Palace intrigue: Obama and his Justice Department are about to inherit the dysfunctional family problems of a Kazakh dictator

02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rakhat Aliyev has had many careers. The 47 year old Kazakh former intelligence chief and self-proclaimed opposition leader has been a medical doctor, an accused kidnapper, a tycoon lording over international holdings, an ambassador, and, finally, a convicted criminal on the run from his own country.
His next role may be as a major headache inherited by the Obama administration. This though Aliyev is currently ensconced in luxury in Vienna, Austria, an ocean away from Washington, DC.

He has worn out his welcome in Austria and is looking west to the United States for help. Sources say he wants immunity in exchange for information, including allegations about the actions of his former father in law, the unindicted co-conspirator in a major federal case in the United States.

It would be nothing more than an intriguing international crime story were it not for the fact that Rakhat Aliyev's father in law, that un-indicted coconspirator, is the president of Kazakhstan, His Excellency Nursultan Nazerbayev. And US relations with Nazarbayev are both messy and important. Democrats and Republicans have ingratiated themselves with Nazarbayev, since his country is not only a rich source of oil, gold and uranium, but also a strategically vital part in Central Asia. The Nazarbayav regime is also the alleged center of a web of bribery and corruption that led right back to the US, and resulted a major indictment in 2003 of an American businessman.

Aliyev, on the lam, has turned against the Nazarbayev regime, which in turn accuses him of all sorts of crimes and is trying to take him into custody.
Sources say he is trying to make a deal with the US Justice Department. He claims he knows many things, and he wants to tell them to the FBI if he gets what he wants in return. Some of his allegations are rather wild.

Some politically explosive: two sources close to the case say Aliyev claims to have inside information about an improper influence peddling effort in Washington on behalf of Kazakhstan interests. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Aliyev from his hiding place for an article last fall and described his allegation that the "regime has conducted an operation in the U.S designed to investigate its critics, burnish its image and resolve legal problems." The Journal had previously identified one firm that it said did work on behalf of Nazarbayev's daughter as Global Options Management. In turn, Global Options Management was an affiliate of Global Options, which claims connections with William Sessions, former FBI director, and William Webster, a former CIA and FBI director. Other management includes former Clinton FEMA director James Lee Witt and former NYPD police commissioner Howard Safir.

Global Options declined to comment for this report.

Whatever Aliyev says, the idea of using him as a source is turning some well-connected American stomachs for all sorts of reasons, even as it infuriates the Kazakhs. For one thing: Aliyev was convicted and sentenced in absentia, in two separate cases according to Kazakh reports. One trial was for kidnapping, and the other was for allegedly staging a coup. In his favor, Austria has refused to turn him over to the Kazakhs, apparently concerned about the fairness of the proceedings.

Probably the most real exposure Aliyev ever got around the world was in 2006 after the release of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" movie, which brutally mocked Kazakhstan as a backward, anti-semitic, place where Jews are chased in rituals and women were just finally, after reforms, allowed to ride "inside" buses. Aliyev was still powerful back then and as Deputy Prime Minister, he at least had the good sense to act gracious and invite Cohen to Kazakhstan himself. "Women drive cars," he said, "wine is made from grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogue."

Aliyev is the kind of character you might find in an episode on Fox's "24." He used to help run the Kazakh KGB, and he was once one of the most feared men in the country. But he started out as an OB Gyn, sources say, who was married to Dariga Nazarbayeva, the daughter of Kazakh longtime ruler. Aliyev's wealth and his power grew immense, and he was said to control oil, banking and media interests. Reuters once reported that Aliyev claimed ownership of ten percent of the world's largest sugar company, Sucden, an international conglomerate that controls about 20% of the world's free market sugar trade.
But Aliyev clashed with his father in law and his power collapsed completely by 2007, when he was charged with ordering the abduction of two bankers who have never been heard from since. He was also once the Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister and ambassador to Vienna, before seeking political refuge there.

Now he has lots of things to say about to US investigators. He did not flee Kazakhstan empty handed, of course, and he is able to hire the best legal minds to do his bidding. He is represented by the U.S. law firm Baker Hostetler.

His information might be valuable but there are a number of potential problems. First is that the president of Kazakhstan, the presumed target of many of his allegations, is a mighty US ally, in spite of his presumed corruption.

Dick Cheney, for one, has flown there to dine with Nazarbayev while in office too, and praised his leadership. Bill Clinton met Nazarbayev not only as president but also in 2005, in a controversial visit to Kazakhstan where he accompanied a fundraising donor who won a uranium contract. Incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will now have to deal with Kazakhstan herself.

But all that aside, the second problem is that Aliyev, according to those who follow Kazakhstan, may be even more of a liability than his powerful father in law. It's one thing to use an informant to find out where the bodies are buried, but you have to make sure that the informant did not, so to speak, bury the bodies himself.

And the debate is getting high-level attention in the US Capitol. Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey last week, citing concerns that Aliyev had been involved in torturing political opponents in Kazakhstan during his heyday. "I hope prosecutors will refrain from granting him immunity," Senator Pryor wrote, "until it is resolved that Mr. Aliyev himself is not involved in these matters."