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British PM makes Russian-born oligarch a lord; measuring corruption in body fat

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.

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LORD, SPARE US…

Two weeks ago, the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned everyone that Russian money was corrupting the U.K. It was not a pleasant read, with pretty much everyone being chided for their failure to take the threat from the Kremlin kleptocrats seriously enough.

Read more about the report and what it means for the British government here

Members of the House of Lords were shilling for oligarchs. So were lawyers, accountants, PR executives, and the rest. Under-resourced enforcement agencies were out of their depth. Dirty money had become so entangled in the establishment, that it likely could not be disentangled.

Would the report be the wake-up call that Britain needed? Would the prime minister draw a line in the sand: thus far shalt thou go, Mr Putin, but no further? Obviously not. Because this isn’t a Richard Curtis movie

Which is all a preamble to the astonishing news that last week Johnson made Yevgeny “don’t call me an oligarch” Lebedev a member of the House of Lords, for services to journalism and philanthropy and whatnot: which is to say, Lebedev will actually be able to vote on actual British legislation. That’s quite some response to the allegation that wealthy Russian-born tycoons have too much influence in British politics.

(I mean, I predicted the government would do nothing to interfere with the money flows, but never in my wildest guesses, could I ever have predicted this.)

Lebedev’s father, Alexander, is a pugilistic former KGB agent who made his fortune from banking and aviation. His son is a socialite who moved to London as a child when his father worked in the U.K. under diplomatic cover. Competition is hot, but he is surely – for now, anyway – the most extraordinary example of how open Britain is to anyone with large quantities of money. 

  • “There is considerable anger at the decision to ennoble Lebedev, a man arguably more known for his vanity, pretensions and lavish parties than his contribution to society, wrote Russia watcher Mark Galeotti. “Furthermore, given that the real source of the money essentially is his father — a man who, by his own account, after flirting with democratic opposition politics has ‘mended his relations’ with the Kremlin — then this is seen by many, even within the Conservative Party, as an example of the very kind of cronyism about which the [intelligence and security committee)  was warning.” 

The House of Lords now has more than 800 members, which makes it the second largest assembly in the world, behind China’s National Congress. There is no space on its red benches for all these lords and ladies to sit, so if they did turn up to work, it would be like one of those overbooked flights with everyone arguing about who gets bumped. 

Most members only use it as a prestigious club, and don’t bother about engaging in legislation, but the appointment of a wealthy Russian-born media mogul to its ranks has only hastened demands that it be radically reformed. 

  • “We now have a government whose prime minister does not believe Russian interference in our democracy is worthy of investigation, a government that does not believe well established anti-corruption procurement rules matter, and Tory MPs unconcerned about both,” wrote Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former head of communications.

To add another level to the already dense irony around this sordid and depressing affair, he wrote that in The Independent, in which Lebedev is the largest shareholder.

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BUT HOW DO WE TELL WHO’S CORRUPT?

Corruption hides in the shadows, a nebulous enemy that shifts its shape, modifies its methods, and changes its character whenever we come close to defining it. But Pavlo Blavatskyy, an economist at Montpellier’s Business School, has stared corruption full in the face and lived to tell the tale.

  • “We collected 299 frontal face images of 2017 cabinet ministers from 15 post‐Soviet states,” he wrote in the summary of his peculiar academic study, Obesity of Politicians and Corruption in Post‐Soviet Countries. For each image, the minister’s body‐mass index is estimated using a computer vision algorithm. The median estimated body‐mass index of cabinet ministers is highly correlated with conventional measures of corruption.”

Translation: the more corrupt the government, the fatter the ministers.

Professor Blavatskyy helpfully attaches the algorithm he used to rank the ex-Soviet politicians and, if anyone fancies repeating the experiment for Western governments, I’d be very interested in seeing the results.

A WARNING

Covid-19 makes fighting corruption even harder than it is already. Not only is there a huge quantity of government money being spent on emergency equipment and medicines with little or no oversight, but law enforcement officers are struggling to find ways to work from home. It’s not like you can read someone their rights over Zoom.

The International Monetary Fund has promised it will step up its efforts to improve governance, and curb both corruption and the laundering of its proceeds. 

  • “This crisis will sharpen our focus on governance in the years ahead because of the pandemic’s devastating effects and costs for people and economies. Countries can’t afford to lose precious resources at the best of times, and even less so during and after the pandemic. If ever there was a time for anti-corruption reforms, it is now,” three of its top experts wrote in a blog post.

ARSON IN UKRAINE

Last week, I mentioned that the house of Vitaliy Shabunin, a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who I work with, and who’s been harassed by corrupt officials for years, had been burned down in a nocturnal attack. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the property is uninhabitable. He lacked insurance, and his organization – the Anti-Corruption Action Centre – is trying to raise money to help him build it back. They’d appreciate the help, if you have any spare cash to give.

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WHAT I’M READING

I’ve been a big fan of Anne Applebaum ever since reading her first book, and being desperately jealous that it was her not me wandering through Eastern Europe (I was at school at the time). So I’ve been devouring her new book, “Twilight of Democracy,” with its fascinating insights into the splintering of the political right in Poland and elsewhere. If you’d like to hear her talking about it, she gave a very interesting interview to the Talking Politics team last month (and if you don’t subscribe to their podcast, you should).

See you next Wednesday,

Oliver

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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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.