In 2018, “a chartered Tupolev-154 jetliner” reportedly flew from Kazakhstan to Switzerland, “loaded up” with “antiques, jewelry, works of art and other cargo”.

As we see monuments to dictators get toppled in demonstrations in Kazakhstan, as they were adapted in the Slipper Uprising in Belarus and toppled or adapted in the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, we can see the causes of this civil resistance in a raft of issues around political unfreedom and socio-economic insecurity, including the theft of wealth by the elite that mires citizens in poverty, which involves the stashing and display of that dirty money in the form of cultural property.

(This is an edited note from a long-neglected pile of notes on cultural property crime in Central Asia.)

the application of law without the rule of law

It is difficult to discuss the application of law in territories without the rule of law. There may be abuses of process. Even if allegations are not malicious in the sense of being known to be false, they may be malicious in the sense of being made for personal or political rather than legal reasons. Accusations and counter-accusations may involve potentially embellished yet fundamentally accurate statements by one kleptocrat about another. Initiated prosecutions and eventual convictions may reflect the influence of certain networks of corruption in relation to certain others.

the stashing, display and sometimes hurried export of cultural assets

Bearing all of this in mind, at least at one point in time, there were 24 pending cases of a wide range of alleged offences including abuse of power, the establishment and direction of an organised crime group, embezzlement and money-laundering by the retired Mayor of Almaty, who was later Governor of the Province of East Kazakhstan and briefly Minister of Emergency Measures, Viktor Khrapunov and his clan, who were suspected of misappropriating hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, the “hub of [their] financial operations” was in Geneva. So, before any criminal cases had been launched, the family reportedly “loaded up a chartered Tupolev-154 jetliner with… antiques, jewelry, works of art and other cargo and headed for Switzerland”.

Later, Viktor Khrapunov was convicted in absentia of “organization of a criminal group, financial fraud, and bribe-taking”, plus “abuse of office and… the illegal privatization of property belonging to another person”; his ex-wife Leila Khrapunov was convicted in absentia of “organization of a criminal group, financial fraud, and bribe-taking”; his relative Ayar Ilyasov was convicted in absentia of “similar charges”; and nine associates pled guilty in person.

Later still, the ex-mayor and his ex-wife were given asylum in Switzerland from the risk of unfair legal proceedings in Kazakhstan.

Although it is too early to know exactly what is happening, there are reports that businesspeople are right now chartering flights from Kazakhstan to Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe – and there are records of flights that are being investigated.

national revolution and international inspiration

Hinting at the democratic potential for post-Soviet societies – and the just danger for their kleptocrats – that exists in every demonstration, some Russian artefact-hunters have admiringly characterised the uprising as a “revolution” (while others have said that they should be shot). It remains to be seen whether metal-detecting forums become a hub of resistance in Kazakhstan, as they did in Belarus.

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