Bitter end for Kazakhstan’s sugar czar

The ignominious end of Rakhat Aliyev, Kazakhstan’s most feared man, heir apparent, sugar czar, fugitive.

File undated photo of Rakhat Aliyev
Aliyev's career consisted most importantly of marrying the president's eldest daughter, writes Zalmayev [REUTERS]

On the morning of February 24, the warden of Vienna’s Josefstadt prison announced the suicide by hanging of his most notorious inmate. Rakhat Aliyev, former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and a man on the run since he fell afoul of his powerful relative in 2007, had surrendered himself to the Austrian authorities last May and was awaiting trial on murder charges.

In 2007, Nazarbayev’s patience ran out with his increasingly powerful and unpredictable son-in-law, after the latter was suspected of masterminding the murder of two officials of a bank which Aliyev coveted. Aliyev, who had been serving in Austria as Kazakhstan’s ambassador was stripped of his titles, divorced from his wife, charged with murder, and an extradition request was filed with Austria so that Aliyev could stand trial in Kazakhstan. The Austrians refused to extradite him and so the saga of Kazakhstan’s most wanted fugitive began.

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Aliyev’s career, which began modestly as a gynaecologist, spanned two decades and consisted most importantly of marrying the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga. His road to the pinnacle of power was strewn with victims of his outsized political and business ambitions. Using his changing government positions – successively as chief of the tax police, deputy chief of the security services, ambassador to Austria, and deputy foreign minister – Aliyev sought to neutralise his rivals, becoming one of Kazakhstan’s richest and most feared men.

Aliyev’s rivals

One such rival was Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a reform-minded prime minister from 1994 to 1997, who had broken with Nazarbayev’s policies, declaring his candidacy in the 1998 presidential elections. Tasked with discrediting and punishing Kazhegeldin for this brazen challenge, which Nazarbayev viewed as high treason, Aliyev went about his mission with gusto.

Hounding Kazhegeldin into exile, he ordered the arrest and torture of the former’s bodyguards, forcing them to falsely implicate their boss in plotting to overthrow the government.

Aliyev was similarly eager to use coercion methods to build his vast business empire, which he ran jointly with his wife. At their height, Aliyev’s holdings boasted a lion’s share of the country’s media market, a monopoly on the sugar industry, and a large stake in Kazakhstan’s vast oil and gas reserves.

Aliyev’s business model was simple: Wait until a coveted enterprise became profitable and move in for the kill, using the law-enforcement agencies at his disposal to force his rivals into transferring their assets to him. Eventually, Kazakh political and business elites cried uncle and demanded that the president put his thuggish son-in-law on a leash. His final fall from grace occurred during his second stint as ambassador to Austria, after he was charged with the bankers’ murder.

Aliyev's business model was simple: wait until a coveted enterprise became profitable and move in for the kill, using the law-enforcement agencies at his disposal to force his rivals into transferring their assets to him.


The subsequent saga of a man on the run involved expensive lawyers and teams of bodyguards guarding high-security compounds in Austria and Malta, between which he shuttled back and forth with his new wife and their small child.

Opponent of Nazarbayev

As part of his defence strategy, Aliyev attempted to portray himself as a principled, albeit belated, opponent of Nazarbayev. To that end, he published a book of exposes and released a trove of recordings of the president’s phone conversations with his aides, which he had obtained over the years when he ran the security agency.

Europe’s media was saturated with scandals implicating European politicians of aiding and abetting Aliyev. The latter included Wolfgang Brandstetter, Aliyev’s lawyer and currently Austria’s justice minister, suspected of having helped his client set up a network of shell companies throughout Europe; and Tonio Borg, Malta’s former foreign minister, accused of trying to procure a Maltese passport for the fugitive.

Aliyev’s saga had all the hallmarks of a family feud. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that, right before falling from grace in 2007, Aliyev, with his vast wealth and network of informants and enforcers, may have been in the final stage of a plot to dethrone his father-in-law.

And yet he had enemies far and wide, including those very opposition activists and former business owners whom he had hounded into exile while in power and whom he was now trying, disingenuously, to join. The exiles dismissed him and rallied together in an effort to bring Aliyev to justice in a European jurisdiction, making clear they did not seek to have him extradited to Kazakhstan, where his prospects for a fair trial were nil. 

The saga ended in a solitary cell in a Vienna prison. Dejected and unloved, cut off from his funds and facing the prospect of a humiliating murder trial, set for April 11, Kazakhstan’s once all-powerful and most feared man helped the tightening noose finish its task. In performing this act, whether out of desperation or remorse, he subjected his victims to the final and ultimate cruelty, by denying them justice for all the suffering he had caused them.

But the case is not over: Two of Aliyev’s accomplices will go on trial in Vienna as scheduled. Meanwhile, the money-laundering investigations must continue and be brought to their conclusion: Aliyev’s victims deserve to be compensated for the damages they suffered. 

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.