All aboard the Kleptobus.
Sounding more exciting than it actually looked, this was a grey coach parked opposite the House of Commons.
Roman Borisovich, a former banker born in Russia turned London-based activist, was the host cajoling a small crowd onto the intriguingly named bus. It was only a few weeks ago, but seems much longer.
Before the terrorist bomb attack at Manchester Arena.
And before the opinion poll wobble caused by Theresa May’s confusion over her own manifesto, this was as interesting as the UK General Election was going to get.
Or so it seemed to the mixed bag of international journalists invited for the ride by Borisovic’s anti-corruption campaign “ClampK” -- the Campaign for Legislation Against Money-laundering in Property by Kleptocrats.
A chance to appreciate serious investigative journalism. An opportunity to reflect on long-term but often overlooked trends. Anything not to scuttle around from one spin of the day press conference to another.
Tour de force
Doing what it says on the label, ClampK hosts bus trips around central London pointing out properties and expensive homes owned by wealthy people implicated in and accused of corrupt activities.
Look, that plush multi million-pound apartment is the home of a Russian politician’s daughter. According to his published wealth statements, he is the Duma’s poorest MP -- but the Panama papers help prove otherwise.
The owner of the mansion over there paid the construction costs of a new stadium for the 2018 World Cup, because President Putin expressed concern that the $10 billion budget for the tournament was still not a match for crumbling Russian infrastructure. Oh yes, and apparently he had some serious criminal charges dropped recently.
That chunk of pricey central London real estate belongs to a beneficiary of curiously inflated state contracts, who spent his teens on the streets and his 20s as a judo instructor.
Mates-Rate state loans and forgiven defaults feature frequently. Chelsea, Mayfair, Kensington -- the tour rarely strays from the most obvious corner of the Monopoly board. Stops are barely far enough apart to give the MC time to narrate the full catalogue of misdemeanours and allegations associated with each property.
The hodgepodge of global journalists aboard the coach agree the mélange of tales from both present day and pre-Putin’s Russia about political favourites and business favours sound familiar. Very familiar.
As indeed Borisovich himself acknowledges. Yes he said, somebody could easily run a different bus tour every day in central London for similar properties connected to politicians from just about every country on Earth. But being Russian, and far from short of material, he has to stick to the country he knows best.
By assiduously tracing, tracking, and analysing public ownership records -- the inventory of facts for his bus tour exposés is seriously impressive and growing by the day.
And all achieved and published without so much as a single complaint, let alone libel writ or threat. Which is significant, given the tour I went on also featured Luke Harding, the Guardian’s Russia correspondent from 2007 to 2011 whose visa was revoked after he wrote about the Russian mafia, giving him the distinction of being the first Western journalist expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.
ClampK’s passengers are eclectic. From the merely curious to obsessive Kremlinphobes, from idealistic justice campaigners to idle opinion-mongers, the only thing most had in common was assent -- its research was sound and arguments for proper money-laundering laws unimpeachable.
The actual sights from the bus itself, on a grey rainy afternoon around plush yet hardly unfamiliar or unusual London squares, not so much. In an age of Google Street View, it was more educational to ignore the outside and chatter about how London squatters have changed over the decades. They’re posher and younger than you remember, rang the invariably middle-class refrain in case you’re wondering. This is England after all.
Perhaps knowing this, Dame Margaret Hodge, the formidable soon-to-be-re-elected Labour MP for Barking, left before the bus began to move, after giving a talk about her role in upgrading the UK’s anti-money-laundering regime.
The audacity of corruption
New legislation for Unexplained Wealth orders, with provisions for court orders to investigate suspicious money sources, not to mention new powers to freeze the assets of someone involved in human rights violations outside the UK, sounds far-reaching in principle, but is far from it in practice.
Thousands of London properties worth many billions of pounds have been publicly identified as being bought with cash from known Russian criminals with links to the Kremlin.
Yet, as Borisovich wryly points out, civil servants and ministers frankly estimate the flow of Unexplained Wealth orders, should they actually be implemented next year, to an average of less than one a month.
It’s not like the UK government actually wants to discourage foreign investment in the prime London property market with its seductive knock-on effects for property owning voters across the land, is it?
English law and British politicians are happy for UK properties to be bought by nominees and lawyers for offshore companies, whose ultimate beneficiaries can remain anonymous.
Promised legislation to require mandatory disclosure of such beneficiaries remains tantalsingly out of reach.
Even though nearly 10% of prime central London properties in the City of Westminster are owned by offshore companies. And growing. And even though transparency is the one requirement lawyers and campaigners agree would make the single biggest difference to deter money-laundering and tax-dodging.
But with over a third of the world’s offshore wealth either controlled through the city of London or conducted in British overseas territories alone, plus even more via connected hubs in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- it's easy to imagine the status quo staying unchanged however many times Borisovic runs his crooks tours of London.
More’s the pity. Because the most interesting aspect of his campaign is that he is motivated by principle. Not by a wish to support or oppose any particular oligarch or political party in Russia.
More expensive property prices might be good for a few, but with wages stagnant and the young debt bound, not so much for the many
Instead as a long time Londoner, he is far more interested in protecting British society from global corruption.
A few hundred years too late of course -- but touching and necessary nonetheless.
Enquires into corrupt payments made to facilitate the multi-billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia ignored and covered up by successive governments over several decades, for example.
Yet, few complained or cared because the UK is generally acknowledged to have good standards of probity in public life and services. The very standards and expectations which Borisovich and Hodge warn will be placed at risk if the UK does not start taking flows of dirty money more seriously.
Citizens should be glad they bother. Yet, the irony is that one of the main reasons corrupt oligarchs flock to London is not its rule of law, time zone, lawyers, and the like alone, but that they too hanker for its reputation.
Even Borisovich, whose documentary From Russia With Cash
recorded a succession of London estate agents (and the lawyers and bankers they work with) turning a blind eye without even being asked, when he posed as a Russian MP bragging about using state funds to buy mansions, agrees.
Good schools, not (just) shops, shows, horses, sport, royals, et al, top many an oligarch’s shopping list.
Having themselves taken advantage of political capture and graft, and seen what it does to states and societies, Borisovic says they are often very keen to have their children grow up, be educated in, or end up somewhere where rule of law matters.
One suspects it might be slightly galling for JK Rowling given what we know about her politics and background, that her creation made British public schools seem ever more appealing to the children of elites all round the world. Not that they need the advertising.
Paradoxes multiply as oligarchs pay their part in making boarding schools even more expensive and exclusionary.
See no evil, hear no evil
But that’s nothing compared to what such trends mean for ordinary British people.
More expensive property prices might be good for a few, but with wages stagnant and the young debt bound, not so much for the many. More inequality is likely as a low-investment UK economy competes to be butler to the world.
What amounts to a conspiracy of silence about global corruption follows closely behind. Because, well, enough politicians think enough property-owning voters like rising house prices.
Some people benefit. So it's good for the economy and not worth questioning. It's too boring. It’s too complicated. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to be depressed. Know your place.
You get the drill.
It is precisely this sort of thinking that prevents politicians looking at the big picture.
And why, in the midst of a general election, most media and politicians alike ignore the unpalatable fact that the UK is complicit in and colluding with corruption on a global scale.
Time for a change.
Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.