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Kazakhstan: Did The Swiss Mountain Air Help Clear Nazarbaev's Image?

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev yesterday ended his eight-day visit to Switzerland. The official leg of Nazarbaev's trip lasted just two days. But it may have been the remaining six that proved the most fruitful for the Kazakh president, who has spent the past several years at the center of a scandal involving U.S. oil companies, Swiss banks, and alleged misappropriation of state funds. As RFE/RL reports, Nazarbaev's extended visit to Switzerland may have put him in a better position to answer these charges back home and help repair his damaged image in the international community.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev returned to his country yesterday after an eight-day trip to Switzerland. Only two of those days were on official visit. But just how he spent the rest of his stay in Switzerland may have been much more important for him, and for his image at home and abroad, than his meeting with Swiss government officials.

Tolen Tokhtasynov is the chairman of the political council for the opposition Democratic Movement of Kazakhstan. He said he believes the Kazakh president might have used his time in Switzerland to try to privately resolve the so-called Kazakhgate scandal. "Officially, [Nazarbaev] met with the [Swiss] president, foreign minister, and other officials. But I think he also met with officials about 'Kazakhgate,' although I don't have details about this," Tokhtasynov said.

The scandal stems from allegations that U.S. companies doing business with Kazakhstan -- Mobil and Exxon -- paid hundreds of millions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts held by the Kazakh government during the mid-1990s. How much of that money actually made it from the Swiss banks to Kazakhstan has been a subject of debate since the scandal broke. The matter is now under investigation in the United States and Switzerland.

Tales of missing funds gained new plausibility last year when newly appointed Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmagambetov unexpectedly announced that Nazarbaev did, in fact, have $1 billion in a secret bank account in Switzerland, allegedly to help Kazakhstan "in time of crisis."

After the story broke, Nazarbaev -- once a regular visitor to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos -- kept his distance from Switzerland. This month's visit was his first in nearly five years. But his activities during the trip remain unclear.

What he did during his first two days in Switzerland was easy to follow through the Kazakh and Swiss press. What he did after that is more difficult to track. Although the Kazakh president reportedly met with several World Economic Forum participants, it is not clear he attended any of the Davos events himself.

What Nazarbaev may have gained most from this visit is some breathing room back home. With Kazakhstan's opposition media and some politicians focused on the embezzlement allegations, the president may have wanted to demonstrate to his adversaries that he has nothing to fear by openly visiting a country investigating his alleged financial misdoings.

Steve Sabol is a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Kazakhstan. He said that Kazakh state media might use Nazarbaev's trip to show that the president does not fear Swiss prosecution. But he added this would probably not be sufficient to stop the opposition from continuing to use Kazakhgate in their struggle with the Kazakh president. "The fact that [Nazarbaev] is still being accepted internationally, despite much of the criticism, is positive. I'm not sure how much it's going to benefit him at home. The opposition, as it may exist in Kazakhstan, is not going to be pacified by his long trip to Switzerland," Sabol said.

But Sabol said Nazarbaev could benefit from being seen in the company of other world leaders. Although it is not clear that the Kazakh president attended the World Economic Forum, Sabol said the forum steered clear of bad news about Kazakhstan, which in and of itself may boost Nazarbaev's image. "The fact that there didn't seem to be any mention of corruption and financial scandals in Kazakhstan might help him to some degree internationally," Sabol said.

Even if the scandal remains unresolved, Nazarbaev has little to fear in the way of reprisal. As a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, Nazarbaev is not likely to see the U.S. investigation into Kazakhgate advance toward criminal proceedings.

At home in Kazakhstan, the president should be even more sanguine. The government in the summer of 2001 approved a measure to destroy all tax records as part of a "shadow capital" amnesty. This means that any financial crimes committed between 1995 and 2000 -- the years the alleged oil funds made their way into Swiss accounts -- are legally impossible to prove.

(Sultankhan Zhussip of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)