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Astana-Qazaqstan blames government instability in Kazakhstan for delays in wages

Internal communication states ‘recent change of government’ for delay in salaries with riders still not paid in 2022.

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An internal communication sent to riders and staff at the Astana-Qazaqstan team on March 9 confirms that athletes have still not been paid in 2022, with the team’s paying agent Abacanto SA, blaming the recent government instability and changes within the Kazakhstan government.

The news comes as another blow for the team managed by Alexandre Vinokourov after VeloNews reported that Abacanto S.A. was under criminal investigation in Luxembourg for a series of alleged offenses including the misuse of corporate assets, breach of trust, fraud, and money laundering.

A criminal trial could potentially be on the horizon if the current investigative judge feels as though there is sufficient evidence. On Wednesday of this week, Vinokourov distanced himself from the investigation, telling VeloNews that he was only made aware of the case via media reports and that he was not at the team during the period of time currently being investigated.

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“To be honest, I learned about this whole story from the press, and until that moment I was not familiar with the details of this investigation,” Vinokourov told VeloNews.

“Apparently, we are talking about some kind of legal procedure that was initiated a year ago, when another person was the managing director of Abacanto S.A., while I performed purely sports functions until the summer of 2021. Officially, after a break, I returned to work with the team in January 2022, so it’s difficult for me to comment something on this issue.”

Those claims were followed by VeloNews seeing documents that clearly name the Astana team boss as a figure involved in the case. The Luxembourg public prosecutor’s office would not confirm or deny this.

However, on Wednesday evening an internal message was sent to members of the team in light of the delayed wages. January and February installments have not been delivered to all riders, although VeloNews believes that some riders, and non-riding staff, have at least received January wages.

The message sent by Assem Kunakbayeva, the new managing director of the team, states: “We are aware that you did not receive the salary of January and/or February but please be informed that we are proceeding to complete the payments rapidly. We had to work to solve all the problems in Qazaqstan, after the recent change of government, to get urgently the funds released to the Team as quickly as possible.”

In January the now-former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Askar Mamin, resigned from office following violence and political upheaval. The Astana team declined to comment at the time but the squad is heavily bankrolled by state funds.

It was reported last year by La Presse that Mamin had directly intervened after Vinokourov was briefly suspended by Astana-Premier Tech due to poor results and a lack of leadership. Vinokourov was reinstated soon after and Premier Tech stepped away as the team’s co-sponsor as a result.

Astana-Qazaqstan has had a turbulent few weeks. Rumors of payment issues surfaced on March 1. The team was reluctant to comment but a spokesperson at the team did indicate that statement might be released in the coming days. No communication followed.

A damning report from Deloitte, uncovered by VeloNews, also highlighted several financial ‘red flags’ within the team between 2017 and 2018.

Deloitte found that there were “multiple signed versions of contractual agreements with the same signature date with related identified payments that did not reconcile.”

Those were in reference to paperwork between Abacanto and their then bike supplier Argon 18. Deloitte added that “the quality of the signatures seems not identical between the agreements, which raises questions about the authenticity of one of the agreements.”

Deloitte also found what they described as “conflicts of interest and unclear selection process of providers; material expenses where the commercial selection rationale remains unclear; substantial traveling costs for which no authorization process could be identified; and that the name of the past signatory of the Company’s bank account was mentioned in a press article on an alleged money laundering and tax avoidance case.”

The team declined to comment when asked about the report.