Viktor Khrapunov: squandering natural treasures for the wealth(y) of nations/II

Abusive administrative management in Kazakhstan’s metropolis Almaty led to destruction of natural landscapes, clandestine construction, fraudulent property transfers and the mayor escaping to Switzerland with the roughly quarter billion dollar revenue gained from it all. The main perpetrator has been no one less than the mayor at the time – who took the equivalent of more than a quarter billion euro off to Switzerland as a result of it, only to get into trouble in the laundering process of his gains. The case may be far from unique, but it illustrates along with the previous chapters that a changing attitude concerning what Jeremy Bentham three hundred years ago defined as vice is in the process – possibly with dramatic changes in global society.

by Charles van der Leeuw, KZW senior contributor

Viktor Khrapunov: squandering natural treasures for the wealth(y) of nations/IIThe case would hardly make big headlines in most parts of the former Soviet Union. In Switzerland, though, where law and order are taken somewhat less lightly despite some notorious hypocrisies, trying to obtain a major-size construction project license through bribery and forgery raises substantially more eyebrows than further towards the Orient. Yet, this is what has happened in Geneva recently. Behind the scheme is no one less than someone who could rightly be dubbed a veteran in the domain: Almaty’s former mayor-governor Viktor Khrapunov and family.

At stake is a slice of land along Lake Geneva named Eaux-Vives and known among the population as Geneve-Plage. The nickname is not without irony, since though there are strips of sandy beaches along it, there is no resort and the deserted place is only used for occasional picknick parties. Ideas to do something with the place have been launched for almost half a century occasionally, but nothing would materialise in spite of the fact that the local government promised support in the form of public co-funding and fiscal advantages to developers.

The latest initiative came from a company Swiss Development Group, which had hired one of Switzerland’s most renowned architects (also member of Parliament) Herve Dessimoz to put the dream on paper: a combination of hotels, clubs, a conference centre, a health resort and a long string of beaches with a promenade behind them. The plan was based on an up-to-down-market target, with maximum access for plain citizens with moderate leisure budgets. “A citizens’ place” the plan was dubbed by its promoters in a high-profile press campaign launched in early summer 2010.

The affair took a funny turn over the New Year. A project of this size in Switzerland requires a petition with a minimum of 10,000 signatures by Swiss nationals. In late 2010, such a petition was filed with the authorities bearing just over 13,000 autographs. But on January 19 the following year, the State Council, Switzerland’s constitutional regulator and watchdog, found that 257 signatures had been put twice, 1,389 were from residents without Swiss nationality, and another 1,693 were labeled fantaisistes – meaning either from non-existing persons or unlikely signatories such as Bruce Lee, David Guetta and Roger Federer, La Tribune de Geneve reported on January 20. A further, yet to be determined number of legitimate-looking signatures is thought to have been paid for, as have the people who collected them. Both acts are a criminal offense in the Geneva canton.

Already on earlier occasions, Swiss media had questioned the funding the SDG was supposed to have for the realisation of its plan, and found that behind the scheme was no one less than Ilyas Khrapunov, the son of former Almaty akim Viktor Khrapunov. Young Ilyas, born in 1984, came to Switzerland in 1998, a few years after his sister’s arrival, to study, which he did subsequently at the Rosey private college and the Webster University. In the course of time, brother and sister became less known for their outstanding academic ardour than for their lavish lifestyles. Back in Almaty, their father had been installed as mayor in 1997 and the money started flowing into Switzerland on a regular basis, thanks to a special credit line opened for Khrapunov and relatives, paid through corporate structures belonging to them occasionally for “urgent personal needs” at the Almaty-based Alliance Bank, according to a background report published on the local newsreel Newsland on January 20 this year.

As money started arriving in ever larger amounts, Ilyas, who by than was about to marry the daughter of no one less than Kazakhstan’s star-banker and future multi-billion fraudster Mukhtar Ablyazov, founded the Swiss Development Group with a capital of 10 million Swiss francs, “given to me by my family” as he would explain later on. Five companies resort under the group, all involved in real estate development and sales, plus a sixth one engaging in outdoor advertising, an earlier report by La Tribune de Geneve reads. For the realisation of a project of the size of Eaux-Vives, however, considerably larger sums would be needed.

