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Kazakhstan: Critics Assail Nazarbaev's Visit To Switzerland

  • Antoine Blua

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is concluding a two-day official visit to Switzerland. The visit focused on the expansion of trade and economic ties between the two countries, but critics of the Nazarbaev government believe the issue of human rights and allegations of corruption should have been dealt with more forcefully.

Prague, 21 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev today ends his two-day official visit to Switzerland, during which he held talks with top Swiss officials, including President Pascal Couchepin, Economics Minister Joseph Deiss, and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Livio Zanolari, a spokesman for the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, told RFE/RL that the two sides discussed a wide range of issues. "They talked about the issue of regional cooperation in Central Asia, the cooperation in which Switzerland contributes technical and financial assistance programs. They also talked about political relations in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Of course, they talked about human rights and [civil] liberties," Zanolari said.

The expansion of trade and economic cooperation topped the agenda, with two agreements being signed. One is an accord on road transportation, the other a project seeking the promotion of regional trade. Nazarbaev also attended a forum on investment in Kazakhstan with Swiss businessmen and representatives of the Swiss Economics Ministry.

Bilateral trade turnover is reported to run at about $500 million per year. Kazakhstan chiefly exports gold and oil to Switzerland and imports industrial equipment and pharmaceuticals.

Despite Couchepin's confirmation that the issue of human rights was part of his talks with the Kazakh president, Nazarbaev's visit nevertheless raised a storm of criticism in Switzerland and among critics of the Kazakh government.

Rashid Nugmanov is a Paris-based representative of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan. "Unfortunately, this is an official visit, and we have to express our view about it, our resentment, that such a visit took place at a time when liberties and the democratic opposition in Kazakhstan are being strangled," Nugmanov said.

Critics of the Kazakh government had sent an open letter to Couchepin, asking that the Swiss government reconsider its decision to host Nazarbaev, who was described in the letter as "authoritarian."

Zanolari said, however, that Nazarbaev's visit was useful in that it presented a chance for Bern to speak with Nazarbaev about Kazakhstan's human rights problems. It is important, he insisted, to maintain a dialogue in order to address such problems.

Zanolari said the Swiss president submitted a memorandum on human rights to Nazarbaev. "The president of the confederation, Mr. Couchepin, gave Kazakhstan's president a memorandum with eight [human rights] cases that we would like to be solved in Kazakhstan," Nugmanov said.

And during a joint press conference today, Couchepin urged Nazarbaev to adopt the U.S. model for democracy. He said that there are two paths to democracy: the Chinese one, which takes centuries, and the American one, which can be achieved in a short number of years.

Despite these developments, Switzerland's Green Party and the international nongovernmental organization Society for Threatened Peoples are assailing the government's decision to hold talks with Nazarbaev. The Society for Threatened Peoples promotes the human rights of religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.

Hanspeter Bigler, secretary-general of the Swiss branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples, told RFE/RL that his organization is concerned that the Swiss president discussed economic relations with Nazarbaev, a man himself accused of money laundering. He also noted Kazakhstan's poor human rights record and history of political repression.

An ongoing graft probe by Swiss authorities implicates several U.S. oil companies and current and former Kazakh officials. The probe follows allegations that around $35 million was siphoned from U.S. oil companies to senior Kazakh officials, including Nazarbaev, during the 1990s. In 2001, following a request from the U.S. Justice Department, Swiss authorities froze Geneva bank accounts containing about $120 million believed to be connected to the case.

Bigler said his organization wants the Swiss government to focus not on economic cooperation but on Astana's human rights and corruption record. Bigler said those states desiring better economic ties need to realize that improved relations come with certain obligations, including a respect for international human rights standards.

Pia Hollenstein, who represents the Green Party in the Swiss parliament, agrees. "We are convinced that Switzerland shouldn't have invited him. We sent a signal that this man should not get an invitation to meet our government because of the [behavior of the Kazakh] regime. The regime is involved -- it seems -- in criminal machinations because some money is blocked in Swiss accounts," Hollenstein said.

Bigler said that while the issues of human rights and corruption may have been discussed during Nazarbaev's visit, they were not the primary focus. "I think that the minister of foreign affairs, Micheline Calmy-Rey, discussed this issue. But as we could see, Mr. Couchepin essentially talked about economic issues and marginally talked about matters of [corruption] and human rights," Bigler said.

Marc Bonnant, an attorney in Geneva who is counseling Nazarbaev in the corruption case, told the Swiss newspaper "Le Temps" that the so-called Kazakhgate affair would likely not be included in official discussions. In any event, he said, Nazarbaev has nothing to do with the case.

Nazarbaev intends to remain in Switzerland until 28 January in order to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, which begins on 23 January. As part of his first foreign tour this year, Nazarbaev will then travel to an informal CIS summit in Ukraine on 28-29 January.

(Merkhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)