Kazakh President's Underground Business passed through Switzerland

Never-before-seen documents obtained by Public Eye reveal how Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current President of Kazakhstan and former Director-General of the United Nations at Geneva, discreetly held assets in oil and rare metals in the 2010s, in possible violation of Kazakh law. Tokayev was able to carry out this business through his son, a naturalized businessman residing in Geneva. Part of the profits made in Kazakhstan ended up with private bank Julius Bär in Zurich. This inquiry demonstrates the appeal of the Swiss financial centre for Central Asian elites, and the need to fight against opaque business dealings by introducing a public register of companies’ beneficial owners.

Elected President of Kazakhstan in 2019 and the designated successor of long-time ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became notorious in January 2022 when he gave the order to fire on a crowd of demonstrators protesting against rising gas prices, killing at least 232 people. This violent act marked a turning point: Tokayev took advantage of the crisis to have a constitutional referendum passed that was intended to put an end to the Nazarbayev era, synonymous with authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism. Early presidential elections are set to be held on 20 November 2022.

But as our investigation reveals, President Tokayev himself applied the practices that were widespread within the Kazakh elite in the time of his predecessor. Public Eye gained access to thousands of emails dating from 2006 to 2014. The correspondence shows that, in addition to his senior state and parliamentary service, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev held hidden shares in two companies based in Kazakhstan: Abi Petroleum Capital and Kazakhstan Tungsten & Molybdenum Company (KTMC). This could be a violation of Kazakh law, which prohibits senior officials and parliamentarians from carrying out business activities and holding a stake of more than 5% in any given company.

To manage his assets in oil and strategic metals, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took shelter behind his son Timur Tokayev – a businessman residing in Geneva and naturalised Swiss citizen – and his nephew, who on paper were the shareholders in the two companies. Part of the profits made in Kazakhstan were repatriated to Switzerland. We have been able to document a payment, made between October 2012 and February 2013, of nearly $1.8 million from Abi Petroleum Capital to an account at the Julius Bär private bank in Zurich. The account holder is Edelweiss Resources LLP, an offshore company that has just been registered in UK by Tokayev's son. An unusual service contract between two companies with the same owner seems to have been used to justify the arrival of the funds to the bank.

While serving as Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva (March 2011 to October 2013), Kassym-Jomart Tokayev continued to actively manage his shares, which he then sought to sell on the advice of President Nazarbayev. We also discovered that, while Tokayev was in office, his son supervised the repair of a UN room, paid for by the Kazakh state. Some $384,117 was allocated to his mother-in-law – a well-known tapestry maker in Kazakhstan – for the creation of tapestries.

Kazakhstan is ranked 102nd (out of 180) in the Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International in 2021. The emails analysed by Public Eye make it possible to identify the Swiss lawyers, fiduciaries and bankers who rolled out the red carpet for the influential Tokayev family in Geneva, Zurich, Basel and Ticino. Our findings highlight the need to establish more transparency, namely by creating a public register of companies’ beneficial owners. The Swiss authorities should implement the relevant recommendation made by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is a global minimum standard in the fight against economic crime.

For more information please contact: 

Oliver Classen, Spokesperson, +41 44 277 79 06, oliver.classen@publiceye.ch 

Agathe Duparc, Senior researcher, +33 7 71 22 34 13, agathe.duparc@publiceye.ch