SerikMEDETBEKOVIn the early post-independence years, Serik MEDETBEKOV was a well-known successful businessman. In 1994, he opened the РИК (RIK) radio station and set up the first digital animation studio in Kazakhstan.

In 1998 he won the tender over 30 other independent television and radio companies, which have since closed, to transform the RIK radio station into the profitable “Russkoe radio - Kazakhstan” [Russian Radio - Kazakhstan]. In 1999, Serik Medetbekov fled Kazakhstan via Bishkek, leaving his business interests and property behind…

Serik, why did you suddenly abandon everything back then and go to Europe with your family? 

– In the summer of 1999, Rakhat Aliyev set his sights on my business interests. We were rivals in the battle for radio audiences, not for the good will of the President and his daughter. Rakhat Aliyev and his wife owned the radio station “Evropa Plius” [Europe Plus] and I owned “Russkoe radio – Kazakhstan”. We were doing much better in terms of audience figures and advertising revenue. A political subtext was invented in order to pick a fight with RIK. Supposedly, journalists from our radio station supported opposition politician Akezhan Kazhegeldin and we and the staff at the “Karavan” [Caravan] newspaper were going to be his press stooges. Having come up with this ludicrous version of events, Rakhat Aliyev decided to bring the radio station under his own control, sack its journalists and squeeze Medetbekov out of the country. That was the goal he set himself, and he achieved it.

Whereas 1998 saw targeted pressure exerted on me and my networks, in 1999 my business interests were actually seized. We shouldn’t even call it a corporate raid. It didn’t occur to Rakhat Aliyev to give the seizure of property from its rightful owner some legal respectability. They simply sent me new managers for RIK, ordered me to transfer advertising revenue to Evropa Plius accounts, fired the best journalists and DJs and said that I had to donate $50,000 in cash every month to cover some “political needs” or other of Aliyev’s. As you can imagine, I had no intention of pandering to his political needs, great or small.   

What motivated Rakhat Aliyev, in your view?

– I understood later on that his driving forces were envy, greed and vanity. Rakhat Aliyev decided the press should create an image of him as a corruption-fighting hero. He wanted all the radio stations and TV broadcasters in the country to work to improve his personal image and as he hadn’t actually done anything to deserve that, he also wanted journalists to create a long list of his useful deeds. Kazhegeldin had been declared the country’s main enemy at the time and so his very name and any connection to him became tantamount to a betrayal of the homeland. It was the easiest way for him to justify his illegal actions.

But yours was a music station. You didn’t broadcast any social or political programmes. Even the news you broadcast came from the official newswires. Was there any reason to link you to politics and who helped Aliyev seize your business interests?

– In the summer of 1999, the ВВС invited a group of Kazakh journalists and media business people to London. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, in his capacity as a politician, invited us all to dinner – all, that is, bar Vladimir Rerikh, who was then amongst the management at “Khabar”. Rerikh was offended and told Rakhat Aliyev about the dinner. It was his idea to take control of the business interests of the directors who met the disgraced premier. Rakhat liked the idea of seizing other people’s businesses - especially as many people in his environment were doing well economically - by taking control of the huge advertising revenues from our radio station.

Igor Egarmin, Aliyev’s right-hand man in all his business dealings – from sugar to the media – was heavily involved in this affair. He was in charge of all Rakhat’s companies’ payments and revenues; he was obsessed with becoming the country’s top manager. It needs to be underlined that in Rakhat Aliyev’s close circles, everyone was mentally trying on senior public posts for size and flaunting the fact. It was Igor Egarmin who threatened me with lawsuits and investigation at the hands of the tax police and demanded that I transfer advertising revenue to Rakhat’s networks.

There were smaller players too, like Ismail Igilmanov who was foisted upon me as director of “Russkoe radio – Kazakhstan”. On Rakhat Aliyev’s orders, he did everything he could to try and bankrupt my firm. The information he provided on RIK’s revenues, my plans and other company secrets were his springboard to a short term as general director of “Khabar” while that company was still part of the Aliyev couple’s group. I think that many of Rakhat Aliyev’s loyal servants now serve new masters, or perhaps they continue to inform the old one. 

How have your work and private life outside Kazakhstan turned out?

