The UK must use sanctions to help Kazakhstan’s people

Kazakhstan’s unrest is a chance for the UK’s new sanctions powers to show it is serious about tackling kleptocratic regimes. But whether it will is doubtful.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

Thomas Mayne

Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Ben Keith

Barrister, 5SAH

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s ‘shoot to kill’ order during the recent unrest in Kazakhstan and numerous press reports exposing the corruption of the country’s ruling elite provides an excellent opportunity for the UK government to use its new sanctions regime on individuals.

January’s civil unrest in Kazakhstan – resulting in at least 225 deaths – is a tragedy inflicted on the Kazakhstani people by a repressive kleptocratic regime. The UK government should react to this brutality and corruption by taking a stand about the importance of human rights and the rule of law.

One of the main tools at the UK government’s disposal is the use of sanctions against individuals. Two types of sanctions could be deployed – Global Human Rights Sanctions, introduced in 2020, and Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions, introduced in 2021.

The centralization of wealth in the hands of a few people by controlling the distribution of power and resources is a perfect example of where the Global Anti-Corruption sanctions could be used

Both are modelled on the Global Magnitksy Act in the US, which itself is an extension of the Magnitsky Act introduced in December 2012 as a way of punishing Russian officials responsible for the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison.

No evidence of ‘foreign terrorists’

The human rights sanctions target individuals who are, or have been, involved in serious human rights abuses – murder, torture, extra-judicial killing, or similar. There is a strong argument that Tokayev should be sanctioned for issuing an order to ‘shoot to kill without warning’ those involved in the unrest, as no evidence has yet been provided for his claim the unrest was the result of ‘foreign terrorists’.

There is some evidence to suggest armed groups took advantage of the popular uprising, and rumours abound that members of the family of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev were involved. If this is found to be the case, those individuals should also be added to the UK sanctions list so they are not able to enter the UK and can have their assets frozen once identified.

While pinpointing those responsible for the violence may be difficult, it is easier to prove the extent to which Kazakhstan’s ruling elite already benefit from rampant corruption. Forbes’ list of the 50 richest Kazakhstanis features many members of the Nazarbayev family as well as several of his advisors and associates. These families dominate a business sector where there is no dividing line between state assets and privately held ones – according to KPMG, just 162 individuals own around 55 per cent of the wealth in Kazakhstan.

The centralization of wealth in the hands of a few people by controlling the distribution of power and resources is a perfect example of where the Global Anti-Corruption sanctions could be used, as they target serious corruption in the form of either bribery or misappropriation of property.

Once issued, a sanctioned individual is no longer be able to enjoy the spoils of corruption held in the UK, which enables the countering of money laundering and kleptocracy on a huge scale, and disrupts the status quo in kleptocracies.

There are growing calls for such measures to be used. In a recent speech to the UK parliament, Margaret Hodge MP called for the government to ‘impose sanctions on the Kazakh oligarchs, who have systematically robbed their people to line their own pockets’, naming around 30 members of Kazakhstan’s elite who could be considered.

Sanctions send shockwaves

Chatham House’s recent report on kleptocracy indicates Kazakhstan’s elite owns £530 million of property in the UK, so sanctioning individuals along with the civil recovery of these properties would send shockwaves to the Nazarbayev family and the ruling elite which relies on the UK as a safe haven.

The UK parliament recently launched a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) – chaired by Sir Iain Duncan-Smith MP and Chris Bryant MP – on the UK’s sanctions regime to bring focus to the process of using sanctions to target high-profile individuals responsible for human rights abuses and involvement in corruption.

There is a strong argument that Tokayev should be sanctioned for issuing an order to ‘shoot to kill without warning’ those involved in the unrest

At the launch, Bill Browder – who led the campaign to introduce the Magnitsky Act in the US – explained that the political pragmatics of sanctions target individuals and not regimes. This allows governments to continue to do business with repressive kleptocracies, but also sends a message that abuse and corruption will not be tolerated.

In 2020 the UK individually sanctioned members of the Belarus government, including its president Alexander Lukashenka, in response to that government’s crackdown on popular protests during the 2020 presidential election.

Looking at the available evidence, it is easy to make the case that individuals in Kazakhstan should be sanctioned for the same reason. Belarus and Kazakhstan are similar in terms of the lack of political rights and civil liberties, and the Belarus protests did not even lead to the mass killings seen in Kazakhstan.

But where the countries differ is that Belarus has not experienced the same amount of capital flight into the UK, in large part because it is poorer – its 2020 GDP was only $60.26 billion compared to Kazakhstan’s $169.8 billion.

UK tolerance of kleptocracy

Some may also point to better political relations between the UK and Kazakhstan compared to UK relations with Belarus, and that the latter lacks the oil, gas, and mining deposits which have lured UK companies to Kazakhstan.

But the UK would not need to impose trade restrictions on Kazakhstan as it did with Belarus, merely target individuals responsible for human rights’ abuses and corruption.

The question remains how much the UK government – described as ‘unashamedly commercial’ by its foreign secretary Liz Truss in her December 2021 speech at Chatham House – wants to employ sanctions even on individuals no longer in power as it tries to secure new trade deals post-Brexit.

The UK must use sanctions to help Kazakhstan’s people 2nd part

The Chatham House research shows there is a strong cultural tolerance of kleptocracy in the UK along with a lack of governmental attention generally on Central Asia – and this huge flow of foreign capital also partly funds the UK economy.

But the apparently wilful blindness regarding the origin of kleptocratic flows is short-sighted because it poses a threat to the rule of law and democratic institutions by allowing them to be subverted by money. A change in attitude characterized by a willingness to hold perpetrators of corruption and abuse to account is the first step, even if those perpetrators are so-called allies of the UK.

Targeting the most powerful sends a message to others and could have a corrective knock-on effect on those currently in power. And it punishes those who grew rich at the expense of ordinary citizens.