In his annual address to the Kazakh parliament in January 2012, President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the nation’s government to prepare a “complex new anticorruption program.” In the aftermath of the violence in Zhanaozen (Mangystau Oblast), which was blamed partly on shortcomings in the leadership of corrupt local officials, the president’s emphasis on the need to seek a new approach in tackling corruption was unsurprising. Kazakhstan has launched several anticorruption campaigns over the years, which—though leading to legal action against several high-level officials—have failed to stamp out the problem on an institutional level. However, Nazarbayev’s remarks, combined with supporting statements from Kazakhstan’s financial police, were a strong reminder that fighting corruption remained high on the president’s agenda.

Now there are signs that the fight may be escalating to a new level.
On August 15, Nazarbayev paid a personal visit to Mangystau’s neighbor, the oil-rich western Kazakh region of Atyrau, to announce that he had relieved the region’s governor (akim), Bergei Ryskaliev, of his post. The forty-five-year-old Ryskaliev had been appointed to head the region in 2006; he replaced Aslan Musin, who is now the head of the Nazarbayev administration. Ryskaliev’s removal was unexpected and clearly important, something underlined by the president’s personal appearance in Atyrau.

Though Nazarbayev initially claimed the governor was being transferred to a new post, reports immediately followed suggesting that Ryskaliev had been replaced for reasons relating to his health. Within a week of the initial announcement, information began to surface suggesting Ryskaliev’s removal was connected to a wider scandal, not wholly surprising given that the large sums of money passing through Atyrau had long fueled rumors of corruption in the region.

On August 21, a local newspaper, Ak-Zhaik, reported that the ex-governor had been detained at the Atyrau airport and placed under house arrest. Rumors also surfaced that Nazarbayev himself had ordered Ryskaliev’s detention, though a spokesperson from the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs countered that the police had not carried out any such arrest. Ryskaliev’s current whereabouts are unknown, though some sources suggest that the ex-governor remains under house arrest.

Some of the mystery behind Ryskaliev’s removal was resolved on August 28 when the Financial Police of the Republic of Kazakhstan announced that they had uncovered the embezzlement of over 6 billion tenge ($40 million) from state funds allocated to the Atyrau region. Kazakhstan’s prosecutor general, Askhat Daulbayev, speaking at a meeting of the Atyrau branch of the ruling Nur Otan party on August 31, said that the authorities had uncovered 189 instances of bid rigging for state-sponsored construction contracts and eleven instances in which state assets were illegally sold at undervalued prices.

Citing the presumption of innocence, Daulbayev declined to release the names of the individuals who were being criminally investigated by the prosecutor general’s office.

The government appears to be preparing to prosecute several high-level officials, including Ryskaliev himself. Members of Atyrau’s regional government have already distanced themselves from the ex-governor. A group of regional parliamentarians, most likely Ryskaliev’s protégés who had written an open letter in defense of the ex-governor on August 24, withdrew their statements a week later, stating that they had “made a huge political mistake” due to a lack of available information. Atyrau’s government shake-up has since widened; on August 31, Daulbayev announced that both the regional prosecutor general and the head of the regional financial police had also been removed from their posts.

The prosecutor general’s office has begun to release details of the structure of the corruption. A company by the name of AtyrauInzhstroi, for example, won a 2.7 billion tenge ($18 million) contract this June to perform extensive road repairs. However, several irregularities emerged in the contest, including the fact that the losing company was closely tied to the winner and that a large portion of the work had already been completed by the owner of company before the bidding even took place. Additionally, pending criminal cases allege that 3.5 billion tenge ($23.3 million) intended for the construction of a gas pipeline in the Kyzylkolga district in the western part of Atyrau, and 2.85 billion tenge ($19 million) earmarked for a water supply system were embezzled. If these cases are proven, it is hard to believe that Ryskaliev himself will escape prosecution.  The opposition press has convincingly argued that it would have been impossible for the level of corruption in Atyrau to escape the former governor’s notice.
The prosecution of these cases is sure to attract enormous attention in Kazakhstan, and, given Ryskaliev’s close ties to top Kazakh political figures, it may well send a message to others in power that they are not above the law. Whether or not this message will be heard, however, will depend on the resolve of the government to prosecute those involved in the Atyrau scandal, regardless of their position or political stature.