Kazak Businessman Gets Probation

Observers say Bulat Abilov’s legal troubles are a warning to the business community to stay out of politics.

Kazak Businessman Gets Probation

Observers say Bulat Abilov’s legal troubles are a warning to the business community to stay out of politics.

Saturday, 5 August, 2006
A leading Kazak businessman and influential opposition figure says his recent criminal conviction for hitting a policeman and a separate investigation into his financial affairs are politically motivated.

Bulat Abilov – one of Kazakstan’s richest men – got three years probation and is forbidden from leaving the country after the incident in the western Kazak village of Aktau during the 2005 election campaign.

Abilov, co-chairman of the most influential opposition party, Nagzy Ak Jol, and one of the founders of the opposition movement For A Fair Kazakstan, was found guilty of hitting on the head a policeman who was detaining him – a charge he denies. He was also convicted of insulting a representative of power who was in the course of conducting his professional duties.

He says he will appeal the verdict of the Temirtau city court, but even if he wins Abilov’s legal troubles aren’t over.

In August 2005, he was charged with fraud and tax evasion relating to his activities with the Butja Foundation – a large network of retail shops in several large cities of Kazakstan, which sell everything from Adidas sportswear and European clothing brands to food and furniture. He used to own the company but now works there as the director general.

Abilov has made no secret that he uses his personal fortune to finance opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, leading observers and Abilov to speculate that his recent legal troubles are politically motivated.

Alexander Skryl from the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Law Observance believes the charges against Abilov are a warning to Kazakstan’s business elite – among the most vocal critics of Nazarbaev’s policies. “With the example of Abilov, it has been shown what they and the business structures they control can expect if they decide to speak out against the authorities,” he said.

“All these financial lawsuits have been opened against him only to deprive him of the opportunity to finance political activity, not just his own but also to stop him from financing his allies.”

Abilov – a one-time parliamentary deputy for Nazarbaev’s Otan party – isn’t the only one of his business contemporaries to wind up in court.

In 2002, Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former minister of energy and the ex-head of the Kazakstan energy company KEGOK, was sentenced to seven years on charges of corruption and abusing his official powers.

And other businessmen have come under pressure.

In 2005, the head of the Asem stationary company, Talgat Kojakhmetov, was charged with evading 250 million tenge [1.9 million US dollars] worth of taxes over three years. His brother is the opposition leader Asylbek Kojakhmetov

Guljan Ergalieva, a leading political figure and the editor of the national newspaper Freedom of Speech, told IWPR that the attacks on Abilov and the others are a message to the business elite not to get involved in politics.

Ergalieva cites an open letter to the president published earlier this year in opposition papers, in which the country’s major bankers promised to abstain from politics.

“One should remember Nazarbaev’s statement at a meeting with businessmen in 2002, when he announced that he could take anyone by the hand and take them to court,” said Ergalieva.

Some believe that the government’s tactics will work, particularly among small and medium-sized business people, making them more loyal to the president and undermining the chances for development of an alternative political force.

Ergalieva, however, expects some will fight back.

“Businessmen well understand that today it is Abilov, and tomorrow it could be any one of them. This is why a letter was sent recently [to Nazarbaev] in support of Abilov from representatives of the business elite,” said Ergalieva.

Alexander Skryl worries the recent controversies will hurt Kazakstan’s long-term economic prospects. “Will Kazakstan, where the political interests of the regime are above the law, attract any new investors?” he said.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR correspondent in Taraz.
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