It has all the twists of a Hollywood blockbuster: shadowy international figures, a plot to overthrow an oil-rich Central Asian country, an attempted assassination, allegations of kidnapping and murder and a battle in an American courtroom for control of billions of dollars in seized assets.
At the center of this saga is a bitter family feud that pits Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – a strongman who has ruled the obscure former Soviet republic for more than 20 years – against his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev.
And if that was where the story ended, it might have stayed an inconspicuous foreign squabble with no relevance to the American public.
Instead, the melodrama has entangled members of the US Congress who, at the least, were unwittingly used as pawns in an international game of one-upmanship, and, at worst, knowingly received illegal foreign campaign contributions from the Kazakh government in exchange for taking part in the fight.
The dispute spilled into The New York Times recently and was detailed by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) in a letter sent to US Attorney General Eric Holder. POGO, a nonprofit public interest group based in Washington, DC, asked Holder for an investigation into the allegations of illegal campaign contributions.
The Times article, which was initiated by documents provided by POGO, revealed the extent to which both sides have gone to shape American opinion on Kazakhstan, a country known to Americans mostly by way of the fictional Kazakh newsman Borat.
The characters in this real-life Kazakh drama have waged an extraordinary lobbying battle on Capitol Hill that includes a campaign by Aliyev to embarrass the Kazakh government.
Aliyev's effort, which ultimately failed, involved having members of Congress criticize Kazakhstan on the Congressional Record in the midst of a successful bid by the Kazakhs to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international organization dedicated to supporting human rights and democracy. The statements were intended to serve as leverage in an ongoing business dispute involving allegations that some $2 billion in assets were unlawfully seized from one of Aliyev's relatives by the Kazakh government.
Rep. Edolphous Towns (D-New York) referenced accusations that the Kazakh government tried to assassinate Aliyev, a former top security official, who is reportedly hiding in self-exile in Vienna, Austria. Kazakh officials have repeatedly tried to have him extradited to Kazakhstan to face a number of legal charges, including that he was part of a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government and that he kidnapped and murdered two Kazakh bankers.
Another member of Congress has had dealings with both parties in the dispute. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), a member of the Congressional Friends of Kazakhstan caucus, has been an ardent supporter of Kazakhstan and once called for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to Nazarbayev for his efforts at securing his country's nuclear materials. But lobbyists working for Aliyev were also able to persuade Issa to appeal directly to Nazarbayev to help settle the dispute on their behalf. One of the lobbyists, Tanya Rahall, is reportedly a friend of Issa.
When the lobbying effort failed to force a settlement, Aliyev's relative, Devincci Hourani, turned to the courts. And that's where things get really interesting. In an ongoing civil lawsuit filed in federal court, Hourani alleges that a shadowy group of Washington-based consultants created a plan for the president of Kazakhstan to consolidate power called “Superkhan” that involved reining in the influence of the country's wealthy oligarchs.
Hourani claims that the seizure of his assets was a part of this plan and that the consultants should be held liable to the tune of $2 billion. To support that assertion, Hourani filed a number of purportedly secret Kazakh documents, including a November 26, 2010, letter supposedly written by the Kazakh ambassador to the US to President Nazarbayev, and obtained by Aliyev.
In the letter, the ambassador describes efforts to combat the “destructive actions” of Aliyev by using a Congressional caucus created by the embassy that the ambassador claimed to be funding through a “foreign currency fund.”
“[t]he destructive actions of the Hourani brothers along with R. Aliyev in the U.S [sic] are being contained by 'Friends of Kazakhstan', a group created by the Embassy, which is comprised of members of Congress and the U.S. Senate and the employees of their offices. The Embassy of the RK [Republic of Kazakhstan] is financing them through contributions into their funds from a special foreign currency fund allocated by You [the President of Kazakhstan],” according to a translation of the letter that was entered into the court file by Hourani's attorneys.
The defendants in the case have contested the letter as a forgery, including filing statements by Kazakh government officials and an analysis by a forensic document examiner. But a POGO investigation has uncovered circumstantial evidence that strongly supports some of the underlying claims in the letter. For instance, the Kazakh Embassy has in fact used lobbyists to create two separate caucuses dedicated to supporting its interests – the Friends of Kazakhstan caucus and the Caucus on Central Asia.
And employees from the lobbying firms hired to create the most recent caucus – the Caucus on Central Asia – have donated thousands of dollars to every member that has served in a leadership capacity of that caucus. One member of Congress, Delegate Eni Faleomavaega from American Samoa, a co-chair and driving force behind the creation of the Central Asia caucus, particularly stands out. In the 2010 election cycle, two of Faleomavaega's top organizational contributors had been under contract with the Republic of Kazakhstan: Employees and family members from Policy Impact Communications, the lobbying firm hired to create the Central Asia caucus, contributed $4,800, making the firm Faleomavaega's second-largest organizational contributor; and another firm, Steptoe and Johnson, which is the Republic of Kazakhstan's outside counsel, contributed $2,000 through its Political Action Committee.
Also, employees from Policy Impact Communications contributed $2,000 to another one of the original co-chairs of the Caucus on Central, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), as well as $1,000 to the current co-chair, Rep. Danny “Dan” Lee Burton (R-Indiana).
While the contributions, albeit small, do not prove that the embassy was funneling money to members of Congress through its lobbyists, it does raise eyebrows when every member of Congress who has served as co-chair of the Caucus on Central Asia has received contributions from the lobbying firm that was hired to establish that caucus.
“The dispute between President Nazarbayev and his ex-son-in-law lays bare a host of potential unlawful activities on both sides,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said. “Allegations that foreign money was used to influence US policy shouldn't be buried in a civil lawsuit – it deserves the scrutiny of the US Attorney General.”