Pluralistic: How the kleptocrats and oligarchs hunt civil society groups to the ends of the Earth (24 August 2023)

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A giant, cigar-chomping, top-hatted malevoelent capitalist in a tuxedo and white gloves contemptuously dangles a Black man in a shabby overcoat, carrying a bucket, between a gloved thumb and forefinger. Arrayed before the giant are his henchmen: the Wall Street 'Charging Bull,' a trio of tough-looking thugs, a club-brandishing man in a bowler making a 'gimme' gesture, and a wildly gesticulating carny barker. Behind them is London, looking south from the north bank, with the Houses of Parliament, the Shard, and the London Eye. London is dark and menacing.

How the kleptocrats and oligarchs hunt civil society groups to the ends of the Earth (permalink)

It's a great time to be an oligarch! If you have accumulated a great fortune and wish to put whatever great crime lies behind it behind you, there is an army of fixers, lickspittles, thugs, reputation-launderers, procurers, henchmen, and other enablers who have turnkey solutions for laundering your reputation and keeping the unwashed from building a guillotine outside the gates of your compound.

The field of International Relations has studied the enemies of the Klept in detail: the Transnational Activist Network is a well-documented phenomenon. But far more poorly understood is the Transnational Uncivil Society Network, who will polish any turd of sufficient wealth to a high, professional gloss.

These TUSNs are the subject of a new, timely scholarly paper by Alexander Cooley, John Heathershaw and Ricard Soares de Oliveira: "Transnational Uncivil Society Networks: kleptocracy’s global fightback against liberal activism," published in last month's European Journal of International Relations:

The authors document how a collection of institutions – some coercive, others organized around good works – allow kleptocrats to take power, keep power, and use power. This includes "wealth managers, company providers, accounting firms, and international bankers" who create the complex financial structures that obscure the klept's wealth. It also includes "second citizenship managers and lawyers" that facilitate the klept's transnational nature, both to provide access to un-looted, prosperous places to visit, and boltholes to escape to in the face of coup or reform. It includes the real-estate brokers and other asset facilitators, who turn whole precincts of the world's greatest cities into empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, while ensuring that footloose criminal elites always have a penthouse to perch in when they take a break from the desiccated husks they've drained dry back home.

Of course, it also includes the PR managers and philanthropic ventures that allow the klept to launder their reputation, to make themselves synonymous with good deeds rather than mass murder. Think here of how the Sacklers used charity to turn their family name into a synonym for culture and fine art, rather than death by opioid overdose:

Beyond providing comfort to "Politically Exposed Persons" and "High Net-Worth Individuals," TUSNs are concerned with neutralizing TANs. Activists in these transnational networks play an inside-outside game: in-country activists will recruit peers abroad to bring attention to the crimes of their local kleptocrats. These overseas partners target the klept in the places they go to play and spend, spoiling their fun – and if they succeed in getting corrupt leaders censured abroad, then in-country activists can leverage that bad press to fight the klept at home.

To fight this "Boomerang Effect," TUSNs seek to burnish corrupt officials' reputations abroad, getting their names on humanitarian prizes, beloved sports teams, cultural institutions and great universities. They seek to capture international governance institutions that might wrong-foot kleptocrats, co-opting them to enable and even celebrate looters.

When it comes to elite philanthropy, TUSNs are necessarily selective. Kleptocrats' foundations don't fund anti-kleptocratic groups – they stick to "education, public health, the environment and the arts." These domains steer clear of human rights questions that might implicate their benefactors. Russian oligarchs love children's charities and disability rights – provided they don't target the Russian state.

If charitable giving is reputation laundering's carrot, then "reputation management" is the laundry's stick. Think of organized copyfraudsters who clone websites that have criticized their clients, then backdate the articles, then accuse the originals of infringing copyright in order to get them de-listed from Google or taken offline altogether:

Reputation managers also spend a lot of time in court. In the UK – the world's leader in libel tourism, thanks to a legal system designed to let posh monsters sue muckraking journalists into silence – Russian oligarchs have perfected the art of forcing their critics to shut up and go away:

Indeed, London is a one-stop shop for the global klept, a place where forelock-tugging Renfields will buy you a Mayfair mansion under cover of a numbered company, sue your critics into silence, funnel your money into an anonymous Channel Islands account:

They'll sell you whole galleriesworth of "fine art" that you can have relocated to a climate-controlled container in a Swiss or Irish freeport:

They'll give your thick-as-pigshit progeny a PhD and never check to see whether he wrote his thesis himself:

Then they'll hook you up with a cyber-arms dealer to hunt your enemies by capturing their devices:

But don't let Brexit stop you from shopping for bargains on the continent. The Golden Passports of the EU – available in a variety of flavors, from Maltese to Cypriot to Portuguese – offer the discerning failson access to the luxury goods shops and fleshpots of 27 advanced economies, making it a favorite of the Khmer Riche – the junior klept of Cambodia's ruling faction:

But golden passports are for amateurs. Skilled klepts travel on diplomatic passports, which offer the twin benefits of free movement and consequence-free criminality, thanks to diplomatic immunity. The former Kazakh dictator's son-in-law enjoyed a freewheeling diplomatic life in Vienna; one daughter of the dictator of Tajikistan had a jolly time as an envoy to DC; another, London (where else?).

