Several recent scandals have thrown the spotlight on efforts to influence Swiss parliamentarians by the regime of president Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. The authoritarian Central Asian state commonly uses such lobbying methods, as it tries to improve its image in the West.
Christa Markwalder of the centre-right Radical Party is one of the most prominent women politicians in the Swiss parliament. She was in line to become president of the House of Representatives in 2016 but could well see her political ambitions dashed by an unfortunate “Kazakh affair”.
The story so far: in June 2013, Markwalder tabled parliamentary questions on relations between Switzerland and Kazakhstan, the content of which was in itself rather harmless.
However, according to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Markwalder did not write these questions herself – they came from Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm active in Switzerland and mandated by the Kazakh political party Ak Zhol. While Ak Zhol describes itself as being part of the opposition, it is in fact reportedly close to the government.
Markwalder, who pleads “naivety”, is also accused of having breached the rules of confidentiality by transmitting information to Burson-Marsteller.
In the eyes of Carlo Sommaruga, a member of the leftwing Social Democratic Party and chairman of the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, Markwalder demonstrated “reprehensible thoughtlessness” in not taking the trouble to check who stood behind this Kazakh pseudo-opposition party.
What worries Sommaruga most is that “some foreign states are now using lobbyists, or third-party entities working through lobbyists, rather than their official diplomatic channels, to try to influence parliamentarians. This is a particularly underhand practice”.
A specific country is in the public eye: Kazakhstan. Already last January several media outlets reported that a former Swiss ambassador, Thomas Borer, had tried to help his client, the Kazakh justice minister, in his fight against the main opponent to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Viktor Khrapunov, who is now living on the shores of Lake Geneva.
In particular, Borer was reported to have written a Kazakhstan-friendly question for Christian Miesch from the conservative right Swiss People’s Party.
The questions submitted by Markwalder and Miesch both mention Viktor Khrapunov, who is accused of corruption and embezzlement and whose extradition Kazakhstan has so far not obtained from the Swiss courts.
“Kazakhstan’s first concern is to get hold of the oligarchs who are angry with the regime and have found refuge in Switzerland,” Sommaruga says.
Prestigious advocates in Europe
The regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the self-proclaimed “leader of the nation” for 25 years – he was re-elected in April with 97.7% of the vote – does not shy from using all means available to boost its image and pursue its enemies.
This does not surprise Thérèse Obrecht, former president of the Swiss section of Reporters Without Borders and a specialist on Central Asia. “It is a ruthless dictatorship that is corrupt at all levels. Thanks to its enormous revenues from natural resources [uranium, oil, gas, metals], it can win the favours of many Western politicians with the aim of giving itself a veneer of respectability.”
Nazarbayev can thus count on an impressive number of prestigious advocates among European Social Democrats: former Austrian and German chancellors Alfred Gusenbauer and Gerhard Schröder, former British and Italian prime ministers Tony Blair and Romano Prodi, and the former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski.
According to the British press, Blair, who is a member of Nazarbayev’s International Advisory Board, receives an annual salary of nearly €9 million (CHF9.35 million) for his services.
Swiss politicians wooed
It is therefore not surprising that the regime is also actively seeking supporters in Switzerland. Another deputy, Walter Müller, also from the Radical Party, has been taken to task in the press and by his party for accepting an all-expenses-paid trip to Kazakhstan in May 2014.
But the wooing also occurs during official trips. In 2013, Filippo Lombardi, then president of the Swiss Senate, was photographed in the capital Astana wearing a traditional fur hat and standing beside the president of the Kazakh Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
After the visit he wrote in his personal blog: “The most impressive personality is certainly president Nazarbayev (...) It is no coincidence that his popularity is very high and the two small opposition parties (one communist and the other liberal) are not really able to put forward a convincing alternative vision, regardless of the more or less democratic electoral processes. Even from a formal point of view, we must recognise that Nazarbayev has given his people the tools for democracy with a bicameral parliament.”
Former journalist Marc Comina, who is Viktor Khrapunov’s official spokesman, believes paradoxically that these recent scandals are proof that Switzerland is less conciliatory towards the Nazarbayev regime than other European countries.
“The Kazakh dictatorship has certainly managed to get a foot in the door over the past two years, but today that door is being slammed in its face,” he says.
“We can say that Kazakh lobbying in Switzerland is now dead. I’m quite proud of this, because it proves that the antibodies of Swiss democracy are in perfect working order, unlike in other countries such as Britain, Italy, Belgium or France, where Kazakhstan is continuing to infiltrate the ruling circles with increasing success.”
Gaukhar Beiseyeva from Kazakhstan’s embassy in Bern says her government is not involved in lobbying the Swiss parliament.
She says Christian Miesch tabled his question in parliament based on discussions that were completely within the framework of the Swiss-Kazakhstan inter-parliamentary cooperation group. There was also no attempt to influence or pressure Christa Markwalder, who intervened after meeting representatives of Ak Jol, which, according to Beiseyeva, is an authentic opposition party – contrary to allegations by the Swiss media.
Beiseyeva also claims that the real lobbying in parliament is done by Viktor Khrapunov with the help of money he stole from Kazakhstan. She admits that recent Swiss media coverage could affect parliamentary cooperation between the two countries but insists that it will not hamper economic relations.
Translated from French by Julia Bassam