Guy Verhofstadt should choose his friends more wisely. That such a senior EU figure should be defending, effectively, one of the biggest crooks of the 21st century is not a good look for the EU. And yet in defending Lyudmyla Kozlovska, barred from Schengen travel on Polish orders, that is exactly what he is doing.
On August 16 Kozlovska was barred entry at Brussels Airport, having been placed on the Schengen Information System (SIS) by Polish authorities. She was quick to denounce this attack on a self-styled freedom fighter, and some of the more credulous figures in Brussels have sadly bought her spiel in its entirety. But the wider public, in Poland, Belgium and Europe as a whole, may find her backstory illuminating.
Via her Open Dialog Foundation she has a track record of assisting major criminals including, most famously and most intimately, Mukhtar Abylazov. Accused of embezzling over $6bn from the BTA bank in his native Kazakhstan, as well as ordering the murder of a fellow banker, Abylazov is one of the biggest thieves in history. He is wanted not just in Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, but also the UK, where the High Court in London ordered him to repay over £1bn. He currently hides in western Europe, where his billions have enabled him to run a slick PR campaign repainting him as a ‘political dissident’. Kozlovska and ODF are a crucial element of that PR operation.
Serious questions about ODF have been raised for some years now. Kozlovska and its leading lights seem to lead a lifestyle all too glamorous for humble employees of an NGO: luxurious hotels (such as the $300 a night Hotel Le Parister), regular fine dining, designer wardrobes and global travel. Where does all the money come from? No one seems entirely sure, as ODF are far from transparent about their finances – though George Soros is a known donor. Critics claim they receive substantial financial support from Ablyazov and his underworld associates.
ODF’s founding statute, oddly, allows for a range of commercial activity including gambling, betting, management consultancy, paper production, “sales of miscellaneous goods”, wholesale of porcelain, ceramic, watches and jewellery, the production of wooden containers and much more besides. Is ODF an NGO or a business?
Eyebrows were certainly raised when footage emerged of Kozlovska and Abylazov engaged in what appeared to be a highly intimate embrace. Kozlovska has denied the incident in an even less convincing manner than Bill Clinton; she has simply said it’s not her despite the footage and audio being unequivocal. Ms Kozlovska’s love life is entirely her own business, but it does raise serious questions about the nature of her own work and that of ODF, and both the public and the EU have a right to know if NGOs are being used as cover for convicted criminals.
To add to ODF’s charge sheet, they were investigated by Polish authorities in 2016 for a residency selling scam, effectively selling Polish work visas to Ukrainian nationals at a tidy profit, which Kozlovska and her colleague, Bartosz Kramek, are alleged to have pocketed.
Despite a number of MEPs raising serious concerns about ODF, its activities, its finances and its associates, Guy Verhofstadt took the opportunity to attack Poland over the Kozlovska travel ban. It is well known that Brussels is desperate to enforce discipline on the unruly eastern states, but this latest intervention from Verhofstadt is a step too far. In defending ODF, effectively the PR wing of the Abylazov criminal network, Verhofstadt is painting the EU as a bloc that will side with major organised crime figures it if helps its political battles with uncooperative member states.
If the EU wishes to maintain the bloc as a beacon of propriety and the rule of law it should choose its friends far, far more carefully. Corruption is insidious, and in the case of Mukhtar Abylazov and his associates, it seems to be creeping towards the heart of European power.