Spies, lies and the oligarch: inside the kleptocrats’ booming secrets industry


In 2009, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch arranged a meeting in London with the head of an international private intelligence agency. Mukhtar Ablyazov (left), a slim man in his mid-forties with receding hair, a delicate mouth and a flinty gaze, had fled to the UK earlier that year as the Kazakh government prepared to nationalise his bank. So much money had gone missing from that institution that Ablyazov’s enemies would call him the Bernie Madoff of the steppe, writes Tom Burgis, the FT’s investigations correspondent:

But the chess-playing billionaire was also one of the few members of the Kazakh elite who had dared to cross Nursultan Nazarbayev (right), the former Soviet republic’s ruler since 1989. The allegations of grand looting were, Ablyazov maintained, merely a vendetta waged by a regime that was itself gorging on stolen wealth. He had broken the code of loyalty — a transgression that Nazarbayev would not, he believed, allow to pass unpunished. “I saw the spies around me and I wanted to hire a group to counter what the spies were doing,” Ablyazov told me recently.

The case exposes a “largely unregulated industry [which] will set about the extraction, dissemination and, sometimes, manipulation of information to serve a client’s agenda and target that client’s enemies — enemies who have, often, assembled a similar team of their own,” Burgis adds:

The industry is concentrated in the west because that is where the money is. Since the end of the cold war, the offshore system has helped a growing cohort of kleptocrats and their cronies to channel dubious fortunes into western markets. ….Kazakh dissidents and international human rights activists who support Ablyazov’s cause argue that, even if he did improperly divert money, he is guilty only of playing by the kleptocratic rules that govern the Kazakh elite. ….. If Ablyazov holds any aces, they are the secrets he learnt from his years on the inside of the Kazakh elite. His strategy now is to target the Achilles heel of what he sees as Nazarbayev’s kleptocracy — the disparity between the prosperity of rulers and the struggles of the ruled.

Burgis asked veteran human rights campaigner Yevgeny Zhovtis (right) what he made of the global industry that has grown up to serve the world’s kleptocrats. “It’s a question for western societies,” he said. “What are they doing with their institutions and politicians? Our corrupted elite has not corrupted itself.”

Properties owned by Bukola Saraki, Diezani Alison-Madueke, Abdulsalami Abubakar, and other prominent Nigerians have been featured on “kleptocracy tours” of London, according to Sahara Reporters:

The tours, organized by anti-corruption activists, highlight properties owned by corrupt foreign politicians. A recent kleptocracy tour featured on a BBC News program stopped at a mansion owned by Nigerian Senate President Bukola Saraki. Bukola Saraki is a prominent Nigerian politician who earns around £30,000 a year. According to the Panama papers, he also owns this £30 million property through an offshore vehicle,” BBC News reported.

Corruption may kill Nigeria soon, says Akin Oyebode, Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, University of Lagos. “If drastic measures are not put in place urgently to contain it, corruption might ultimately result in the mortality of Nigeria as a nation-state,” he told a roundtable organized by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in collaboration with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

Delivering a paper on Strategies for Mobilizing Mass Action to Demand Anti-Corruption Reforms and an End to Impunity for Grand Corruption in Nigeria, he insisted that “mass action by the citizens is urgently needed to put pressure on authorities to end impunity for grand corruption in the country.”

Credit: NY Times

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) holds a hearing on “Combating Kleptocracy with Incorporation Transparency.”

Panelists: Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Charles Davidson, executive director of the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative; Caroline Vicini, deputy head of delegation at the Delegation of the European Union to the United States; and Gary Kalman, executive director of the FACT Coalition

2:30 p.m. – October 3, 2017. Venue: 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

CONTACT: Stacy Hope, 202-225-1901 or stacy.hope@mail.house.gov  Webcast here.

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