Belgium’s former deputy prime minister has criticised the “gratuitous accusations” made by his country’s media and politicians against billionaire mining moguls Aleksander Mashkevich and Patokh Chodiev.
Vincent van Quickenborne, a former deputy PM and Secretary of State, was a member of a panel that investigated whether Mashkevich and Chodiev, who own mining assets in Kazakhstan, influenced the introduction of a new plea bargain law in 2011.
Van Quickenborne now believes that Belgian politicians owe Mashkevich and Chodiev an apology for permitting damaging and false allegations to be made about the businessmen.
The businessmen became embroiled in the so-called “Kazakhgate” scandal when Belgian media claimed that they had taken advantage of the new plea bargain law in 2011 to settle financial charges against them. It was alleged that lobbyists acting for Chodiev and the French state had sought to influence the introduction of this law so the billionaire could hurry through a settlement.
Allegations of influence peddling were also made in relation to Chodiev’s Belgian citizenship process and it was even claimed that the businessman had bribed a neighbour to lobby on his behalf by giving access to his driveway.
The scandal has gripped Belgium’s politicians and media for years and led to the formation of a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (PIC, which ran a 16-month investigation into the allegations but found no evidence of wrongdoing. The PIC concluded in a 500-page report that the citizenship process had been completed properly and that there had been no undue influence in the introduction of the plea bargain law.
Senator van Quickenborne was a member of the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (PIC) and following the publication of its report exonerating Chodiev and Mashkevich he said: “The answer to the question that lies at the heart of our work (i.e. was the law for the transaction pénale enacted to assist Patokh Chodiev and his partners?), is clearly no. The commission does not need to apologise to him. But having made gratuitous accusations against him, its members should apologise.”
Throughout the PIC’s investigation, politicians and officials appear to have leaked information to the media that was bias, partial or inaccurate. Pascal Vanderveeren, a lawyer for Chodiev, has described the campaign against his client as repeated “slander”.
Vanderveeren said: “Ever since the beginning of the investigation, a steady stream of confidential documents flowed into the Belgian media, raising questions about MPs’ impartiality.”
When the PIC report exonerating Mashkevich and Chodiev was released on 16 April 2018, a number of Belgium’s main newspapers failed to even mention it – despite publishing dozens of negative stories in the preceding months.
Le Soir, one of Chodiev’s most vocal critics, only covered publication of the PIC report 11 days later when the Uzbek businessman asked for a formal apology from the government for the harassment he had endured. Chodiev said he would not bring legal action against the Belgian state if he received an apology.
Le Soir took a negative view of this offer, interpreting it as a blackmail threat (“du chantage”) while failing to mention that the PIC had exonerated Chodiev.
The role of the media in promoting the various Kazakhgate conspiracies and allegations is being scrutinised now that the official inquiry into the affair has dismissed all the claims.
Jeremy Dudouet writing in the French magazine Mediapart said about Kazakhgate: “Why do some journalists repeat baseless accusations? Should this be seen as a political-media vendetta? Personal settlement of accounts? One thing is certain at this point, the Kazakh smoke screen is becoming less and less illusive.”