AP Interview: Kazakh banker fighting for regime change

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2016 11:24 AM
AP Interview: Kazakh banker fighting for regime change

PARIS (AP) — Freshly freed from a French prison after years fighting embezzlement charges, Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov is pursuing what he calls his "life goal": regime change in his energy-rich Central Asian country.

The prospect looks dim. Kazakhstan is under the 27-year grip of a president who brooks little dissent and is close to Russia's Vladimir Putin. And many Kazakhs see Ablyazov as a corrupt tycoon who allegedly stole billions and fled into cosseted exile in London manors and a Cote d'Azur villa.

Yet Ablyazov is undeterred, hoping to stir up anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian sentiment among his compatriots.

"I want to change the country. I want for us to build a democratic country like in Europe, like in America," he told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday in Paris, days after being released from three years in prison.

He's emboldened by a decision last week by France's top administrative court, which ruled Friday against his extradition to Russia over the embezzlement charges, calling the request politically motivated.

That's what Ablyazov has argued all along, ever since Kazakhstan's government nationalized his bank, BTA, in 2009.

He sees himself as a martyr unfairly targeted by a totalitarian regime, a Kazakh version of long-jailed Russian magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The French court ruling, Ablyazov said, sends a message to autocrats who "pursue dissidents and opposition leaders with artificial criminal cases. . It's a colossal step from the point of view of defense of human rights."

Ablyazov is an unlikely people's hero, however.

After studying alongside Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's daughter, he built up multiple businesses and was named energy minister in Nazarbayev's government while still in his 30s, and later became one of Kazakhstan's richest men.

He set up an opposition party in 2001, and was soon imprisoned for abuse of public office. He was freed after promising to stay out of politics — but soon started financing the opposition again while building up BTA, one of the region's biggest banks.

When the government nationalized the bank in 2009, Ablyazov sought asylum in Britain. The bank, which claims Ablyazov has siphoned off billions of dollars, went after him in English courts. Ablyazov fled Britain after he was convicted of contempt of court and found to be shifting assets — and was then arrested on the French Riviera in 2013.

Reunited with family in a Paris living room, Ablyazov described his years of legal drama as a targeted political campaign by the president.

He said he had met in 2009 with Nazarbayev, who said he was afraid that the banker would use his riches to "turn the country upside down. . He said, 'if you go against me, I'll take away your bank.'"

The Kazakh foreign ministry would not comment Thursday on Ablyazov's claims.

Ablyazov insists that the embezzling charges are fabricated. "Show me one payment, one sum that I stole," he said. "It's impossible to transfer just like that with millions, much less billions. They showed no proof."

The years of legal battles have only hardened Ablyazov's resolve to resume opposition activity.

He called for public demonstrations in Kazakhstan and Facebook campaigns against the government. "By whatever method, they shouldn't stay silent," he said.

In addition to his political campaigning, Ablyazov also says he'll fight to unblock billions of dollars in frozen assets in Britain.

He said he will use the French court's ruling in his legal cases in Britain, which he says are part of Kazakhstan's political campaign against him. The bank says it is just trying to get its money back.

Ablyazov says he is under constant threat, but seems strangely calm as he talks about secret agents lurking beneath his windows, his family being kidnapped and what he said were personal threats from Nazarbayev.

Ending Nazarbayev's rule is "my main goal in life," Ablyazov said.

"I understood a long time ago that whatever I do, I will be in a conflict with the current political system. For that not to happen, you have to change it. That's what I'm going to do now."