country’s secu­ri­ty ser­vices. Before step­ping down, Nazarbayev changed the con­sti­tu­tion to give the secu­ri­ty coun­cil addi­tion­al pow­ers that place it even above the pres­i­dent and prime minister.

The Kazakh secu­ri­ty ser­vices didn’t respond to reporters’ requests for com­ment. Dauren Abayev, first deputy of the Kazakh pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion, told state tele­vi­sion chan­nel Khabar that he couldn’t com­ment on the alle­ga­tions that there was a list of peo­ple select­ed for tar­get­ing with spy­ware, because he knew noth­ing about it.

“We got some intrigu­ing infor­ma­tion with­out any evi­dence,” he said of the rev­e­la­tions of The Pegasus Project.

“It is easy to include any­one on this list and, through that, sow the seeds of doubt among the elite, among jour­nal­ists, et cetera. I believe it’s bet­ter to stay smart­ly skeptical.”

NSO Group has con­sis­tent­ly said that its soft­ware is sold only to gov­ern­ments, and only for the pur­pose of tar­get­ing crim­i­nals. It has refused to con­firm or deny whether Kazakh gov­ern­ment was a client, and has claimed not to have any access to its cus­tomers’ records except in cas­es of abuse.

Enemy No. 1

For over a decade, Mukhtar Ablyazov has been a neme­sis of Kazakhstan’s gov­ern­ment. The 58-year-old busi­ness­man has pre­vi­ous­ly been tar­get­ed for sur­veil­lance, with his wife and daugh­ter alleged­ly tracked in Italy and then, as he describes it, kid­napped by Kazakh author­i­ties.

Once a senior gov­ern­ment offi­cial, Ablyazov served as min­is­ter for ener­gy, indus­try and trade in the 1990s. He first appears to have angered President Nazarbayev in 2001 after co-found­ing an oppo­si­tion move­ment that was lat­er banned as “extrem­ist.” Shortly after­wards he was jailed on cor­rup­tion charges, then par­doned and released.


But by 2009 he was in trou­ble again, flee­ing Kazakhstan for London as the state accused him of steal­ing more than $10 bil­lion from his own finan­cial insti­tu­tion, BTA Bank. Ablyazov has described the charges — for which he was sen­tenced to life in prison in Kazakhstan and a 15-year term in Russia — as polit­i­cal. He was arrest­ed in France in 2013 on the basis of an Interpol “red notice,” but released after a court ruled that the extra­di­tion request was polit­i­cal­ly motivated.

Two of Ablyazov’s French phone num­bers appeared on the leaked Pegasus list in late 2018, though reporters were unable to con­duct a foren­sic analy­sis to con­firm that the phones were breached.

Ablyazov told Le Monde, a part­ner in the Pegasus Project, that he hoped the new infor­ma­tion about his pos­si­ble tar­get­ing with Pegasus would prompt French pros­e­cu­tors to open an investigation.

“The Kazakh regime has been try­ing to silence me for the past twen­ty years to stop me from denounc­ing the klep­toc­ra­cy that is erod­ing the coun­try,” he said, adding that he expect­ed the rev­e­la­tions of poten­tial wide­spread sur­veil­lance to make waves among Kazakhstan’s rul­ing elite.

“I imag­ine that those high rank­ing Kazakh offi­cials will be upset by your rev­e­la­tions and this will prob­a­bly revive frat­ri­ci­dal strug­gle with­in the Nazarbaev clan,” Ablyazov said.

The President’s “Personal Financial Manager”

The list also includ­ed Bulat Utemuratov, one of Kazakhstan’s wealth­i­est peo­ple. Two of his phone num­bers were select­ed between 2017 and 2019. In addi­tion to the oli­garch him­self, his sons, wife, a close rel­a­tive, his per­son­al assis­tants, and his employ­ees also appear to have been select­ed for targeting.

In addi­tion to his inter­ests in bank­ing, real estate, hos­pi­tal­i­ty, and nat­ur­al resources, Utemuratov once served as the head of the office of the pres­i­dent under Nazarbayev. He was known as Kazakhstan’s “gray car­di­nal” and described by a U.S. diplo­mat as the president’s “per­son­al finan­cial man­ag­er,” accord­ing to a leaked diplo­mat­ic cable pub­lished by Wikileaks.


