Event Summary: ‘Kleptocrats Without Borders: How Post-Soviet Ruling Elites Export Their Money and Power to the West’


By: Janjan Sun

On June 29th the Henry Jackson Society hosted Ilya Zaslavskiy, Research Expert at the Free Russia Foundation and Academy Associate at Chatham House. Mr Zaslavskiy writes on Eurasian energy and kleptocracy for the Hudson Institute, Martens Centre, and other US and EU think tanks. He heads Free Speech, LLC, which focuses on a project based on the export of corrosive practices from post-Soviet states to the West.

Mr Zaslavskiy began by introducing his project. Although kleptocrats seems to be on the agenda now in Washington, London, and Brussels, Mr Zaslavkiy’s project, was conceived even before it became an important part of the political agenda. The project, called ‘Underminers,’ will be released in the upcoming months and is oriented towards social media. The project will analyze about a hundred profiles of different actors, including those ranging from oligarchs to those who are not necessarily wealthy but are agents of kleptocratic regimes who actively undermine democracy in the West using resources, connections, and power derived from their home regimes. The unique aspect of Mr Zaslavkiy’s project is that it doesn’t focus on corruption. Corruption is something that is defined by law, which is not the case in many post-Soviet cases since state legal systems have been hijacked by kleptocrats. Kleptocrats now use laws to advance their own interests. An example of this would be the attempted prosecution of Russian mafia bosses by the Spanish authorities. Rather than helping the Spanish authorities in their efforts, the Russian state decided to support the gangsters and stall an investigation. The idea of Mr Zaslavkiy’s project is not only to talk about corruption, but also corrosive practices, the corrosion and undermining of democracy.

An objective of Mr Zaslavkiy’s project is to introduce new terms to reflect the new reality. ‘Kleptocrats’ are those who steal money from their home countries and derive their power from stealing huge amounts of money. ‘Western enablers’ are those who help kleptocrats in the West. The missing link are the ‘underminers’. Mr Zaslavskiy stated that the closest synonym to ‘underminers’ is ‘oligarchs’ but this term is slightly misleading and less applicable. Furthermore, Mr Zaslavkiy’s project asserts that it is not only misleading to talk about corruption in post-Soviet spaces but also the existence of market systems and private property because kleptocratic regimes have hijacked the state and laws. Kleptocrats define laws to their own advantage.

Mr Zaslavkiy’s project is run by activists and investigative journalists mainly from Russia speaking diaspora in Europe and in the US. It is supported by the Free Russia Foundation, a non-profit foundation in Washington which brings a critical voice to Putin’s regime.

There is an abundance of informaton about corrosive practices and the export of such practices to the West. However, there are several factors that explain why there is a lack of interest and lack of attention to the export of these corrosive practices. First, there is “outrage fatigue” with kleptocracy. There is a huge amount of information, reports, and daily press coverage of the situation and people are exhausted. Another issue is that reputable information becomes mixed with speculation and hearsay. This makes it difficult for people to trust any sources. To combat this, Mr Zaslavskiy focuses on only gathering responsible sources with excellent references that focus not only on critics of kleptocracy but also the responses to critics.

Mr Zaslavskiy believes that most underminers come from certain backgrounds that are connected to three worlds in post-Soviet spaces: communist party/communist youth, KGB/other security services/law enforcement, and organized crime. In the Soviet world these three worlds were quite separate. Although they had overlapping interests they were quite antagonistic. Putin fused these three worlds in St. Petersburg, brought his practices to Moscow, and now has been exporting them to the West.

Mr Zaslavskiy concluded by warning that post-Soviet practices are being made into a part of Western reality by buying lobbyists, media, and engaging in public relations. He has found 30 different levels of how these ‘underminers’ operate on a non-state level.


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