Kazakhstan's Family Feud

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When May began, Rakhat Aliyev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Vienna, was the crown prince of the energy-abundant central Asian nation. He was married to the favorite daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom the country's newly rewritten constitution now allows to stay on as President for life if he so chooses. Aliyev had the crown squarely in his sights. As May ends, however, Aliyev's political, business and media empire is being unraveled; and he is a fugitive, placed on a criminal wanted list by his vindictive father-in-law.

The immediate cause of the family rupture was Aliyev's recent public opposition to the constitutional amendment that gave his wife's father such power. Nazarbayev explained the move as necessary to steer new reform and designed to enhance democracy in the country. Few expect, however, that Nazarbayev will ever step down. Nor did Aliyev, who is married to Dariga, until recently the President's ideologist and confidante (the couple are the parents of Nuralli, Nazarbayev's 22-year-old grandson and the apple of his eye). Nevertheless, the would-be President for Life had grown to detest his son-in-law through the years.

Do not mistake Aliyev for a democrat. Though he acts like a political opponent, Aliyev can behave in crass and self-serving ways. Last September, before he opposed his father-in-law's new powers, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan become a hereditary monarchy — perhaps, say observers, to try to restore relations with Nazarbayev but also to set up Aliyev's own son Nuralli as eventual sultan of a new kingdom.

But the morning after Nazarbayev signed the constitutional amendments that gave him unbounded power, law enforcers brought kidnapping charges against Aliyev. "The head of state," said a Ministry of the Interior spokesman, "personally instructed" officials to conduct the investigation that concluded with the criminal charges of kidnapping, with a penalty of life imprisonment. Formally, investigators charge him with the January kidnapping of the chief and the deputy of Nurbank, a financial organization of which Aliyev owns more than 50%. Reports have Aliyev allegedly furious that the bank officials were siphoning off money that he believed was his own.

The head of Nurbank, Abilmazhen Gilimov, now in police custody and under investigation for alleged embezzlement, appeared on Kazakhstan National TV last Saturday to repeat his court statement claiming that Aliyev had him and his colleague handcuffed and hauled to a basement. Gilimov says that Aliyev then fired a gun over their heads and threatened to kill them, saying: "In this country I can get away with anything." There has still been no sign of Gilimov's deputy, Zholdas Timraliyev. When the kidnappings were first reported, the Presidential son-in-law had offered an $83,000 reward to anyone who found him. But, in recent statements to the press, Timraliyev's wife says she longer has hope that her husband is alive.

From Kazakhstan, Aliyev rushed back to Austria, where he made a statement to an online magazine he controlled, dismissing the charges as a part of slander campaign. The real reason, he said, was his informing Nazarbayev of his intentions to run for Presidency in 2012. An enraged Nazarbayev stripped his son-in-law of the ambassadorship and dispatched a group of top law enforcers aboard a special flight to bring the culprit home. They came back empty-handed. "Under the circumstances," Aliyev explained yesterday in a phone interview from Vienna to a Kazakh online magazine, "only a suicide will come back." Still, all entry points in Kazakhstan are on the alert to arrest Aliyev, should he attempt to return.

When Aliyev married Dariga Nazarbayeva in 1984, it was seen as a love affair within Kazakhstan's political elite (Aliyev's father was the former Health Minister). Aliyev slowly rose in the government until the fall of 2001, when his alleged collusion with top officials against Nazarbayev lead to a political crisis. Some Kazakh political sources say that only Dariga's intervention saved Aliyev from the wrath of an enraged Nazarbayev, who then exiled Aliyev to Vienna as ambassador. Aliyev was able to return only in July 2005, when an appeased Nazarbayev promoted him to First Deputy Foreign Minister, a post he would hold concurrently with the ambassadorship to Austria.

Aliyev has other enemy in-laws. His wife's sister and her husband are rivals for power within the family as well. As for now, however, the all-powerful father-in-law has had Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's Office close down several print, broadcast and online outlets of the media-holding company controlled by Aliyev and Dariga. That vast empire will be now redistributed among the President's supporters. The police searched Dariga's house, in spite of her immunity as a member of parliament. "Getting rid of Aliyev is good news," says one analyst in Kazakhstan. "The way he is being got rid of is bad news, though. Scoundrels fighting villains in roguish ways doesn't promise any good."

This political melodrama would be amusing if Kazakhstan were not the most prosperous of the Central Asian nations that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, a stable secular state in a predominantly Muslim-populated country, and a huge stable source of energy, both oil and natural gas. So much power concentrated in the hands of one man in that country may help ensure some sort of stability, but the lack of political maturity bodes ill for an increasingly critical section of the world.