Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World. By Tom Burgis. New York: Harper, 2020. 464 pp.
Tom Burgis has written a page-turner of a true-crime thriller. He sets into motion a cast of colorful characters—ruthless oligarchs, mobsters, a crusading lawyer, and even a U.S. president—whose plot lines all converge in the book’s dramatic conclusion.
But of course, our shared reality easily outmatches the imaginations of the most accomplished novelist. Why even bother with fiction these days? As Burgis writes at the outset of Kleptopia: “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” (p. xi).
As in any good thriller, there are multiple storylines spanning the globe, from the steppes of Central Asia to the jungles of Africa. But at its heart, this is a story about how rampant official corruption in one former Soviet republic—Kazakhstan—is made possible by a fabulously well-paid global network of lawyers, bankers, ex-spooks, politicians, and public-relations executives, who are all too happy to launder reputations and money. Together, the kleptocrats and their enablers take advantage of the Western legal system to legitimize and expand their wealth, as well as to stymie or pursue their enemies. Along the way, they bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice. Or, as Burgis puts it, “like a parasite altering a cell it invades, so kleptocratic power transforms its host.”And that, at its essence, is the glue that holds the book together: The relentless, fantastically well-financed forces of the dark side—the kleptocrats—are [End Page 160] winning. The good guys—the constellation of people who uphold transparency and the rule of law and who fight corruption—are outgunned and outmatched. Burgis convincingly—depressingly—makes his case, showing how the reach of the kleptocrats portrayed in the book goes all the way to the top echelons of power in foreign capitals and the United States alike.
The dizzying number of characters makes the book hard to follow at times. But that, in a way, is the point: It takes a village to make a kleptocracy, and its ecosystem is vast and confusing by design, with highly paid consultants and lawyers throwing up smokescreens, obscuring the truth, and overwhelming the understaffed and underpaid investigators (such as those at Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority) whose job it is to bring these thieves to justice. Often the investigators just give up, thwarted by high-paid lawyers and the sheer complexity of the task at hand. This, Burgis writes, has happened time and again, especially in the pulsing nerve center of global kleptocracy: London.
One could leap to the conclusion that Burgis spends so much of the book focused on London because that is where he and his employer, the Financial Times, are based. But he is correct to focus on the United Kingdom, for when it comes to hiding the ill-gotten gains of the world’s tyrants, London is sui generis.
New York, the other global financial center, certainly has more than its share of shady lawyers and in-your-face PR firms, happy to represent anyone for the right price, but London takes it to an extreme. London has played a role—usually quite a central one—in all the biggest global corruption investigations of the past decade. In January 2020, for example, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and its media partners around the world published stories based on the so-called Luanda Leaks, detailing the global financial empire of Africa’s richest woman, Angola’s Isabel dos Santos. What was most outrageous about dos Santos’s avarice, beyond the brazenness of her money grabs, was the global network of law firms, PR shops, and consulting companies falling over themselves to help her. More often than not, the work for dos Santos was done out of London, especially the lawyering, spearheaded by Schillings International LLP. This firm also represented the Malaysian uber-kleptocrat Jho Low, whose exploits are mentioned in Kleptopia.
But the examples Burgis dishes out reveal a behavior that is beyond outrageous. These people are sociopaths.
No amount of intimidation, threats, or slandering on behalf of their corrupt clientele is beyond them. In one colorful instance, Peter Sahlas, a Canadian lawyer for a Kazakh businessman who had run afoul of the country’s longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev received a message on his phone. A London-based security firm had tracked down the fugitive businessman—Burgis paints a sympathetic portrait of the man, but he is clearly no saint—in France and a British court had held him in contempt [End Page 161] for missing a court appearance. French authorities locked him up in Fleury-Mérogis Prison, just south of Paris. Extradition back to the United Kingdom seemed imminent. In a profanity-laced message, the security-firm flack threatened the businessman and warned Sahlas that “you are going to lose your shirt along the way” before closing, “Have a fun time, PR” (p. 261).
“PR”—such a nice fellow—was Patrick Robertson, who called himself a British “strategic communications adviser” (p. 261).
