This book first caught my eye in March this year with reports that the author, Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis, had just won a libel case against him. Some Eurasian plutocrats had prosecuted him concerning what he had written about their business doings in this book, Kleptopia. Their company, ENRC, sued Burgis but the judge ruled:
“Only individuals can carry out acts of murder or poisoning, only individuals can be motivated to do so to protect their business interests.”
So, this book is not only about money-making: it also reveals some dark secrets about how some of the world’s richest make it, and their collaborators in financial capitals, including London.
As with the other book about colossal money-making of Russian plutocrats I recently summarised for KBL readers, Kleptopia opens with a cast of characters.
It is divided into seven groups:
- The Investigators in London
- The Trio (the Eurasians behind ENRC)
- The Khan (ruler of Kazakhstan and his family)
- The Oligarch (a rival strong man of Kazakhstan)
- The Gangsters (Russian currency dealers, who also featured in Belton’s book)
- In Africa (rulers of Zimbabwe and the Congo, and their allies)
- In North America (Moneymen facilitating the above).
As a top-ranking journalist, Burgis is scrupulous about his sources:
“This is a true story. Each of the facts of which it is composed comes from an interview or a document, corroborated wherever possible by other sources.”
Try to keep up!
The result does not make easy reading. The first 88 pages jump from one informant or scene to another, and it is not easy to follow the plot(s), so to speak. A brief biography is often given of each character introduced, starting with Nigel, a financial compliance expert, who is the nearest this non-fiction book has to a hero.
The book spans the period 2008 to 2019. It puts the spotlight mainly on ENRC, a company with mining assets both in Eurasia and in Africa. The methods used by the Trio were the same in both regions: get close to the despotic ruler, extract mineral rights, monetise these and list as a public company, thereby laundering ill-gotten gains and tax-evasion/avoidance.
The vicious rivalry between the Khan in power in Kazakhstan and Mukhtar Ablyasov shows up in court cases and a nasty kidnapping case involving the Ablyasov family members. The clandestine tussle for Congo mineral resources is reflected in the mysterious deaths (in America) of those in the know.
Meanwhile Nigel was working for the Swiss finance company, BSI. He was well aware of the nature of the money-making of some of its clients. In 2010, at a time the rest of the world was beginning to blame bankers for causing the financial crash, Nigel handed over a list of tax-evading BSI companies to HMRC. This was never acted upon. But after he died, Nigel’s meticulous files were utilised by Burgis in compiling this book:
“Nigel’s files were a palimpsest: front company upon front company upon front company. But beneath, still discernible, was the outline of a treasure map…he had understood that the kleptocrats of the world were uniting.”
After such a complicated book unravelling secretive finance, Burgis comes out with some clear moral dictums. He divides the guilty, these international kleptocrats, into five ‘families’:
- The Nats: the autocrats who claim to saving their nation (Trump, Orban, Putin, Kabila, Mugabe would all fit here);
- The Brits: the financiers and contractors who make money with/from the kleptocrats;
- The Sprooks: spooks and crooks, who mostly have a Moscow base, but operate internationally;
- The Petros: the oil traders who set the price;
- The Party: seems to refer to the Communist party of China, who want it all, money, land and technology (but actually there is little in the book about China!).
Burgis comments that on the surface these groups may look like rivals, but they are all engaged in the same endeavour: “seize power through fear or the force of money and then privatise that power.”
Nigel would explain why it all mattered, “all the money that could have paid for teachers to teach and doctors to heal had been ripped from the commonwealth.”
The Brits are shape-shifting from the long decline as an imperial power into an afterlife of financial secrecy connected to the City of London and the servicing of the kleptocrats. Burgis insinuates UK government connections: Johnson refused to publish the Russian report and the day after he won the 2019 election, he attended a party thrown by “a billionaire veteran of the KGB’s foreign intelligence arm.”
It is useless to resist
What or who can resist this international kleptocracy? Burgis’ book does not go into this. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing attempt to impose sanctions has put into focus the difficulty which is how the guilty financiers hide behind shell companies. The US, the EU, and even the UK are all attempting to legislate to compel shell companies to reveal their real owners, the actual named individuals who benefit.
But whether this will have real implementation is questionable when these money men can exert such influence on governments. A source of information about this is Oliver Bullough, the writer of Moneyland.
He runs Coda Oligarchy a newsletter I now subscribe to which covers the international effort to curb kleptopia. Today’s bulletin is pessimistic: the US legislators are waiting for the EU. Who will move first, or will they prevaricate further?? Meanwhile we in the UK should keep an eye on a section in the recent Finance Act due to be implemented in the tax year up to 2023, and also on new regulation of Companies House that registers companies:
Tom Burgis’ book is available for loan in Kent public libraries.