INTERVIEW-Kazakh oligarch, accused of fraud, sets sights on Astana
LONDON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch accused of embezzling at least $5 billion, declared he would stand for office if free elections are called when the reign of Kazakhstan's powerful president ends.
Speaking to Reuters over a secure telephone line, Ablyazov estimated President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has dominated Kazakhstan since independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, might have only two years left in office.
"I have political ambitions," Ablyazov said, speaking through a translator. "I want there to be free elections and I will participate in such an election. And if I don't win, I will support the result of that election."
Nazarbayev, 72, won a clear electoral victory in polls last year that would allow him to stay in power at least until 2016. He has eschewed democratic reform in pursuit of oil-fueled growth and investment that have made Kazakhstan the largest economy in Central Asia.
Uncertainty over a successor, however, concerns investors in the state's oilfields and natural resources. He has not encouraged the emergence of an obvioius candidate.
Ablyazov, 49, who is believed to have fled Britain on a coach bound for France in February after a judge sentenced him to 22-months in jail for contempt of court, declined to divulge his whereabouts or that of his wife and youngest children.
He noted Nazarbayev's increasingly fierce clampdown on opposition movements, media outlets he says are his allies and friends such as Vladimir Kozlov, a fierce Nazarbayev critic, who was jailed in October. "The regime has only one objective," he said. "To destroy me."
His former nine-bedroomed London home on north London's The Bishops Avenue, dubbed "billionaire's row", stands empty, along with a 100-acre (41-hectare) estate in the UK countryside. Both are among hundreds of assets held under a court freezing order.
Ablyazov maintains that the charges against him, launched in 2009 by now state-controlled BTA - the bank he once controlled - are an attempt by Nazarbayev to rob him of his assets and silence him as a political opponent.
BTA, whose creditors include RBS, Barclays, Standard Chartered and HSBC, accuses its former chairman in 11 fraud charges of using fraudulent loans and shell companies to line his and his lieutenants' pockets.
"NOT WHAT I EXPECTED"
A theoretical physics graduate and government minister who built a fortune by snapping up banking and media assets in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ablyazov says he fell out with Nazarbayev after campaigning for regime change at home.
He fled to London in 2009 after he says BTA was seized by the government. Having already once been imprisoned by Nazarbayev, he said he would be persecuted again if he returned home. He was granted political asylum in Britain in 2011.
But his efforts to have the case bought against him here thrown out for being politically motivated have foundered, despite a judge conceding last year that his voluminous evidence suggested Kazakhstan "has much in common with Ancient Rome".
Ablyazov was labelled "devious" and "cynical" by senior judges last month, after he failed in absentia to overturn the jail sentence and a ruling barring him from defending himself at trial unless he turns himself in and discloses all his assets.
Ablyazov says British jail was not an option for him. It would have demoralised his allies, prevented him from defending himself at trial and, he is sure, put his life in danger.
As BTA prepares to seize his assets, he says he is surprised by the turn of events since he was found guilty in pre-trial proceedings of lying about his assets and breaching the terms of the worldwide asset freezing order.
"I have to be honest," he said. "It's probably not what I expected. I thought the purpose was ... to have a fair trial. The decision to debar me (does not serve that purpose)."
He is hoping to take his case to the British Supreme Court, which is considering whether to grant a hearing. Failing that, he says, he will go to Strasbourg where he may be able to bring a claim against Britain in the European court.
"I believe my rights (to a fair trial) were violated in England," he says.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)