Swiss Foreign Policy In Conflict

The exam­ple of Kazakhstan shows that in Swiss for­eign rela­tions, eco­nom­ic inter­ests some­times col­lide with com­mit­ment to democ­ra­cy and human rights.


The con­sti­tu­tion oblig­es Switzerland to pro­mote democ­ra­cy. The coun­try takes this task seri­ous­ly. But espe­cial­ly in coun­tries that are of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance for the econ­o­my, for­eign pol­i­cy occa­sion­al­ly gets into a quandary. On the one hand, it should talk to dubi­ous regimes about democ­ra­cy and human rights. On the oth­er hand, she con­cludes lucra­tive con­tracts with them.

The risk here is a ver­i­ta­ble con­flict of goals: the close eco­nom­ic ties with Switzerland, the mod­el coun­try of democ­ra­cy, can not only serve dic­ta­tors for enrich­ment. Sometimes they also legit­imize their existence.

Kazakhstan in Central Asia: Almost 19 mil­lion peo­ple live in the sec­ond largest suc­ces­sor state to the Soviet Union. Tens of thou­sands took part in protests against the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment at the begin­ning of the year. The unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of pub­lic goods has led to the social explo­sion. According to observers, the gov­ern­ment, with the sup­port of troops from oth­er post-Soviet states, vio­lat­ed human rights in crack­ing down on the protests.

“People are tired of the lies of those in pow­er,” Gazinur Gizdatov, a pro­fes­sor at the Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations, told SWI However, accord­ing to Gizdatov, it still remains to be seen “whether change is still pos­si­ble in our country”.


Nurlan Sauranbayev, left, the chair­man of Kazakhstan’s state rail­way com­pa­ny NC Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, and Peter Spuhler, right, the pres­i­dent of Stalder Rail, pose after sign­ing a strate­gic coop­er­a­tion agree­ment at the Zoubov Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, November 29 2021, in the pres­ence of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, left, and Swiss President Guy Parmelin, right. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Doubts are jus­ti­fied, because the Central Asian dic­ta­tor­ship under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, which is rich in raw mate­ri­als, not only has pow­er­ful allies in neigh­bor­ing Russia — but also reli­able part­ners, for exam­ple in Switzerland.

The Swiss busi­ness asso­ci­a­tion Economiesuisse writes: “For many Swiss com­pa­nies, Kazakhstan is the gate­way to Central Asia. The coun­try has sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved its mar­ket access con­di­tions for for­eign com­pa­nies in recent years. Between 2005 and 2018, Swiss com­pa­nies spent 23.2 bil­lion dol­lars in this for­mer Soviet repub­lic invested.”

Switzerland’s third largest direct investor

This makes Switzerland the third largest direct investor in Kazakhstan, after the Netherlands and the USA. Swiss exports to Kazakhstan increased by 16.2% in 2018 alone. At the end of November 2021, both coun­tries signed a num­ber of dec­la­ra­tions of intent and pre­lim­i­nary agree­ments in Geneva. This includes projects in the areas of sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, pub­lic trans­port, road con­struc­tion, genet­ic engi­neer­ing, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, finan­cial ser­vices, ani­mal hus­bandry or plas­tics — the whole spectrum.

Among oth­ers, the Swiss train man­u­fac­tur­er Stadler Rail is inter­est­ed in a close coop­er­a­tion with the Kazakh state rail­way com­pa­ny “Qasaqstan Temir Scholy”.

Controversial political ties

Parallel to the eco­nom­ic rela­tions, the bilat­er­al ties between the two coun­tries are also being strength­ened. Last year, the pres­i­dents of the two coun­tries, Guy Parmelin and Tokayev, signed two trade devel­op­ment agreements.

For Tokayev it was a wel­come appear­ance on the inter­na­tion­al stage. In addi­tion to busi­ness, they also talked about such noble top­ics as a ban on clus­ter muni­tions, the fight against the pan­dem­ic, Afghanistan and water diplomacy.

Switzerland was more about busi­ness: the coun­try occu­pies a strate­gic posi­tion between Russia and China. Beijing is build­ing roads, rail­ways and pipelines in Kazakhstan as part of its glob­al “New Silk Road” ini­tia­tive. And the Kazakh author­i­ties plan to pri­va­tize some of their state-owned com­pa­nies. Swiss com­pa­nies sense busi­ness accordingly.