In 2015, Forbes described Utemuratov as the rich­est man in Kazakhstan, with a for­tune of $2.6 bil­lion that he built, in part, through acquir­ing pri­va­tized state firms and reselling them to Western corporations.

No spe­cif­ic rea­son for any sur­veil­lance of Utemuratov is known. But the busi­ness­man was entan­gled in the same BTA Bank case that result­ed in Ablyazov’s flight from Kazakhstan.

After being seized by the state, the bank sued both busi­ness­men, accus­ing Utemuratov of help­ing Ablyazov hide the stolen money.


Another Kazakh bil­lion­aire con­nect­ed to the Ablyazov affair was also on the Pegasus list.

Kenes Rakishev, the son-in-law of a for­mer prime min­is­ter, acquired a stake in BTA Bank from the gov­ern­ment after it had been seized from Ablyazov.

Over the next few years, Rakishev grew his share of BTA into a con­trol­ling stake and trans­formed the insti­tu­tion, shed­ding its bank­ing busi­ness. In effect, he turned BTA into an invest­ment com­pa­ny whose main assets were its claims against Ablyazov, esti­mat­ed at $6 billion.

A con­sid­er­able por­tion of the Ablyazov prop­er­ty that BTA was claim­ing is locat­ed in Russia, includ­ing plots of land, devel­op­ment projects, and a port. As pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed by OCCRP and Russian news site The Project, when Rakishev went after it, he entered a fierce bat­tle that involved peo­ple close to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strong­man leader of Chechnya.More

The Son-in-Law

Straddling the worlds of pol­i­tics and busi­ness, Timur Kulibayev is one of the rich­est and most pow­er­ful men in Kazakhstan. He’s also lit­er­al­ly fam­i­ly to Nazarbaev, hav­ing mar­ried his daugh­ter Dinara.

Though Kulibayev’s num­ber doesn’t appear to have been select­ed, three peo­ple in his inner cir­cle — his nephew and two assis­tants — were on the list of poten­tial Pegasus targets.


“He’s come in and out of favor over the years,” said Schenkkan from Freedom House about the pos­si­ble rea­sons for inter­est in Kulibayev. “There was a per­cep­tion that you have to keep him in line and make sure he doesn’t go free­lanc­ing anywhere.”

In 2011, when he was forced to step down amid a series of con­tro­ver­sies, Kulibayev head­ed a num­ber of state enti­ties that con­trolled the country’s vast oil, gas, and min­er­al resources.

Today, he and his wife are com­fort­ably among the rich­est peo­ple in the coun­try, with a net wealth of $2.9 bil­lion each, accord­ing to Forbes’ 2021 rank­ing. They con­trol a vast busi­ness empire that includes inter­ests in bank­ing, agri­cul­ture, oil trad­ing, and real estate.

Kulibayev’s wealth extends far beyond Kazakhstan. Though nev­er con­vict­ed, he has been inves­ti­gat­ed for mon­ey laun­der­ing in Switzerland, fol­low­ing evi­dence giv­en in London’s High Court that he had used “laun­dered mon­ey” to buy a house from Britain’s Prince Andrew.

Watching the Watchers

Unlike in many oth­er coun­tries for which data was avail­able, reporters iden­ti­fied rel­a­tive­ly few jour­nal­ists or human rights activists select­ed for tar­get­ing from Kazakhstan. Instead, the Kazakh list was full of cur­rent and for­mer senior offi­cials, busi­ness­men, and even mem­bers of the spe­cial ser­vices. The vast major­i­ty of those select­ed are known for their loy­al­ty to the gov­ern­ment. Their inclu­sion may be a way to ensure that loyalty.

Explore oth­er Kazakh names select­ed for tar­get­ing in our inter­ac­tive info­graph­ic.

Ilya Lozovsky (OCCRP) and Martin Untersinger (Le Monde) con­tributed reporting.

OCCRP by  Miranda Patrucic and Vyacheslav Abramov