The Kazakh authorities claim to have foiled a major terror plot linked to fugitive banker and persona non grata Mukhtar Ablyazov. According to the Prosecutor General, Ablyazov provided $25,000 to Alexander Pavlov, who has been on the run since 2009 and who has served as Ablyazov’s personal bodyguard since 2005.
The money was allegedly used to buy bombs which would be set off in a number of locations in downtown Almaty on March 24, including parks and office buildings. The government says that the attacks were intended to “frighten the population, create an atmosphere of chaos and panic and destabilise the social and political situation in the country.”
Ablyazov was once Energy and Industry Minister before he fell from grace and set up an opposition party. Although he managed to regain favour, things changed when BTA began to collapse in 2008. He fled to the UK soon afterwards, claiming persecution. He is currently wanted for $4.5 billion in embezzlement and fraud.
He was able to stonewall the torturous court proceedings, although he lamented that being stuck between his luxurious office and his nine-bedroom mansion was “not dissimilar to a prison”. But when a UK High Court judge sentenced him to 22 months in February for contempt of court, he promptly vanished, allegedly on a bus to France. He has filed an appeal in absentia, which BTA is seeking to remove.
With the latest twist, the government is looking to paint Ablyazov as not just a crook but a dangerous terrorist with links to “representatives of radical religious groups”. This is not new – Ablyazov was, to begin with, also accused of masterminding the deadly unrest in Zhanoezen last December in connection with Rakhat Aliev, another of the exiled oligarchs. Both accusations seem paranoid or farcical by turns.
Treating Ablyazov and Aliev not as criminals or irritating dissidents, but as scheming masterminds capable of bringing down the state, does nothing for Kazakhstan’s international reputation. Becoming an international business hub with respect for the rule is not easy when every embezzling banker and political exile is accused of involvement in sinister conspiracies.
And damaging the country's reputation is not the only risk. The full truth of the accusations about the Almaty ‘terror plot’ is not known and, given the opacity of the Kazakh legal system, probably never will be. But fingering Pavlov and Ablyazov as terrorist ringleaders, in contact with Kazakhstan’s small but genuine militant movement, distracts attention from the real risks and the underlying drivers of those risks.
The government showed the good sense to backtrack on its initial accusation that Ablyazov and Aliyev were behind the Zhaonezen unrest, and started to address the real grievances which caused the violence (as problematic and flawed as that process is). It needs to do the same with its terrorist problem, not treat everything as a plot driven by exiled puppet-masters.