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The End of America’s Kazakhstan Delusion

Long sold as an island of stability in a sea of chaos, the nation has collapsed into misrule, requiring swift action against its kleptocratic rulers.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades in a bid to break up an unprecedented thousands-strong march in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, after protests that began over fuel prices threatened to spiral out of control.
Abduaziz Madyarov/Getty Images
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades in a bid to break up an unprecedented thousands-strong march in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, after protests that began over fuel prices threatened to spiral out of control.

For many years, officials of the U.S. government, the paid-off lobbyists whispering in their ears, and their Western partners made some interesting claims about the country Kazakhstan. In their telling, the former Soviet republic was an “island of stability”—a potential partner in a slew of foreign policy endeavors. This month, however, whatever illusory stability the country once enjoyed came apart at the seams. But the United States and its Western partners shouldn’t mourn the wreckage of this grand delusion for too long: While there is no tidy path to fixing this broken regime, the means to punish those who broke it are close at hand.

Protests that erupted last week in Kazakhstan have spilled into unprecedented bloodshed, the official death toll now creeping over 160. Nominally prompted by rising gas prices, Kazakhstani citizens gathered on the streets to vent their anger at a regime that’s never provided any semblance of democratic opportunity and that has often served to do little more than benefit a ruling, kleptocratic elite. One figure in particular drew the lion’s share of the dissidents’ ire. With cries of “Shal, ket!“Old man, get out!”the protesters centered much of their ire on Nursultan Nazarbayev, the nation’s doughy former dictator. Nazarbayev may have formally handed off the reins of power to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019 after nearly three decades as head of state, but he has remained the power behind the throne ever since.

Now Nazarbayev’s standing as the country’s elder statesman—or as the “Leader of the Nation,” as his official title remainedhas disintegrated. And as Tokayev moves against Nazarbayev’s remaining power base, Nazarbayev’s legacy has transformed from a fantasy of domestic comity and stability to one far closer to reality.

Rather than being seen as the man who steered Kazakhstan to nationhoodas those paid to whitewash Nazarbayev’s reputation, like former British premier Tony Blair, would have us believeNazarbayev will now be viewed, both domestically and internationally, as the rapacious dictator who dedicated himself to self-enrichment at the expense of ordinary Kazakhs. Moreover, Nazarbayev will now be viewed as someone whose claims to “enlightened autocracy” and “strategic stability” were a ridiculous farce, bound to crash on the shore of reality. Citizens have long watched their regime whisk untold wealth out of the country, to be enjoyed elsewhere while the rest of the people struggled to survive. That bill is coming due.

It’s on that last point that the West can prove that it’s learned something from Kazakhstan’s swift collapse into carnage. With Russian-led troops scouring the country to prop up the listing regime, any thoughts of the U.S. providing material support to protesters was always a nonstarter. American, British, and European leverage is largely absent in Kazakhstan, as the mealy-mouthed statements issued by the White House thus far indicate. Unlike in post-Soviet states such as Belarus, there’s hardly a cohesive opposition to rally behind in Kazakhstan. And with the pullout from Afghanistan earlier this year, there isn’t even an overriding security interest in Kazakhstan’s governance.

There are, however, a handful of key lessons and responses policymakers should begin digesting and implementing, as swiftly as possible. They all center not on Kazakhstan specifically, but on the kind of regime Nazarbayev long representedand on a new war the White House launched just last month, on transnational money laundering, illicit finance, and modern kleptocracy.

Nazarbayev may not have been a household name in the West, but for years he represented the apotheosis of modern despotism, of untrammeled and undistilled kleptocratic corruption. While he put on a cheery smile for Western audiences, spinning tales of his regime as a bulwark of steadiness in an ocean of instability, he, his family, and his inner circle appeared focused on little more than thieving from Kazakhstanis and on using their access to the levers of state power to enrich themselves while immiserating the body politic.

None of this is especially secret. Years ago, the U.S. Justice Department formally accused Nazarbayev of colossal corruption that forced Western hydrocarbon companies to funnel tens of millions of dollars to the budding dictator. The funds, routed through Swiss bank accounts, allowed Nazarbayev access to as many speedboats and snowmobiles and fur coats as he wanted, according to American officials. The allegations ended up in what at the time was the largest case ever seen related to America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Nor was Nazarbayev alone in his grand larceny. As with kleptocratic regimes elsewhere, Nazarbayev’s family gorged on as much illicit wealth as they could find.

Last month, I helped co-author a new report with Chatham House looking specifically at how post-Soviet elites bundled billions of dollars into the United Kingdom, using British barristers and accountants and real estate agents to evade money-laundering controls. There, at the center of hundreds of millions in assets unearthed, stood Nazarbayev’s family: his daughters, his son-in-law, his grandson, all connected to an astonishing range of Western assets. (Given the rampant drive to stash ill-gotten gains in things like British real estate, the numbers were just “the tip of the iceberg,” as one of my co-authors, Thomas Mayne, said.) As if those numbers weren’t staggering enough, just this week The Telegraph reported hundreds of millions more in assets connected to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, detailing how she instructed her financial advisers “to buy palatial homes, a private bank and a luxury jet” via a range of Western anonymous financial secrecy vehicles.

Cataloging all of the Nazarbayev family’s stupefying corruption would be an exercise in exhaustion. Nor would it be surprising: In Kazakhstan, just 162 people own some 55 percent of the country’s wealth. But pull back, and one through line is clear: Where figures like Russian dictator Vladimir Putin or Venezuelan chief Nicolás Maduro embody much of modern kleptocracy, they’re both following a playbook laid out by the Kazakhstani despot who’s suddenly watching his facade crumble, as the world comes to understand that the kleptocrat has no clothes.

All of which presents the U.S. with one clear option, especially now that Nazarbayev’s power base implodes: directly sanctioning the decomposing kleptocrat, as well as his family members and inner circle. The move to sanction Nazarbayev would build on growing awareness that specific, targeted sanctions remain one of the West’s best tools in the arsenal of counter-kleptocracy tactics. Seizing and freezing the Nazarbayev claque’s Western assetstheir real estate and private jets, their high-end artwork and fleets of automobileswould, at the very least, offer succor to protesters who’ve just put their lives on the line to protest the regime’s avarice.

Leveling sanctions against the range of Nazarbayev’s inner circle would also prove that the White House’s new anti-corruption strategy is more than just rhetoric. Moreover, announcing sanctions against a figure like Nazarbayev would pressure allies to follow suitnot least the U.K., which has opened its doors time and again to blood-stained, brutal figures like Nazarbayev and his family (and which saw Nazarbayev’s family help gut one of Britain’s key anti-kleptocracy tools along the way).

Critically, sanctioning Nazarbayev directly would illustrate that in the White House’s new war on kleptocracy, no figure is above reproach. As the author of so much of the modern kleptocratic playbookand of a supposed “island of stability,” no matter how much he and his family profited along the wayNazarbayev looms large as the personification of the phenomenon; the template that so many other thieving heads of state followed and perfected. Now, as Nazarbayev watches his legacy splinter amid the bullets and bodies littering Kazakhstan, he stands as the culmination of what modern kleptocracy will always result in: not an island of stability but a sea of blood. What’s been done in Kazakhstan cannot be undone; it must, however, be avenged.