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Kazak Banker Accident Under Scrutiny

Suspicions are raised that Erjan Tatishev, alleged to have been the victim of tragic accident, was murdered.
By Alim Bekenov

Speculation is growing in Kazakstan that the hunting tragedy last weekend that killed a well-known banker was no accident.


Officially, 37-year-old Erjan Tatishev, president of the TuranAlem bank, BTA, was killed on December 19 when a gun he was handing over to a colleague went off accidentally, as the jeep he was driving hit a bump.


Tatishev, an experienced hunter, was with a group that included bodyguards and employees of a private security firm.


However, not everyone is convinced by the police explanation for the death of the head of Kazakstan’s second-largest bank.


“He handled guns like a professional,” said Tatishev’s former bodyguard, who spoke to IWPR on conditions of anonymity. “In the years I worked with him, I went hunting with him several times, and I never saw him handle guns carelessly. Even in the heat of the chase, he always kept a clear head, and always calculated every step and every shot.”


There’s mounting speculation that Tatishev may have been killed by business or political rivals.


Tatishev became president of BTA in 1997, one year after the Kazak government forced the merger of two insolvent banks. With assets of 4 billion US dollars, it has since become the sixth largest private bank in the Commonwealth of Independent States.


In the 1990s, Tatishev headed the brokerage Sayat-Brok, and later became vice-president of one of the first holding companies in Kazakstan, Astana Holdings, founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a businessman who became trade minister and later joined the opposition.


Tatishev had big plans for BTA. Just before his death, he unveiled an ambitious scheme to raise 1.5 billion dollars next year, in part by issuing 200 million dollars worth of Eurobonds in the first quarter of 2005 and by selling shares worth 350 million dollars.


Much of this money was earmarked for new BTA branches in Azerbaijan and Armenia, for a bank purchase in Tatarstan and to open offices in St Petersburg and Saransk.


All of which has led to suggestions that his death could be linked to business rivalry.


At a press conference, the chairman of BTA’s board of directors, Serik Ualiev, referring to the Tatishev shooting, was reluctant to comment on anything apart from official version, but mentioned that “just like in any case there are rivals and competitors”.


Some observers took this to mean Ualiev was hinting that competitors had taken their revenge on the prominent banker.


Several newspapers have suggested that this may have been the case. “Our reliable source in the Jambyl region [where the fatal incident happened] told us that Tatishev’s interests clashed with those of another oligarch,” said the private-owned title Liter. “The envy of rivals brings to mind contract killings disguised as a tragic incident.”


In May 2003, Tatishev himself talked about jealous rivals following rumours, widely reported in the Kazak media, that he had fled to the US with all the bank’s assets. The supposed “flight” turned out to be a business trip, but Tatishev was forced to call a press conference to respond to the allegations and calm frightened depositors.


“Successful development makes envious people worried,” he said at the time.


Some observers have pointed out that there might be a connection between Tatishev’s death and what some in government circles perceive as his attempts to revive links with his former associates who ended up in the opposition camp.


In 2001, he openly backed the new opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, which was made up of government members and representatives of the country’s business elite, such as Ablyazov.


Ablyazov was given a six-year sentence for illegal business dealings and misuse of office in 2002. He was subsequently released under amnesty in May 2003.


As for Tatishev, his support for the opposition movement wavered when the authorities cracked down. Since then, he distanced himself from the political scene and concentrated on his BAT work.


The bank’s management was keen to stress that it is interested only in business and does not want to be involved in politics. It was one of the signatories of the recent letter by a group of Kazak banks supporting President Nazarbaev’s call to the country’mega-holdings to stay in commerce and not try to seek ways of getting involved in politics.


But it seems that some in government quarters felt concerned that Tatishev might have resumed his old ties with former associates like Ablyazov.


There have been other apparent attempts on Tatishev’s life.


In 2002, an unidentified assailant threw two bottles containing explosives into his car as his driver left the bank’s underground garage. It is still unclear whether this was an effort to kill the banker since Tatishev wasn’t in the car at the time.


Bulat Abilov, a leading member of the opposition Ak Jol party and a successful businessman, said concerns remain about that incident as well as his untimely death.


“I am very upset, because I knew him for many years, and had great respect for him. He was a very talented businessman, a talented banker. Our country has lost a great deal,” Abilov said.


“But it cannot be denied that there are many doubts. There was a murder attempt, and threats – many people know this, and it was no secret in business circles.”


Contract killings of well-known businessmen have become reasonably frequent in Kazakstan since the country gained its independence.


In the past 12 years, almost 90 have been reported to police, including the death of Alexander Svechinsky, the general director of the Karaganda metallurgical company, who was murdered with a sawn-off shotgun in 1992.


More recently, Bulat Safin, vice-president of the Alash conglomerate, went missing in Almaty in February 2003 and was eventually found dead. Three months later, the former minister for industry and the head of an oil construction company, Khairolla Ospanov, was killed.


Alim Bekenov is the pseudonym of an Astana-based journalist and Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.