Kazakhstan to nationalize top banks as crisis bites

ASTANA  – Kazakhstan announced plans on Monday to effectively nationalize two of its leading banks as the global financial crisis tightened its grip on Central Asia’s biggest economy.

The government said it will buy 78.14 percent of shares in the biggest bank, BTA, which has assets of $28 billion.

BTA, like most local banks, has suffered as a result of the global credit crunch which ended oil-producing Kazakhstan’s double-digit economic growth and crippled its once-vibrant banking industry.

Adding political undertones to the shake-up in the ailing banking sector, the state financial regulator dismissed Mukhtar Ablyazov, BTA chairman and a former opposition leader, as part of the takeover.

Separately, the government said it was looking to rescue No.4 bank Alliance Bank by buying 76 percent of the shares belonging to its main shareholder for a symbolic sum of less than $1. It also said it would deposit $200 million into Alliance accounts to boost its liquidity and help it stay afloat.

Thanks to years of uninterrupted economic boom and windfall oil revenues, Kazakhstan grew into Central Asia’s biggest economy over past years and boasted growth of around 10 percent a year between 2000 and 2007.

But with recession looming over its economy, bad economic times represent a worry to President Nursultan Nazarbayev who, while being criticized in the West for tolerating no dissent, has been popular at home due to rising incomes.

In a statement, the government said Ablyazov was dismissed as BTA chairman as his work had violated “the interests of bank depositors and creditors as well as existing legislation..”

Ablyazov, who was briefly jailed on corruption accusations in 2002, was one of the founding fathers of a major Kazakh opposition party. He has since left politics to focus on finance and became a top figure in Kazakh banking.

His departure heralds a shift of power in Kazakh business, a worrying trend for foreign investors relying on continuity of policy and balance of power in Kazakhstan’s $100 billion economy.

Ablyazov could not be reached for comment.

NATIONALISATION?

The government, however, warned against describing Monday’s announcements as nationalization, saying it would acquire BTA shares only on a temporary basis.

“This measure is not nationalization, it is temporary according to existing Kazakh legislation which stipulates that the government will eventually exit its shareholder base,” the government statement said.

Indeed, Prime Minister Karim Masimov told a cabinet meeting earlier that Kazakhstan may sell part of its BTA stake once the transaction was over, adding the government was in talks with Russia’s Sberbank on this.

Kairat Kelimbetov, head of the state Samruk-Kazyna holding, said the government would transfer $1.75 billion to BTA as part of the planned takeover.

Kazakhstan has proposed partially nationalizing the four biggest banks to help them withstand the global financial crisis, but some investors worry the measure may lead to tighter state regulation or further nationalization.

Two other big local banks, Kazkommertsbank and Halyk, have already agreed on terms to sell about 25 percent of their shares to the state.

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