All this globetrotting serves a second purpose: when rival elites seize power back home and force the old guard into exile, those ex-monsters can show up in the lands they called their second homes and apply for asylum. It turns out that even bomb-the-boats UK will welcome any asylum seeker who enters via the private jet terminal at City Airport (to be fair, these "refugees" have extensive properties in Zone 1 and country places in the Home Counties, so they won't need housing).

This stuff works. After Kazakh state goons murdered at least 14 protesters at a Zhanaozen oil facility in 2011, human rights groups around the world took up the cause. But they were effectively neutralized by TUSNs, with former UK PM Tony Blair writing on behalf of the Kazakh government to the EU condemning any kind of international investigation into the mass killings (add "former Prime Ministers" to the list of commodities for sale in the UK to sufficiently well-resourced murderers).

The authors close their paper with two case-studies. The first is of the daughters of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, Gulnara and Lola. And President Karimov was indeed a dictator: he trapped his population within his borders, forced them to use non-convertible scrip in place of money, and ordered the murder of hundreds of peaceful protesters, plunging the country into international isolation.

But while Uzbeks were sealed within their borders, Gulnara Karimov became an international player, running a complex network of businesses that mixed the products of the nation's oilfields with her family's fortune. She solicited – and received – bribes from Teliasonera, MTS and Vimpelcom, who were all vying for the contract to provide service in Uzbekistan. All told, she extracted more than $1b in bribes, laundering them through Latvia, Hong Kong and New York. She acquired real-estate in France and Switzerland, and her spree continued until her father collaborated with Uzbek security to seize her assets and place her under house-arrest.

Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva was Gulnara's estranged younger sister. She and her husband Timur Tillyaev ran the Dubai-based SecureTrade, which did extensive business with "opaque Scottish Limited Partnerships," laundering more than $127m in a single year to offshore accounts in the UAE and Switzerland. They acquired many luxe assets – a jet, a Californian villa, and an LA perfumier.

Lola styled herself as the face of the Karimovas abroad, a "philanthropist and cultural ambassador." She was a UNESCO ambassador and commissioned works of monumental art – and also sued the shit out of news outlets that reported factual matters about her family repressive activity at home. She organized AIDS charities in the name of Uzbekistan – even as her father was imprisoning a writer for publishing a book explaining how to have safer sex.

The second case-study is on Isabel dos Santos, "Africa's richest woman," daughter of Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. Isabel's vast fortune stemmed from her personal capture of vast swathes of the third-largest economy in Africa: "telecommunications, banking, diamonds, real estate and cement, among many others." Isabel enjoyed seemingly limitless access to state credit and co-investment, and was given first crack at newly deregulated industries. Foreign firms that invested in Angola were required to "partner" with Isabel's businesses.

Isabel claimed to be a "self-made woman" – a claim credulously parroted by the western press, including the FT. She used her homegrown fortune to become a major player abroad, especially in Portugal, where she was represented by the leading Portuguese law firm PLMJ. Her enablers are a who's who of corruption-loving lickspittles: McKinsey, Ernst and Young, Boston Consulting Group, and the Spanish BigLaw firm Uri Menendez.

Isabel cultivated a public facade of philanthropic giving and public spirited activism, serving as head of the Angolan Red Cross. She attended Davos and spoke at the LSE (she was also invited to Oxford, but her invitation was subsequently rescinded). On social media, she dismissed critics of her wealth and corruption as "colonialists," decrying their "racism" and "prejudice."

Isabel dos Santos's corrupt sources of wealth were finally, irrefutably exposed through the Luanda Leaks, in which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists mapped the network of "top banks, management consultants and legal firms that were central to dos Santos’s operations."

Both case studies shed light on the network of brilliant, driven enablers and procurers without whom the world's greatest monsters would falter. It's a rare window on a secretive world, one that is poorly understood even by its inhabitants. As Michael Mechanic wrote in Jackpot, his 2021 book on vast, intergenerational fortunes, the winners of the lucky orifice lottery often lack any real understanding of how The Money is structured, grown and protected:

This point was reiterated by Abigail Disney, in a brave piece on what it's like to grow up subject to the oversight of these millionaires who babysit the children of billionaires:

This is an important contribution to the literature. We naturally focus on the ultrawealthy individuals whose reputations and fortunes are the subject of so much attention, but without the TUSNs, they would be largely helpless.

(Image: Sam Valadi, CC BY 2.0; Colin, CC BY-SA 4.0; modified)

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