Friday, March 14, 2008

"Puppet Master" Mr. Utemuratov comes out of the shadows: Understanding Kazakhstan’s Billionaires on the Forbes List

PhotobucketForbes’ list of billionaires has added another Kazakhstan name to its list – Bulat Utemuratov– bringing the country’s “official” members in the elite billionaire club to 8. Before one gets too excited about what appears to be Mr. Utemuratov’s rapid rise to wealth, let’s keep in mind what gets a Kazakhstan billionaire on Forbes’ radar screen. First, the Forbes list appears to operate on legitimate wealth that is documented publicly. There is likely a lot of wealth in Kazakhstan that remains hidden from the public eye, and there may well be more than 8 billionaires as a result. The money of Kazakhstan tends to become publicly visible when major assets are bought from or sold to a foreign company (PetroKazakhstan, Nelson Resources, etc.) or when assets are legitimized through international stock markets (Kazakh Mys, KazKommertz Bank, Kazakh Oil, etc.). In Mr. Utemuratov’s case, he earned $1 billion by selling his stake in the country’s number 5 bank, ATF, last year to the Italian company Unicredit. Hence, we now know that he is a billionaire, on paper at least.

The question one should ask about Kazakhstan’s Forbes billionaires is whether the people on it, in actuality, have more or less money and assets than is disclosed by Forbes. One reason they could have more money and assets than disclosed is that the disclosed amounts are only the publicly known parts of their wealth. One reason they could have less money and assets is that they could in fact be “representing” somebody else economically. Vladimir Kim, for example, remains the alleged richest person in Kazakhstan according to Forbes, but many in Kazakhstan have suggested that Kim’s largest asset, Kazakh Mys, is really owned by President Nursultan Nazarbayev or a group of people in government, but certainly not Kim himself. Hypothetically, if this was the case, it would probably mean that Kim still has plenty of money, but he saves others the embarrassment of appearing to be both politicians and financial barons by “representing” them. The term often used to refer to such people in the former Soviet Union is “kashalok,” or “pocket-book.”

So – back to Mr. Utemuratov. What do we know about him? Is he really a billionaire or merely a rich and powerful “kashalok” for others? Is he worth more or less than a billion?

In the last twenty-five years, Bulat Utemuratov, who is from Atyrau, has risen from the deputy director of Almty’s “Yubeleinyi” supermarket during the late Soviet period to be one of the most powerful people in Kazakhstan. He is widely seen as one of President Nazarbayev’s closest confident and his fixer, holding a host of positions within the presidential administration. One announcement of his entry into Kazakhstan’s billionaire club even referred to him as Nazarbayev’s “consigliere,” drawing from one of my favorite analytical devices for understanding Kazakhstan’s power structure – The Sopranos. The aspect of Utemuratov’s job within the Kazakhstan power structure that fascinates me most, however, is his role vis a vis political opposition and media. While Utemuratov is an advisor and close confident to the president, allegedly part of his job in the past has been to ostensibly control the two most visible information outlets in Kazakhstan that take more critical stances towards the government – the television station Channel 31 and the newspaper Vremya.

Unlike the other Central Asian states, which try to stifle opposition media completely (Kyrgyzstan sometimes unsuccessfully), Nazarbayev’s regime has taken control over such media while allowing it to remain oppositional, within reason. Nazarbayev has even been rumored to have said that he “creates his own opposition” by exerting such indirect control over both political parties and media. As Andrew Wilson has shown in his book “Virtual Politics,” this is a strategy that the Kremlin has employed since the days of Gorbachev, but it should be noted that Nazarbayev’s government has been especially adept at this particular kind of subtle and powerful control of the political field. While Utemuratov has sold a good chunk of Channel 31 to a Russian media group and may no longer control “Vremya,” he presumably remains Nazarbayev’s “puppet master” extraordinaire. It is assumed that he answers to the president for the behavior of the opposition and seeks to keep them under control.

While Utemuratov may indeed serve his master, a man of his power could certainly be assumed to retain control over a modest asset such as Kazakhstan’s No. 5 bank (for years of loyal service at the very least). In other words, one would assume that Mr. Utemuratov’s value to the president goes far beyond that of a “kashalok.” Thus, unlike Kim, who probably is worth less than Forbes assumes, Utemuratov may indeed be worth more. As an aside, Mr. Utemuratov, who is obviously an extremely intelligent navigator of Kazakhstan’s political and economic terrain, may have displayed his usual craftiness in selling off ATF bank late last year – just in time to escape what may be an impending banking crisis in the country. So, Bulat Utemuratov should be congratulated for staying ahead of the curve as usual – of course, he probably has a good deal of insider information to help him stay ahead of the pack.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Uyghurs and the Olympics: Will Global Focus on Beijing Bring Attention to the Plight of the Uyghurs?


The “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) has been very hard on the Uyghurs. Taking advantage of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Chinese government since 2001 has stepped up its repression of Uyghur dissent both inside and outside China’s borders, justifying its actions by branding Uyghur nationalists as terrorists. More importantly, however, the Chinese government has effectively gained the tacit approval of the international community for these actions by linking its repression of Uyghurs with the international efforts of GWOT. While western governments have continued to softly criticize China’s repression of Uyghurs, the August-September 2002 designation by the U.S. and U.N. of a little known Uyghur separatist group allegedly operative in Afghanistan called the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (or ETIM) as a terrorist organization have largely rendered these criticisms impotent.

