The US and UK have long emboldened kleptocrats and oligarchs. Is change coming?
Last week Biden’s administration held the first Summit for Democracy - but are leaders really willing to tackle authoritarianism and corruption?
In just a few weeks, the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union will arrive. The date will largely slip by without any commemoration, either in Moscow, London or elsewhere. Yet one thing is clear: hopes for democratic transformations have been long decimated, buried by autocrats and dictators littering the region. From Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, from Belarus to Kazakhstan, brutal regimes continue to pillage entire populations, strangling any democratic forces they find. In Russia, a revanchist regime continues to undercut European security and threaten its democratic, Western-leaning neighbours with further rounds of invasion and bloodshed.
But one other thing, some three decades on from the Soviet collapse, is also clear. These regimes didn’t transform into rapacious, repugnant governments on their own. Rather than Western forces helping to shift these new states into democratic polities, an entire range of Western professionals and Western industries helped these illiberal, kleptocratic forces to entrench their rule and to use the West for all their laundering needs, when it comes to money and reputations alike.
Indeed, while the US and UK crowed about victory at the end of the Cold War, Washington and London have spent the decades since transforming into the world’s leading money-laundering services for the oligarchs, kleptocrats and illiberal forces who have crushed democratic reformers and gained power for themselves.
The parallel American and British playbooks over the past few decades, accelerating especially through the 1990s and 2000s, are broadly similar. Building empires of anonymous shell companies – especially in the corporate tax havens of overseas territories like the Caymans or states like Delaware – American and British figures began shilling these anonymous financial secrecy vehicles to anyone looking to hide their illicit wealth. No matter whether those assets were gained through, say, underhanded privatisation schemes, or links to organised crime, or by close relations with a local dictator.
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Ultimately, the broader ethos of deregulation during the 1990s and 2000s meant the fewer questions asked about the source of wealth, the better.
The results are clear. Real estate in both the US and UK has ballooned into centres of illicit wealth, transforming ill-gotten gains into legitimate assets. Enclaves from London to Los Angeles and Surrey to Potomac in Maryland have become havens for any number of anti-democratic, oligarchic figures, welcomed with open arms.
Thanks to a range of anonymous financial vehicles, from South Dakota trusts to Scottish Limited Partnerships, we only have a small inkling of all of the kleptocratic figures who have poured their funds into American and British real estate, bleeding their source countries dry while enjoying the high life in the West.
Kleptocratic figures have not only gained access to lucrative assets through which they can launder their money such as yachts and private jets, high-end artwork and priceless memorabilia. As a result of policy loopholes and ethical failures, an entire assortment of American and British professional classes have transformed into so-called ‘enablers’ for these kleptocratic regimes. From accountants to real estate agents, private investment advisers to art gallerists, these enablers either enjoy a complete lack of anti-money laundering regulations or so little interest in actual enforcement from authorities that any related policies are effectively dead-letter.
Arguably, none of these enabling classes is as damaging as the lawyers and law firms overseeing these financial flows, who transform their clients from rapacious oligarchs into wealthy philanthropists and moguls. From constructing the shell company networks to threatening investigative journalists, these fleets of American and British legal professionals provide a broad range of services to their kleptocratic clients.
At long last, there seems to be a reckoning on the horizon over how much of modern kleptocracy was the creation of American and British policymakers
For these professionals, there’s at least a profit motive for working with oligarchic clients spilling out of the post-Soviet space and elsewhere. But in recent years, even British nonprofits have begun grabbing at some of the illicit or questionable wealth emerging from the region.
To take but one example, in 2010 the University of Cambridge accepted a multimillion-pound gift from a foundation linked to Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, in order to bankroll Cambridge’s Ukrainian studies program. Firtash, recently linked to political interference efforts in the US, has since been sanctioned by Ukraine and is fighting extradition to the US on alleged bribery-related charges. At the time, Cambridge described Firtash as a “prominent Ukrainian businessman” providing “generous benefaction” to the university.
Taken together, all of these elements – the packages of financial secrecy tools; the industries propelling and profiting from anonymous wealth; the institutes and professionals freely laundering the reputations of these oligarchic figures – help explain the rise, and entrenchment, of these kleptocratic regimes across the post-Soviet space and elsewhere. And because these figures can safely stash their wealth in nest eggs in Mayfair or Malibu, they do not need to be concerned about potentially losing power.
Thankfully, at least in terms of awareness, things are changing. In the US, the White House this month released a watershed anti-corruption strategy document, laying out the steps to clean up the myriad American loopholes and policies incentivising these kleptocrats.
Unfortunately, no such document has yet emerged from Downing Street. But British think tank Chatham House last week launched an unprecedented research paper (of which I’m a co-author) on the ‘The UK’s kleptocracy problem’. As the paper sums up:
The provision of financial and legal services to kleptocrats and their associates has undermined the integrity of important domestic institutions, transplanted authoritarian agendas and rivalries to UK settings, weakened new legislation designed to curtail and deter corrupt practices, and eroded the UK’s capacity to assess the challenges posed by individuals from abroad and their countries of origin in a manner that promotes the national interest and upholds democratic values and governing principles.
At long last, there seems to be a reckoning on the horizon over how much of modern kleptocracy was the creation of American and British policymakers. Much work remains ahead. But three decades later, it’s clear that the Soviet dissolution didn’t usher in any kind of democratic renaissance. Instead, it’s the kleptocrats who’ve risen – and done so using the kinds of tools the US and UK decided to freely provide.
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