UK report shows Russian oligarchs influencing British politics – the government is unlikely to do much about it

Hello, and welcome to Oligarchy. We are tracking how Covid-19 and the world’s response to it is affecting the super-rich — and what that means for power and politics.

FROM RUSSIA WITH ***

It’s not often that the fruits of an official inquiry into oligarchical infiltration of a major Western country get published, and the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference in the U.K. is well worth a read. 

This is a very British publication, so its authors have naturally obeyed the national instinct to redact anything specific, remarkable or interesting, and the pages are scattered with the *** symbol, which means [redacted] in British officialese. 

Nonetheless, what was left after the redactors were done with it is still a fascinating insight into how dirty money has infiltrated a lazy, venal, hypocritical and complacent Western nation, with relevance to others like it.

  • “The U.K. welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth.”
  • “A large private security industry has developed in the U.K. to service the needs of the Russian elite, in which British companies protect the oligarchs and their families, seek kompromat on competitors, and on occasion help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ‘due diligence’ reports.”
  • “Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals have played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.”
  • “Russian influence in the U.K. is ‘the new normal,’ and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the U.K. business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”

Amid the redactions, the report is full of tantalizing hints about donations to political parties, politicians being retained by major Russian businesses, and a national establishment so entangled with Russian oligarchs’ cash that it can never be disentangled. Politicians and intelligence agencies alike failed to notice this phenomenon until it was too late, and the National Crime Agency is too underfunded to do anything about it. 

The report does make some recommendations for action, but the likelihood of this government implementing them can be intimated from the fact it has spent the last nine months attempting to prevent the report’s publication

Basically, the report consists of 48 pages of fists being shaken impotently at an indifferent sky: Britain is yet to elect a government willing to go cold turkey on the national addiction to kleptocratic cash. It’s hard to imagine Boris Johnson being the man to take that pledge, particularly if the revenue squeeze caused by Covid-19 and a hard Brexit makes the craving for easy money all the stronger. 

Prediction: Britain will be open for business for a while longer.

Example: as we go to press, a junior minister has issued a statement about a long-delayed plan that would supposedly force oligarchs to reveal their ownership of property currently hidden behind shell companies, and it’s pretty underwhelming.

  • “The Government has been exploring how best to implement these recommendations…careful consideration is needed before any measures are adopted,” the statement says. Does that look like the battle cry of a government about to wage war on the oligarchs? Not to me anyway.

HOW MUCH?

But there is potentially important news from the United States, now that, once again, Congress is seeking to crack open the nation’s opaque registers of shell companies. A new amendment would oblige all corporations in the U.S. to report who their true owners are, so the authorities can easily find them, preventing criminals from hiding behind companies to commit financial crime. As I’ve written in this newsletter before, U.S. shell companies are among the worst in the world, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on the latest initiative.

Still, it may all be for nothing. A leaked document from the FBI reveals that shell companies are a bit old hat when it comes to laundering money. The new rules will not force investment funds to disclose who has contributed the money they hold, which means they can hide assets as well as an LLC.

  • “The FBI assesses, in the long term, criminally complicit investment fund managers likely will expand their money laundering operations as private placement opportunities increase, resulting in continued infiltration of the licit global financial system,” the leaked document, which dates from May, states.

Money launderers are always one step ahead of regulators, being far better rewarded and thus far more motivated. But we certainly make their lives easy for them – not least by failing to properly study what they’re up to. Considering how important money laundering is, as the crucial support industry for organized crime, terrorism, goods and people trafficking and kleptocracy, it’s weird how little we know about it. For example, U.N. agencies estimate that between two and five percent of global GDP is of criminal origin. That was a guess when it was first made in 1998, and remains a guess now.

If I were an oligarch, I’d chuck a few hundred million dollars at a university to fund a department of money laundering studies, which could actually try to figure out what’s going on. I hope I’d struggle to find a reputable university willing to take my ill-gotten money, but I suspect I wouldn’t. Universities are as willing to ignore the dodgy origins of large fortunes as anyone, if not more so.

WHISTLEBLOWERS

I’m working on a new book, and I was chatting last week with a man who blew the whistle on a major money laundering scandal, which reminded me of this remarkable story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, countries with desperate need for resources to tackle the pandemic have seen money embezzled by well-connected insiders, which is why it’s amazing that Deputy Health Minister Albert M’peti Biyombo chose to blow the whistle instead, about the theft of funds nominally dedicated to fighting the disease.

  • “These mafia networks require kickbacks of up to 35 percent from structures benefiting from these funds,” Biyombo said in a letter to the prime minister, which was leaked to the press.

It’s clear Biyombo was unhappy about the letter being leaked, perhaps because of the danger that exposing corruption brings, but now that it has, the rest of us can be grateful to him. Without whistleblowers, it is extremely difficult to prosecute financial crime, and we need more of them. The deputy minister is a hero.

WHAT I’M READING

Jason Sharman is one of the most penetrating academic analysts of how kleptocracies work (he would definitely be someone I’d recruit for my Department of Money Laundering Studies), and I’ve just started his new book: “Empires of the Weak.” I’m only a chapter in, but it looks like a fascinating account of imperialism, which has come at just the right time, considering the debate raging in Europe about its colonial legacy. I look forward to reading the rest.

See you next Wednesday,

Oliver

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.