In the meantime, though, a solution to that problem had come from Almaty to Geneva in 2008 in the form of a chartered Tupolev-154 with on board a load of 18 tonne of cargo. Its description on the bill of loading read “personal belongings”. Its owners: Viktor Vyacheslavovich Khrapunov and his wife Leila. The “belongings” included reputedly antiques, jewelry, works of art and other highly valuables. Viktor Khrapunov had spent a brief period as minister of emergencies following the end of his term in Almaty as of 2004, and spent his last three years in Kazakhstan as governor of the East-Kazakhstan province. As heads started to roll in what was initially seen as a political purge and only later appeared to have had far more serious backgrounds, Khrapunov must have felt, or have been warned, that his past had come under scrutiny and found it wise to leave the battleground before the guns would be pointed at him.

Added to the money transferred through banking carousels to Switzerland, the Khrapunovs joined their offspring bringing in a fortune estimated at up to 400 million Swiss francs, or well over a quarter billion euro, in all – according to the Swiss uppity magazine and local variant to Forbes, Bilan. Where all that money was supposed to have come from has been described earlier and is also what more and more Swiss authorities get worried about while their Kazakh colleagues are trying to sort it all out. How it has been spent under the shadows of the Swiss Alps is a little better known. On arrival, mother Khrapunova sent her husband to a clinic to have his spine treated, then purchased a lavish villa for the family and the Geneva luxury Park Hotel for herself, along with a jewelry store licensed under the Spanish up-market brand Carrera y Carrera for her daughter. There is little doubt that where Ilyas was concerned, the idea of Eaux-Vives was born shortly afterwards but took more time to take shape, given the need to build up a local political lobby for the purpose.

In scant comments, Khrapunov junior tends to suggest that the fortune his parents brought to Switzerland came from legitimate sales of legitimately owned property and other assets by his parents back in Kazakhstan. He may even sincerely believe that his is the case, and even senior might not be entirely convinced that his gains have been generated illegally and at the community’s expense. It is here that the case tends to turn into a syndrome that stretches far beyond Kazakhstan alone and is of the most serious concern to the global community as such.

In a report on criminology published in 2001, a British expert called John Lea describes the process of decriminalisation of crime as follows: “For the last thirty years, until recently, in most societies we have witnessed rising rates of crime. As crime becomes more frequent it loses its status as an exceptional event and becomes a standard background of our lives. […] The fact that crime becomes a normalised risk of postmodern life and the identity of criminal offenders becomes blurred, implies also, as its accompaniment, the normanlisation of activities and motivations hitherto considered criminal. Crime becomes a normal activity to be entered into. […] Behind the statistical and cultural normalisation of crime lies the process of structural normalisation whereby criminality – especially, but not only, economic criminality – increasingly functions as a mechanism for the reproduction of social and economic life rather than simply its disruption.”

Most post-(Second World) war criminologists tend to agree that as opposed to pre-war “biological schools” crime should be defined as deviating behaviour within society determined as such by society itself – in the worlds of protagonists such as Hoefnagels and Bianchi. By keeping such behaviour within proportional boundaries, authorities justify their mandate from communities while the moment such boundaries widen beyond control, authorities are bound to see their mandate eaten into by forces beyond control. In other words: the level of outrage felt by society towards crime determines its level of readiness to defend itself against it rather than the tangible material damage inflicted on society by crime.

There can be little doubt that the acts committed by the likes of Khrapunov are met with increasing indifference by the public at large. The “oriental” approach to deviate behaviour which by and large consists of the concept that those who do it and manage to get away with it are simply clever and those who fail to grasp the opportunity or get caught in the act are simply stupid plays a crucial role in the global process of mental deterioration. But the east is gaining over the west and the process is far from fresh. For the crowds, rule will keep determining exceptions, whereas for the elites exceptions are included in rule. A macchiavellistic approach which is due to strangle all democratic efforts in the world and reduce all authority to gunpoint positions.

“The demise of organised crime was a premature hypothesis which was falsified by the rise of new forms of entrepreneurial criminality, oriented to trading and the accumulation of wealth,’ Lea observes in his paper. “Their main interest is making money and, furthermore, they cannot possibly substitute themselves for the power of the modern state. They seek rather to neutralize the capacity of the state either by corrupting particular groups of state functionaries – judges, police, politicians – or by escaping, like XIXth Century bandits and robbers, into areas beyond the reach of the state.”

This and little else is the danger of white collar crime in both public and private sectors and the increasing tolerance displayed by authorities and the communities they are supposed to represent towards it. The disappearance of the distinction between done and not-done is threatening to leave the world in an apocalyptic situation in which tyrannosaurs face the rest of creation with the choice to devour or be devoured. The only hope for civilised people with a long mental haul is to see the tyrannosaur starve after having devoured all his preys while persistently hungry for more. Recent events in the former USSR have shown that communities tend to understand the message and that lenience leading to compliance towards socioeconomic vices ends up in revolution. Condoning that tendency comes down to playing with fire.