Furthermore, any western criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghurs is undermined by the fact that the U.S. is waging its war on terrorism using many of the same tactics that the Chinese government uses against Uyghurs, including rendition, torture, and detainment without due process (including several Uyghurs still in Guantanamo without charges). For the Uyghurs, this situation is made worse through the increased cooperation between the Central Asian states and China. As a result, the once-active former Soviet Uyghur communities of Central Asia have been all but silenced by the authorities in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan while these countries continue to extradite Uyghurs on their territory who are wanted by Chinese law enforcement for separatist sentiments.

Despite this grim outlook, the international Uyghur political movement has gained an important leader in recent years with the release of Rabiya Kadeer from jail and her subsequent election as the leader of both the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur American Association. Kadeer, who was being seriously considered for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, is a charismatic figure who, from her home near Washington, DC, appears to be succeeding in her quest to unite the disparate voices of Uyghurs worldwide. Aware of Ms. Kadeer’s potential power, the Government of China has reacted with rage at her activism, waging continual information campaigns against her in the way they have against Tibet’s Dali Lama. Going beyond smear campaigns, the authorities in China have even jailed two of Kadeer’s sons still living in Xinjiang.

With Beijing hosting the Olympics this summer, questions of human rights in China have again come to the forefront, but the question remains as to whether this will result in increased international attention on the plight of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs, of course, must compete with the media-savvy Tibetans and the global adherents of the Falun Gong for attention this summer, but there is another, probably larger problem they face in getting recognized by the world. They are Muslims during a time when the western world suffers from a case of acute Islamophobia, and the Chinese authorities have been quick to exploit that sentiment whenever possible concerning Uyghur relations with western states.

This is precisely why I read with skepticism an article in the Washington Post this morning, which recounted Friday’s alleged foiled Uyghur terrorist attack aimed at disrupting the preparations for this summer’s Olympic Games. According to the article, the Chinese authorities claimed that they had arrested two Uyghurs who were trying to “create an air crash” on a plane traveling from Urumchi to Beijing. While, given the desperation among Uyghurs in China’s north-west province of Xinjiang, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the authorities indeed did foil a terrorist attack, one must be skeptical of this claim for several reasons. First, as Toronto’s Globe and Mail notes in its coverage of the event, “Beijing often exaggerates the terrorist threat to justify heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang.” Secondly, it is difficult to assess the true threat of Uyghur terrorism when the Chinese government does such a good job of limiting non-Chinese scholarly and journalistic access to the Xinjiang region where most Uyghurs live. Thirdly, while the Chinese government claims to have documented numerous terrorist attacks perpetrated by Uyghurs, none of them have been on a large scale, and all of them could be just as well explained as isolated incidents of civil unrest not connected to any kind of organized militant group. The most important reason to be skeptical of this alleged foiled terrorist act, however, is that the Chinese government stands to gain significantly in reporting its existence.

Already, the regional leader of China’s Communist Party in Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, has highlighted this alleged attack’s importance in the context of the Olympics. Sunday, Wang stated forcefully that the act was undertaken "specifically to sabotage the staging of the Beijing Olympics." Furthermore, this revelation comes just as Beijing has agreed to re-open discussions with the U.S. about human rights, an issue highlighted on the Washington Post editorial page today. While the Post did not make any link between the two pieces related to the Uyghurs and the Beijing Olympics in today’s paper, the links are apparent to those who have been following the fate of the Uyghurs over the last seven years. Like the issue of Tibet, the Chinese government views Uyghur political self-determination as a question not open to discussion. Thus, if China is to begin talking with the U.S. about human rights, they would certainly prefer to have the Uyghurs off the table. A plot to blow up an airplane might help do that.

It is my sincere hope, however, that the Olympics do bring some light to the problems facing Uyghurs in China. As Uyghurs’ voices are muffled, Xinjiang is being developed at break-neck speed with a corresponding in-flux of Han Chinese migrants. The Uyghur people and culture, which share more with former Soviet Central Asians than with Han Chinese, are inconvenient obstacles to China’s mass development push westward much as the Native Americans were a century and a half ago as America expanded westward. This process in Xinjiang today is no less humane today than it was in the American west 150 years ago, and it may be even less so given the mass executions China has carried out on alleged Uyghur terrorists in the last several years. While some, especially those making millions off of China’s economic explosion, may dismiss the destruction of the Uyghurs as an unfortunate side-effect of the inevitability of progress, surely mankind has learned a thing or two in the last 150 years about giving indigenous peoples a voice in the development of their own lands. Since the Chinese do not even recognize the Uyghurs as the indigenous people of their own land, such arguments may not carry water in Beijing, but they could be highlighted in the media while the world is being stunned by Beijing’s new Olympic architecture. Perhaps NBC could take some time out between athlete profiles to interview Rabiya Kadeer while they ponder the millions they will make off of Beijing this summer. Or, maybe more simply, the Washington Post could call a Uyghur group for comment before publishing a story about alleged Uyghur terrorist acts aimed against the Olympics. Such public recognition of the Uyghurs’ plight may not open Beijing to dialogue, but it could begin the ball of global public opinion rolling about the status of the Uyghurs inside China and the real price of China’s place in the global economic machine to human rights. One does not need to look as far west as Darfur to question China’s stance on genocide in the world today; they could just as well look to China’s backyard and what is presently going on in Xinjiang.

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