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How the west sold out to the oligarchs

A captivating account of financial skulduggery in London reveals how far the City has fallen

By Ricardo Soares de Oliveira  
The City of London Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The City of London Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis’s first book, The Looting Machine, was about the worldwide networks that enable the plunder of African natural resources. Kleptopia, his follow-up, is an even more ambitious endeavour tackling the post-Cold War birth of global kleptocracy and the subterranean links it establishes between authoritarian states and the west. The story centres on ENRC, a London-listed mining company owned by three Central Asian billionaires whose wafer-thin respectability hid, corruption investigators at the UK Serious Fraud Office came to suspect, vast skulduggery. It includes enough thrills—murders, kidnappings, marriages, betrayals—to make it a captivating read. Yet Kleptopia ranges much further than Central Asia.  

Aware that their status can be arbitrarily overturned, oligarchs see “transitioning from East to West”—their ill-gotten assets, families and passports—as the only guarantor of continued prosperity. Once here, they can avail themselves of the services of bankers, auditors, accountants, lawyers, PR executives and politicians whose business consists of “anonymising money on an industrial scale” and rendering clients respectable. Oligarchs’ very different trajectories (some dead or in prison, others appearing in honours lists or as donors to think thanks, charities, museums and universities) have less to do with the rule of law than the vagaries of politics in their home countries. As shown by one whistle-blower’s harrowing dismissal by the Financial Conduct Authority (the late Nigel Wilkins, formerly of the FCA and Swiss Bank BSI), regulators and law enforcement are either outgunned or part of the problem: “the watchdog was not policing the moneymen but protecting them.” 

Burgis’s urgent book describes not a perversion of the City of London system, but rather part of its normal function. For a long time, it was assumed that western financial centres could benefit from massive revenue inflows from the East and the South yet preserve their clean reputations. As the obscure and often criminal characters in Burgis’s narrative are joined by the A-list of UK and US business and politics, the reader confronts how far western democracies have sold out.  

Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World by Tom Burgis (Harper, £20)

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