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Saturday, February 23, 2008

There's Something About Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein is a country that is rarely in the news. And the principality likes it that way. But now, this secretive Alpine bastion is in the center of a controversy involving rich Germans, hidden bank accounts and tax evasion. Furthermore, the United States may be jumping on the bandwagon. Senator Carl Levin has announced he is opening a Congressional investigation into whether American citizens are hiding assets in Liechtenstein's banks in order to evade taxes.

It's nasty business for this idyllic Lilliputian Eden wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Yet, the recent scandal surrounding the country's banking practices is no surprise to me. Not that I have any inside information, mind you. Nor do I have a bank account there (after all, I'm a journalist, not a supermodel). But each succeeding time I have visited the country (I've been there, done that three times), I have had growing suspicions that all is not as it seems.

My first visit to Liechtenstein was back in the day when I was doing my student Eurail tour of Europe. Frankly, I merely stopped in Liechtenstein for a day in order to add another stamp to my passport. Despite the rather hokey touristic nature of the capital city of Vaduz, I was somehow charmed by the tiny principality (smaller in area than the District of Columbia). Therefore, I licked my lips when, during my year as a graduate student in England, I once again found myself in this postage-stamp-sized country.

That visit included some one-on-one time with the locals, who invited me to go skiing and to eat out. They did not, however, invite me into their homes. There was definitely a wall between recreation and reality. The graffiti on said wall said, "Outsider, keep out." Nevertheless, what struck me during that visit was that everyone did seem quite rich and happy. While other parts of Europe were in turmoil at the time, Liechtenstein was a parapet of the good life.

But during a five-day stay in Liechtenstein three years ago, things struck me a bit differently. Perhaps the change of viewpoint developed from age and wisdom, or perhaps cynicism. First off, I stayed at a four-star business-oriented hotel in downtown Vaduz. At breakfast, I noticed a motley group of polyglots. These businesspeople were from all over the map. Their languages were all over the map. When various people broke into English every now and then (seemingly the common second language of the gang), it was heavily-accented. I later learned that some of the people were German, others Russian, and others from various points in Eastern Europe. While such international groupings are not uncommon in European business hotels, the fact is, this group didn't look cohesive. People dressed differently (even accounting for the differences in nationalities), they comported themselves differently, and if you didn't see them all sitting together at meals, you wouldn't know they were together. Naturally, my mind starting novelizing the situation. Was this a cartel of European mafia members? Was it a coterie of ne'er-do'wells? Or was it merely a bevy of badly-dressed (for the most part), suspicious-looking people who were having some kind of annual reunion in Vaduz?

Another day, as I was driving around the countryside of Liechtenstein (yes, there is more to Liechtenstein than Vaduz...in fact, there are 10 other towns and plenty of open space), my guide mentioned that the country has an open lottery for citizenship. I thought that this merited further investigation. After all, who wouldn't want to live in a fairytale land, where a courtly prince reigned and where everything was clean and everyone was rich? Granted, my lack of German-speaking ability and a real reason for needing to live there would be strikes against me. Still, going through the application process would be an entertaining exercise. However, my dreams of a Liechtensteinian lifestyle were quickly quashed. When I asked the country's press representative about the application process, an agitated look appeared on her face and her words, dismissing the topic as bunkum, were expressed with consternation. From her mien and tone, I got the feeling that this citizenship lottery was a big bean that had accidentally been spilled to me. Perhaps her response might have been different were I am German multi-millionaire.

Most countries want overnight visitors for the hotel and restaurant revenues they leave behind. But during my three times in Liechtenstein, I noticed that Liechtenstein seems to want touristic riff-raff to come in, get passports stamped (for a fee), buy some stamps, and then leave...quickly. In light of the recent relevations regarding Liechtenstein's seamier side, and the profits it may be making from fishy banking practices, there's really no need to reel in loads of tourists.

Interesting Facts about Liechtenstein

-Liechtenstein is one of two doubly-landlocked countries (the other is Uzbekistan) in the world
-Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world
-Liechtenstein has more registered companies (approximately 74,000) than citizens (approximately 35,000)
-Only about 60% of Liechtenstein's population has citizenship
-Financial services account for 30 percent of the country's GDP
-The manufacturing of false teeth takes a big bite out of the country's economic pie chart

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