Former prime minister Nurlan Balgimbaev (68) died on 14 October following a prolonged illness. When his health started to deteriorate a few months ago, he reportedly received private visits by Defence Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, who also comes from the western Atyrau province, and Bulat Utemuratov. The latter is one of Nazarbaev’s closest economic advisors and is at the helm of the Verny Capital investment holding company which is believed to manage some of the Nazarbaev clan’s assets. They include, for instance, the Ritz Carlton hotels in Moscow and Vienna and several Kazakh media outlets.
Balgimbaev started his career in the early 1990s in Soviet Kazakhstan’s oil industry and subsequently become the chief engineer at the state-owned Zhaikneft and Aktyubinskneft, oil companies headquartered in western Kazakhstan. In 1986 he was promoted to a senior job at the Soviet Ministry of Oil and Gas.
When the USSR collapsed in late 1991, Balgimbaev left for a one-year study visit at the MIT and interned for another year at Chevron’s Houston office. Since then, he had been invariably considered as the principal defender of US energy interests on the Caspian. For example, in 1998 he proposed selling 40% of Kazakhstan’s stake in the Tengiz oilfield to Chevron, which at the time already controlled half of the international consortium. Yet Nazarbaev personally vetoed this idea.
In 1994-1997 he served as oil and gas minister; then from March to October 1997 as the CEO of Kazakhoil; and until October 1999 as the head of government. He headed Kazakhoil for a second time in 1999-2002, but after the latter merged with Oil & Gas Transport to form KazMunayGas (KMG) in 2002, Balgimbaev’s political influence began to wane. The former prime minister, however, retained most of the oil connections and masterfully put them to profit as the CEO (2002-2007) of his own Kazakhstan Oil Investment Company. In the late 2000s, he further played an advisory role in the presidential administration and was Nazarbaev’s special envoy on the use of Caspian Sea resources.
During the multimillion-dollar ‘Kazakhgate‘ bribery scandal of the 00s, Balgimbaev was accused of using dirty money to purchase jewellery, furs, speedboats, and other luxury items, as well as to fund his daughter’s tuition at a Swiss boarding school.
Since December 2009, he had been the director general of a joint venture between KMG and Eni specialising in industrial engineering. In addition, his two children and nephew still own a private company, Isker, which has a partnership with Bonatti, another Italian service group that works as a subcontractor at both Tengiz and Kashagan. In particular, the Isker-Bonatti alliance oversees the replacement of corroded onshore pipelines for the North Caspian Operating Company consortium (NCOC). It is currently unclear, however, to what extent the death of Isker’s key protector may affect their well-oiled business.
Menas Associates’ monthly Caspian Focus publication follows developments in Kazakhstan and the wider Caspian region closely.