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Transparency in lobbying Questions swirl on outside influence in Swiss parliament

Christa Markwalder, president of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, apologised publicly over the Kazakhstan lobbying scandal


Concerns are growing about foreign influence in parliament, amid media reports showing a widening circle of power brokers received financial perks from lobbyists for Kazakh special interests.

A report on Friday in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung said it obtained e-mails showing two politicians took part in a mostly paid trip to Kazakhstan organized by public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. The free travel, while not illegal, does not conform to parliament’s own anti-corruption guidelines.

A day earlier, Christa Markwalder, former speaker of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, apologized publicly in Bern for filing parliamentary questions in 2013 prepared by a lobbyist for Burson-Marsteller on behalf of its client, Kazakhstan's Ak Zhol political party.

“I should’ve been more critical and interested in who was involved in preparing this text,” Markwalder, who is in line to chair the 200-member House of Representatives next year, told Swiss public television, SRF.

Though lobbying is a legitimate effort to influence the legislative process, the recent disclosures have raised questions about whether more transparency is needed in government to protect against hidden special interests. The lobbyist who wrote the parliamentary motion, Marie-Louise Baumann, was well-connected from her previous work for the Federal Chancellery and the centre-right Radical Party.

The Swiss Lobbyists’ Association (SSPA) said on Thursday that it intended to investigate the Markwalder case to find out if one of its members violated its working guidelines. These procedures, which came into force in January this year, include transparency over who is behind specific lobbying work. 

In March, the questions of lobbying influence had seemed isolated to one case, that of a former Swiss ambassador lobbying for Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s interests. The former ambassador, Thomas Borer, is one of 400 Swiss parliament “guests” with a permanent entry pass. He told he was hired to advise the Kazakh justice ministry in its dealings with Swiss authorities over Kazakh regime critic Viktor Khrapunov, who allegedly found refuge on Lake Geneva.

"Promote democratization in Kazakhstan"

Matthias Graf, Burson-Marsteller’s CEO for Switzerland, said the Ak Zhol political party became a client in March 2013, a month before he joined the firm. He said in a statement on Wednesday, in response to a report in NZZ on Markwalder, that the firm was hired “to promote the democratization movement in Kazakhstan through an exchange of experiences with Swiss parliamentarians and refine their knowledge of Kazakhstan”. He insisted it always lobbied in an “open and transparent manner”.

The oil-rich former Soviet nation's authoritarian government has been making efforts to position itself as a vital economy, faced with international criticism of its parliament's lack of broad representation. Though Ak Zhol is often described as an opposition party, Nazarbayev has been strongly criticized by Western powers for tolerating no credible opposition and for reining in civil and political freedoms.

The leader of the government-friendly, pro-business Ak Zhol party, Azat Peruashev, has had close dealings with the president's billionaire son-in-law. Nazarbayev was re-elected in April to another five-year term with more than 97 percent of the vote, in an election that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized as presenting voters with no genuine choice.

One of the two politicians cited in the latest NZZ report, Christian Miesch of Basel, was not yet in parliament when he traveled to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in May on a trip that also included parliamentarian Walter Müller of St. Gallen. Both agreed to pay CHF1,000, or about a tenth of the travel expenses, according to the NZZ.

Müller, also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while in Astana he attended a business forum, a session on corruption and a meeting with the party leader Peruashev. But he said that “to influence me, it would take a little more than just such a trip”.

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