You cannot hope to bribe or twist

Thank God! The post-soviet specialist

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed there’s no occasion to!

(With apologies to Hilaire Belloc)

Anders Aslund and his think tank, the Atlantic Council, have been one of the voices which has spoken most clearly on Ukraine and the countries occupied by Russia in its ‘Soviet’ incarnation. Yet, as was reported by and Buzzfeed, his 2017 report on money laundering in Latvia concluded that the country was no longer a significant centre of that criminal activity. The report was part funded by ABLV bank which would subsequently be sanctioned for money laundering in 2018. The site also noted his long standing links with Valdis Dombrovskis the former Latvian Prime Minister who had co-authored a book with Aslund in the wake of the collapse of Parex bank. The book “How Latvia Came Through the Financial Crisis” (2011, Peterson Institute) presented the collapse as simply a by-product of the financial crisis which affected the world in 2008. Dombrovskis and his colleagues were presented as rational economic managers who heroically averted financial disaster. The book praises Rimsevics, the former Governor of the Bank of Latvia, who was in fact part of the machinery of corruption which it glosses over. He is currently facing prosecution for bribery. The collapse of Parex Bank is ascribed to a run on deposits (!) The materials presented in this series indicating that the bank was heavily leveraged due to what is arguably looting its former owners, and not given prominence as a factor. Aslund’s role and that of his think tank the Atlantic Council are, therefore, ambivalent. While articulating strong criticism of Russia via his social media account and his writing on other sites, Aslund is, by facilitating Dombrovskis, arguably acting in Putin’s interest in the Baltic. Parex’s owners were connected, as we have seen, to Rabinovics, a key Tambov mafia figure who in turn worked with Torshin, Marina Butina’s handler. The book arguably obscured the role of this transnational Putin linked mafia in the bank’s collapse If the real reasons for the collapse of Parex had not been covered up but addressed Latvia’s ABLV bank, where several Parex staff and shell company deposits migrated, might not have collapsed. There might have been an increased chance of averting similar abuse of banks such as that as possibly occurred at Ukraine’s Privatbank . The Moldovan bank fraud scandal which appears to have involved similar mechanisms to Parex and Privatbank might have been averted. How can we account for the Atlantic Council’s dual role?

The war which is being fought in Donbas and in western societies where Russian subversion is being deployed is, essentially, about two social models which we might characterise at their extremes as consisting of oligarchic populism and popular sovereignty. Every society is at present affected in varying degrees by this conflict. The oligarchic populist model, which has its wellspring in Russia, creates societies in which power is wielded by oligarchs who maintain pet political projects and media outlets. The loyalty of the population is secured by appeals to xenophobia, targeted manipulation by social media and data mining, and elections and political opposition are carefully managed by patronage and terror. These societies include not only Russia but Iran’s theocracy and Assad’s genocidal Fascist regime which is, basically, Russia’s middle Eastern Oblast. They include Azerbaijan which has effectively transformed Malta into its client province and may have a connection to the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Supra national structures are either manipulated or subverted with the aim being to destroy any possibility of international law hampering their activities. Russia’s recent bid to parachute its candidate into the presidency of Interpol and its attempts to blackmail PACE illustrate this concept. Brexit similarly is an oligarch/Russian sponsored assault on a supra national structure. Societies where popular sovereignty is the guiding principle operate via democratic elections and, crucially, politicians view their mandate as having originated in the support of the people. These two extremes are of course, the opposing ends of a spectrum and many societies are at present, and indeed always, in a state of flux.

In societies where oligarchic populism is gaining ground, consultancies, journalists, politicians and think tanks are less independent agents and more mouthpieces for agendas that benefit a ruling elite. In the case of the collapse of Parex Bank it was important to mask the role of the Tambov mafia in the bank’s fall and to avoid open consideration of how the bank was looted. The attempt to recover the funds undertaken by Parex’s successor Reverta was arguably a sham. The vast majority of the money was never traced and the tools utilised which have been touched on in this series were never investigated thoroughly. It would not be that difficult, for example, to check the loans issued according to the data on the Latvian registry site, of the UK shell company Heddington Trade Limited against its accounts as published by the British Companies House. 

As noted another member of the Atlantic Council, former US diplomat David Merkel, assisted pro-Russian Latvian politician Nils Usakovs, whose Harmony party had a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia, with a visit to Washington in 2017.Nils Usakovs was financially supported previously by Denis Sherstyukov a former member of the Parex council with numerous business and personal links to its former owners. The Atlantic Council has also previously cooperated with the Burisma Holdings, a Cyprus registered energy firm owned by Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevskyj. Zlochevskyj was the Minister of Natural Resources in the government of ex Ukrainian president Yanukovych and was subsequently accused of issuing licences which favoured Burisma holdings. He fled Ukraine at the end of 2014 returning in 2018 when Burisma was cleared of all criminal activity by a Ukrainian court. The cooperation agreement was signed in 2017 when and followed a collapsed UK court case against him involving the transfer via a Latvian bank of $23m believed to be the proceeds from “criminal activities” in the words of the Serious Fraud Office who argued that he had used offshore registration to conceal his ownership of Burisma. The Atlantic Council’s continued work with Burisma, which included a conference in Kharkiv in 2018, is arguably helping the rehabilitation of a figure with an extremely questionable background.

This article is the first in a series on how Russian money and influence manipulate western journalists, think tanks and politicians. While there have been many articles on oligarchs and corruption there has been no attempt to place their activities within a theoretical context: to understand the kind of social model they are promoting. The war which is taking place in Ukraine is a war against Russia but also a war against oligarchic social models which affect Ukraine itself and many of the voices who, superficially, appear to be raised in its support. I would argue that the Atlantic Council is itself acting in a dual role: opposing Putin’s model with many of its excellent pieces on Russian propaganda and supporting it when it works with Latvian banks and Ukrainian oligarchs. We must never forget that the epicentre of suffering in this conflict is in Ukraine which lost more people at the hands of the dictators Hitler and Stalin than any other European nation and will have the same sad distinction regarding their blood soaked successor. It should also be remembered that Putin is both an oligarch and a representative of a Russian imperial mind-set for which Ukrainian identity is an aberration. This is the world view which led to Ukrainians being exterminated by Stalin in the 1930s via enforced genocide and mass killing. From its perspective and Ukrainians are, in Aleksandr Dugin’s phrase, “a nation of bastards… who have emerged from the sewer.” We must never forget too that the Syrian nation is being exterminated as Putin and the transnational oligarchy he represents consolidate their grip on that country. However the war is also an ethical conflict being fought within societies, and every time anyone accepts money from the oligarchs who are seeking to reduce whole countries to servitude it is a small defeat for freedom.

Stephen Komarnyckyj is a PEN award winning literary translator and poet whose work is published by Kalyna Language Press and features on the PEN World Bookshelf. You can e mail him on stevekomoffice(at)

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