Robertson’s crudeness stands in contrast to the silky smoothness of a far more prominent British enabler of the kleptocracy: former prime minister Tony Blair. For a price reportedly in the millions of dollars, he served as court vizier to Nazarbayev, even going so far as to advise the former Soviet apparatchik on how to address the brutal December 2011 crackdown on striking oil workers in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen that left fourteen dead.
In a note advising the Kazakh leader on how to prepare for an upcoming speech at Cambridge University, Blair told Nazarbayev to address the “Zhanaozen issue” directly: “The fact is you have made changes following it; but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.” Blair ended the note with a salutation to the strongman: “Yours ever” (pp. 154–55).
Blair’s words are especially rage-inducing for the reader because Burgis paints a vivid picture of the injustice and cruelty meted out in Zhanaozen, telling it from the perspectives of locals—that of a father who lost a son, and that of a local activist named Roza Tuletayeva. The latter’s subsequent imprisonment and accounts of the torture that she and other imprisoned strikers and activists endured brings home the brutality of the Nazarbayev regime. All this information was easily accessible to Blair—human-rights groups had documented the event—but he took the job, and the money, anyway.
Another blood-boiling example that Burgis details is the aftermath of the horrific fire that tore through London’s Grenfell Tower in June 2017, killing 72 of its residents. Two-hundred fifty of the tower’s surviving residents—low-income people in Kensington, one of the city’s most affluent areas—needed shelter. Local authorities said there was none, which was a lie. There were more than two-thousand empty homes in the immediate area, but they were owned by the fabulously wealthy, many through offshore companies of the kind that London’s kleptocrat-service industry specializes in establishing.
The book would have benefited from more such accounts. Politically connected businessmen hoovering up state assets for a fraction of their true value—the proven route to great wealth in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union—is outrageous, for sure. But the human cost of that looting—the poverty, and the helplessness of ordinary people in the face of violent repression—makes the work of the London-based enablers unconscionable.
And while Burgis rightly focuses on the City of London, more on U.S. [End Page 162] culpability in the global money laundromat would have been welcome. Burgis notes tantalizingly that Carl Levin, a former U.S. Senator from Michigan, had estimated as far back as 1999 that half the annual US$1 trillion that criminals launder is transferred through U.S. banks.
To be certain, the United States, with its secretive limited-liability companies that Russian mobsters use to anonymously buy Manhattan apartments, does play a big role, especially as the book draws to a conclusion and the ties of the drama’s shady cast of characters to President Donald Trump come to light.
Burgis does not let U.S. firms off the hook. The go-to consulting company for Isabel dos Santos, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), shows up in these pages. The crooked Swiss bank that once employed Burgis’s main protagonist, the late Nigel Wilkins, benefited from a report it commissioned from BCG that showed it “how to find and serve clients including oligarchs and ‘federal and municipal functionaries, officers in the military, security organs etc.’ who are ‘highly dependent on [a] personal political network,’ and who demand ‘high confidentiality. . . . in order to prevent negative publicity and avoid pressure’” (p. 138).
If you are reading this review, at this point you may be thinking to yourself: “How do these people look at themselves in the mirror each morning? How do they live with themselves?”
You are thinking that. I am thinking that. Burgis is thinking that, and so were the heroes in his book. One of them, the Canadian lawyer Peter Sahlas, believed himself and his ilk to be preternaturally disposed to bucking the system.
But if recent years have shown us anything, it is that the world is overrun by people who wallow in the filth, seemingly unconcerned about what will be said about them when they die. These are the type of people who, if the price is right, would happily serve a tyrant.
Burgis paints a depressing picture of a world where the rule of law, the last best hope of humankind, is under assault from a rising tide of kleptocrats. It is not fair to expect journalists who spend hundreds of pages documenting a problem to then offer up a solution. That is the bailiwick of honest politicians. But Burgis takes a stab at it. To him, “if there is one antidote to kleptocracy, it is honesty” (p. 338).
The struggle against kleptocracy, and its pernicious influence upon all that is good in the world, may be the defining struggle of the coming decade, because, as Burgis prophetically explains: “Those who use their public office to steal must hold on to it not just for the chance of further riches but in order to maintain the immunity from prosecution that goes with it. When elections come around, losing is not an option” (p. 337). [End Page 163]