GENEVA – In the gentle dawn of Switzerland’s late summer, Lake Geneva’s ripples lap against the properties on the eastern shore in the suburb of Anières, home to diplomats, bankers, and well-to-do Swiss.
Some of the buildings are understated in their wealth, with slate shingles or mansard roofs or Corinthian columns. Some have gazebos on manicured lawns looking west to the Jura Mountains, or docks where motorboats and kayaks are parked. Many have gates and surveillance cameras to protect from curious passersby.
And then there’s the property at No. 399 Route D’Hermance: a 3,200-square-meter three-level villa with a butterfly staircase, a 25-meter indoor-outdoor swimming pool, spa, guest quarters, and terraced landscaping.
In an area known for having some of the most expensive housing in the region, it’s an exceptional property.
The owner of the estate, according to Swiss property records, is Dinara Kulibaeva, the daughter of Kazakhstan’s longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbaev. She and her husband, Timur Kulibaev, who are among Kazakhstan’s wealthiest people, purchased the villa in 2009 for a reported $75 million.
And they are among several immediate and extended relatives of Nazarbaev who own lavish real estate in the West.
Over the past two decades, relatives of Nazarbaev have purchased hundreds of millions of dollars in posh real estate in Europe and the United States, a string of high-end properties on luxurious lakesides, amid Manhattan’s skyscrapers, London’s tony suburbs, and overlooking the azure waters of Spain’s Costa Brava.
A new RFE/RL investigation provides the most comprehensive overview to date of the properties in this sprawling real estate network linked to Nazarbaev’s relatives, including two of his daughters, his grandsons, and his brother.
The findings are not an exhaustive record of every foreign property owned by a relative of the former Kazakh president, who was officially granted the title “Leader of the Nation” in 2010 and currently serves as chairman of the country’s powerful Security Council and heads its ruling political party.
But they offer an unprecedented window into the scale of the real estate investments by Nazarbaev’s relatives, and how many in close proximity to Kazakhstan’s ruling family ended up with luxury assets in exclusive locations.
RFE/RL identified at least $785 million in European and U.S. real estate purchases made by Nazarbaev’s family members and their in-laws in six countries over a 20-year span. This figure includes a handful of properties that have since been sold, including multimillion-dollar apartments in the United States bought by Nazarbaev’s brother, Bolat. It does not include a sprawling Spanish estate owned by Kulibaev, for which a purchase price could not be found.
These acquisitions have been funded by the vast fortunes Nazarbaev’s relatives have amassed in the oil-rich nation’s energy, banking, and other sectors, while at various times also serving in official government posts.
Nazarbaev’s patronage is widely seen as crucial to the wealth built by his relatives, who have repeatedly and vehemently insisted they are successful businesspeople independent of their family and political connections.
Prominent among those is Kulibaev, who has been dogged for years by accusations that his wealth, mainly from his work in the oil-and-gas industry, derives from his familial relations. The Financial Times on December 2 said it had uncovered a secret scheme that allegedly channeled tens of millions of dollars from contracts related to a massive gas pipeline to China to Kulibaev. His lawyers denied specifics of the report to the Financial Times and did not respond to queries from RFE/RL.
Several of these properties documented by RFE/RL have been the subject of legal challenges, including permitting disputes, an acrimonious divorce, and British freezing orders on three London residences that were later overturned by a court.
The investments in pricey foreign properties also come against the backdrop of the country’s overall increase in national wealth since the Soviet collapse. This increased prosperity has lifted livelihoods for many average Kazakhs -- but it has also helped the politically connected elite transform into jet-setting tycoons and fodder for newspaper gossip pages.
And with 80-year-old Nazarbaev in his twilight, there’s a growing uncertainty about what, and who, will succeed him when he fully departs from Kazakh politics -- and what might happen to the fortunes of those closest to him.
“The system is so brittle. The political economy that Nazarbaev has built, it’s built on one man,” said Kate Mallinson, a London-based consultant and researcher of Central Asian politics.
His relatives and closest allies have “hedged the bets on the future, not knowing what will happen -- and so they’ve had to put assets outside the country,” Mallinson told RFE/RL.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the head of Kazakhstan’s oldest and largest human-rights organization, said “it is hard to separate the government from the [Nazarbaev] family” and “hard to say how it will be in Kazakhstan” after Nazarbaev dies.
“You cannot rely on protection from the rule of law when you live in such political systems,” Zhovtis said.