– My life has turned out and continues to be a happy one, a lot happier than Rakhat Aliyev’s own. I have a happy family: a beloved wife, a wonderful son. Yes, we’ve had to go through a lot of countries and live far from our homeland, but that’s the price I had to pay to remain independent and at least I didn’t have to “lie down in front of Rakhat” as people used to say back then in Kazakhstan.

I had to work for hire as a media manager, invest in new technologies and do business consultancy for online projects to earn a living.  In the past, you always kept out of politics and even used to warn your colleagues not to throw light on political problems. Has your view changed and what are you doing now?

– There’s an overused phrase which is no less true for all that: “If you don’t get involved in politics, politics will get involved in you”. It’s 100% accurate when applied to me and Kazakh business colleagues of my generation. When people first started making money in Kazakhstan, it became a race, whereas we should have been investing money in building a civil society. The result of which is that most of the racing-driver capitalists from back then have had their business interests seized by bureaucrats.

But I don’t have any regrets about my former business dealings. The community work I do now as one of the members of the Kazakh opposition in exile is much more interesting. It’s a non-partisan organisation; it supports neither “Alga” nor “AZAT”. We help all politicians and social movements which need the support of the international community.

You have petitioned international judicial authorities for your rights to properties seized from you by the President’s former son-in-law. Have you done this so that you can claim them back in the future?

– We have to be sure to understand what’s going on at the International Court of Arbitration in Paris correctly. I am absolutely not trying to win the radio station off Rakhat Aliyev via the courts. In any case, all his press interests were seized as soon as he fell out of favour with his father-in-law.

In the arbitration proceedings in Paris (as well as in a number of other arbitration and judicial authorities), Rakhat Aliyev is appearing as a witness in the lawsuits being brought against Kazakhstan by his Lebanese relatives. In one court, the dispute is over a poultry factory; in another, it’s over an oil company. In a third case, the dispute is over some pharmaceuticals company. The overall claims being made by the Hourani brothers, who are relatives of Rakhat Aliyev’s sister’s husband, amount to $2 billion.

In his testimony, Rakhat Aliyev claims that he was a very successful businessman and that he set up all these businesses himself before selling them on to the Hourani brothers. Among other things, he claims that from 1993 to 1996, he founded and worked at a number of private companies, including the radio station “Russkoe radio – Kazakhstan”. How can I let such arrant lies pass? I had to seek the advice of the large international law firm, Salans, and ask lawyers to examine these cases so that I could file a claim regarding my own property with the court of arbitration.

I am not trying to take up proceedings on behalf of the poultry farm, the KTK channel or the Caratube Oil Company; they had their own owners so they can go to court themselves. But I can provide every tiny detail of my own radio station with all corroborating proof and documentation, and then let the court of arbitration decide whether Rakhat Aliyev’s testimony is true. 

Is there a risk that Rakhat Aliyev will be able to come up with some irrelevant witness as he would be able to in Kazakhstan?

– I’m not afraid of any potential threats from Rakhat, although I also understand that there’s no changing someone’s character at that age. Anyone who is used to sorting out problems by “other” methods is hardly likely to come round to common sense. But where I live, in Germany, and in other countries where court proceedings are ongoing, I am protected by the European security system. Incidentally, the first lawyer I turned to for advice on this matter was Dr. Lothar de Maizière, the former Prime Minister of East Germany and a very significant public figure in the reunited Germany.     

What is your goal in this battle with Rakhat Aliyev?

– There is only one goal in all that I do and that is the development of democracy in Kazakhstan. For that to happen, people like Rakhat Aliyev need to know that justice will prevail and that breaking the law, perjury and felonious attempts on others’ private property will be pursued by the courts and perhaps even punished. International arbitration is not the Kazakh Supreme Court or Astana Garrison Court Martial. It has much greater authority. If a person deliberately lies to such a court, that dooms his reputation; in Europe, this is of great value and importance.

Would you like to return home?

– I will definitely return to Kazakhstan. That is no longer contingent upon Rakhat Aliyev.    Interview conducted by Rozlana TAUKINA

From the “Svoboda Slova” [Freedom of Speech] newspaper, issue no. 22, June 16th 2011

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