According to research by the Tages-Anzeiger, the dic­ta­tor’s daugh­ter Dinara Kulibaeva bought the Château de Bellerive on Lake Geneva for over a hun­dred mil­lion francs at the end of 2021. DRAt the same time, peo­ple in Bern are well aware that the gov­ern­ment in Kazakhstan is an author­i­tar­i­an post-Soviet regime which — as just demon­strat­ed — is capa­ble of uncom­pro­mis­ing and rock-hard action against its own people.

An inci­dent involv­ing Kazakhstan, which even called into ques­tion the inde­pen­dence of Swiss par­lia­men­tary oper­a­tions, was also the sub­ject of heat­ed debate in Switzerland from 2015 onwards. It was about an ini­tia­tive by the lib­er­al par­lia­men­tar­i­an Christa Markwalder, who addressed the rela­tion­ship between the two countries.

Media research revealed that the gov­ern­ment of Kazakhstan, through an inter­na­tion­al PR agency, was respon­si­ble for this ini­tia­tive, right down to the for­mu­la­tion of indi­vid­ual pas­sages, with­out Christa Markwalder’s knowl­edge, as Markwalder lat­er assert­ed. The so-called Kazakhstan affair became a text­book exam­ple of how a for­eign state sought to influ­ence Swiss politics.

The ex-pres­i­den­t’s fam­i­lyFurther evi­dence of the close ties between the two states is Vitol, one of the largest Swiss cor­po­ra­tions. The Swiss non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Public Eye sees the Vitol Central Asia joint ven­ture as a con­struct that on the one hand serves to hide the group’s con­nec­tions to elites in Kazakhstan — and on the oth­er hand to obtain lucra­tive contracts.

According to Public Eye research, Vitol Central Asia is a sub­sidiary of Ingma Holding, a Rotterdam-reg­is­tered com­pa­ny with just 11 employ­ees that turned over a whop­ping $93.3 bil­lion between 2009 and 2016.


A por­trait of for­mer Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev fol­low­ing clash­es at the City Hall build­ing in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Monday, January 10, 2022. Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reservedAccording to Public Eye, Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of for­mer Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, indi­rect­ly ben­e­fit­ed from this joint ven­ture. Kulibayev and his wife own a prop­er­ty in Anières, in the can­ton of Geneva, which they bought in 2009 for 74.7 mil­lion Swiss francs. In addi­tion, accord­ing to research by the Tages-Anzeiger, the dic­ta­tor’s daugh­ter Dinara Kulibaeva bought the Château de Bellerive on Lake Geneva for over a hun­dred mil­lion francs at the end of 2021.

A Vitol spokesman told SWI that the com­pa­ny was not aware of any ben­e­fits Kulibayev alleged­ly received from Ingma. In this con­text, Public Eye has called on the Swiss gov­ern­ment to increase trans­paren­cy in com­modi­ties trading.

Stable Courant normal

For its part, the Swiss Foreign Ministry empha­sizes that Bern is in con­stant con­tact with the Kazakh author­i­ties and civ­il soci­ety there on ques­tions of democ­ra­ti­za­tion and human rights. She is also close­ly fol­low­ing the ongo­ing tri­als of mem­bers of the Kazakh opposition.

Projects by local NGOs in the area of ​​free­dom of expres­sion and migra­tion are also sup­port­ed. During offi­cial vis­its by Swiss del­e­ga­tions, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of civ­il soci­ety would usu­al­ly be invit­ed to a round table on democ­ra­cy and human rights. That sounds nor­mal for sta­ble Courant.


Kazakhstan’s new cap­i­tal has changed its name sev­er­al times in recent years. Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reservedFor Kazakh polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gaziz Abishev, it is unlike­ly that recent events will make Kazakhstan any less attrac­tive. “The diplo­mats are work­ing, so noth­ing bad should hap­pen between Kazakhstan and Switzerland,” he assess­es the situation.

The fact that Kazakhstan’s gov­ern­ment with­stood the upris­ing is proof of the sta­bil­i­ty of the coun­try’s polit­i­cal sys­tem. Switzerland and Kazakhstan: “Pragmatic con­sid­er­a­tions pre­vail on both sides,” says Abishev.

Original arti­cle: Swissinfo