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Kazakhstan: The Crisis Banker

Illustrator: Jon Berkeley

Since Kazakhstan left the Soviet Union and embraced capitalism, its banks have been locked in a boom-bust cycle, but a banker who lamented the passing of Communism has emerged as the industry’s leader. Now Halyk Bank’s Umut Shayakhmetova faces what could be her biggest test yet.

The year was 1990 and at Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow’s suburbs, a young woman from Kazakhstan had just started her degree in economic science. But as the Soviet empire, which stretched from Europe to Asia, began to disintegrate, Umut Shayakhmetova wondered whether she would ever complete her studies.

Like millions of her fellow Soviets (and this Asiamoney correspondent, then studying Russian at Lumumba), Shayakhmetova spent a large portion of her day queueing to secure basic food supplies as the USSR’s command economy collapsed. She was on the national committee of the USSR’s illustrious Komsomol or Communist Youth League, the nurturing ground for state leaders which was founded by Russian revolutionary politician Vladimir Lenin in 1918. But as the Soviet Union crumbled, her dream of a role in the next generation of the Soviet hierarchy had been pretty much extinguished.

The idea that Shayakhmetova might one day become a leading banker in Central Asia – about as capitalistic an undertaking as there is – would have seemed laughable back then.

“I was planning to become a Communist party member,” Shayakhmetova, chief executive of Kazakhstan’s dominant Halyk Bank, told Asiamoney in November 2021, before the outbreak of civil unrest in January this year.