Mining billionaire Patokh Chodiev became a Belgian citizen in the 1990s. Credit: Wikimedia commons
The role of Parliamentary inquiries in Belgian politics is under scrutiny after millions of euros were squandered on a 16-month investigation into allegations that were ultimately found to have no merit.
Politicians have been accused of using Parliament’s investigative powers to further their own ambitions and settle scores with opponents with little consideration to the impact of their actions.
Commentators at La Libre, a newspaper, complained that Belgium’s politicians are “now spending more time inspecting how the State is run than writing laws” as the country’s fragmented politics has led to bitter in-fighting.
The dangers of giving politicians investigating powers were evident in a recent investigation into Patokh Chodiev, a mining billionaire who became a Belgian citizen in the 1990s. Media reports alleged that Chodiev had obtained his citizenship inappropriately and that he had influenced the introduction of a new plea bargain law in 2011 in order to settle financial charges.
A Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (PIC) was established in December 2016 to look into the allegations. The 16-month inquiry produced a 500-page report that concluded there had been no wrongdoing by Chodiev.
The PIC found that Chodiev’s citizenship process had been correctly completed and there had been no undue influence in the introduction of the plea bargain law.
The so-called “Kazakhgate” investigation appears to have been instigated for political reasons and the inquiry spent millions of euros only to determine that the underlying allegations were false.
David Clarinval, Belgium’s vice-prime minister, said: “It’s always the same technique: they cry for an inquiry commission, they focus media attention, they make an outrageous drama out of it until an inquiry is held and if they don’t like the results, they say it was biased, that we’re plotting together!”
Jean Faniel, director general of the Centre for Socio-political Research and Information, has even suggested that politicians call for inquiries because it gives them an opportunity to “express themselves” without the day-to-day drudgery of passing laws. “Legislative work is a little unsatisfying for politicians,” Faniel suggested.
Parliamentary Inquiry Committees in Belgium are established to investigate matters of importance and are supposed to act as a check on government power. They are given the powers of an examining magistrate and can interview witnesses and seize property and documents.
Historically, this was a carefully used power and between 1972 and 2009 there were only 15 PICs instituted by the House of Representatives. However, in 2016/17 alone there were four PICs and it has become routine for MPs and media to call for inquiries on a wide range of issues.
Recent investigations have included reports into the “Optima” scandal, the Panama Papers and terrorist attacks.
The increased use of PICs may be linked to Belgium’s fractured politics, where numerous small parties vie for power and form temporary coalitions with each other. In 2011, for example it took a record 353 days after a general election for the parties to form a ruling coalition.
The Kazakhgate investigation into Patokh Chodiev was instigated by Dirk Van der Maelen of the Socialist party and Georges Gilkinet, representing a Green party. According to critics, the Kazakhgate PIC was an opportunity for these left-wing politicians to attack the ruling centrist parties of CD&V, N-VA and MR, who were in a coalition in 2016 and had also been the driving force in Parliament to introduce the new plea bargain law in 2011.
Pascal Vanderveeren, a lawyer representing Chodiev, said that certain members of the PIC had been leaking damaging evidence to undermine their rivals. “Ever since the beginning of the investigation, a steady stream of confidential documents flowed into the Belgian media, raising questions about the MPs’ impartiality,” he said. “Are the commissioners neutral and objective? The answer is a radical no.”
Patokh Chodiev appears to have been collateral damage in a domestic political fight that used the PIC as a battleground. The committee ultimately determined that the allegations were false and Chodiev was exonerated, but not before the businessman suffered what his lawyer described as severe “commercial, familial, personal and moral damage.”