Swiss-Kazakhstan – a long and scandalous love story

Public Eye’s investigation into Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s secret assets that were in part managed from Switzerland is just the latest episode in a saga that has been unfolding for several decades. It recounts the attraction of peaceful Switzerland – in particular its discreet financial and real estate service providers and its commodities trading companies – for the elite of this authoritarian Central Asian country, Kazakhstan. And the scandals that arise as a result.
© Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (left) shakes hands with Swiss Federal President Guy Parmelin (right) during an official visit in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 2021.

At the start of the 2000s, the Geneva judiciary discovered accounts of then President Nursultan Nazarbayev at Credit Agricole and at Pictet, in Geneva, fed by US oil companies in exchange for exploitation rights in Kazakhstan. Some CHF 115 million were then frozen. This first ‘Kazakhgate’ concluded in the funds being returned via local NGOs, under the oversight of the private Bota foundation

In 2010, Nazarbayev’s son in law, the billionaire Timur Kulibayev, and one of his partners were the targets of an investigation by the Swiss Federal Attorney General into money laundering. The far-reaching investigation which involved Credit Suisse was shelved in 2013. Responding to a request for mutual legal assistance, the Kazakh financial police had concluded that no one in Kazakhstan had been aggrieved and therefore there was no offence prior to the laundering activities suspected to have been committed in Switzerland. 

Shortly before this investigation, Dinara Kulibayeva, the former president’s youngest daughter and wife of billionaire Kulibayev, had taken up residence in Switzerland. She initially lived in Ticino in 2007 and then two years later in Geneva, where she now owns two properties acquired for eyewatering sums in Anières (CHF 74.7 million) and Collonge-Bellerive (CHF 62 million). She still lives there peacefully, benefitting from flat-rate taxation. 

The Khrapunovs are another controversial family. They also threw in their lot with Switzerland, settling in Geneva in 2007. Viktor, the former mayor of the Kazakh city of Almaty, was at the time suspected of having facilitated the enrichment of his wife Leila. Their son Ilyas is married to the daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov – Nazarbayev’s main opponent who has sought refuge in France, also accused of having diverted billions. Together, they became the thorns in the side of the current regime. 

Kazakh networks are particularly active on the shores of Lake Geneva. In 2014, Swiss newspaper Le Temps revealed how Thomas Borer (a former ambassador of Switzerland in Berlin) and the prominent Zurich-based law firm Homburger SA had worked for the Kazakh government. They were hired to pressure the Swiss judiciary, which had just refused to extradite the Khrapunovs under an open investigation in 2012 that has now been shelved, to change its ruling. Christian Miesch, a member of the Swiss parliament at the time and a great friend of Kazakhstan and its authoritarian regime, had drafted an appeal to this end, together with lobbyists from Astana. 

Another member of the Swiss parliament, Christa Markwalder, was also under investigation in the affair. The questions she had tabled in parliament in 2013, which portrayed the regime favourably, had been drafted by a PR agency mandated by a Kazakh political party close to ex-president Nazarbayev. 

The Kazakh president’s underground business passed through Switzerland