We claim Britain is an ethical democracy - but oligarchs know that’s not true

“So let me get this straight. If some guy lives longer than you predict, I have to keep on paying?” The question came from the manager of the pension fund for a state-owned Russian company. He was in London on a fact-finding mission to learn about private pensions. He had just heard an actuary explain how it worked. The Russian manager was suspicious of a system with such open-ended liabilities. I was interpreting and passed on his question.

The actuary confirmed that the longer a pensioner lived, the more he got paid. The Russian client folded his hand into half a fist, with two fingers extended to imitate the barrel of a gun, which he pointed to the ground. “Couldn’t you just, 알 잖아, take care of the guy?”

I translated. The actuary looked at me for confirmation that it was a joke. Yes and no. This was the mid-1990s. Here was someone who had manoeuvred himself through the ruins of the former Soviet Union into control of a vast pot of other people’s money. He wasn’t a big-time oligarch, but he was one of the winners from a transition that had left most Russians feeling like losers. The point was not about pensions but power. Why pay if you don’t have to? What’s in it for the boss?

The British advisers smiled awkwardly and changed the subject.

A lot has changed since then. Russia stopped trying to be a democracy, then stopped pretending to try. Britain stopped advising Russians on how to run a market economy within the rule of law, then stopped pretending to care how they made their money. If the question ever came up when the super-rich came shopping for mansions in Belgravia, 또는 premier league football clubs there was a lot of smiling awkwardly and changing the subject.

A common western misconception in those early years of Russia’s post-Soviet transition was that people who had grown up under communism didn’t understand capitalism. That overlooked the importance of market forces to Soviet society, operating on many levels. There was the thriving trade in illicit goods, controlled by criminal gangs who also bought protection from authorities. Police indifference comes at a price.

There was the commerce in favours, either as barter or cash in hand, wherever a bureaucratic door needed opening. People who gamed that system in the days when making a profit was ideologically taboo didn’t need lessons in market forces when getting filthy rich turned legit. KGB officers and party apparatchiks who became millionaires did not struggle to shake off the precepts of Marxism-Leninism.

There is a tendency to sequence Russian history over the past generation in lurches: the collapse of Soviet power into the anarchic Boris Yeltsin era, then the slump back to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. But running all the way through has been a common ethos that sees all politics as a negotiation between the people who have found a way to get rich and the officials who can either help or obstruct them, and set the price. It is always a transaction between money and state power. Ideology hardly enters into it.

That cynicism is deeply entrenched and projected outwards on to all countries and all jurisdictions. I spent years in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, as a student, doing interpreting gigs, then as a correspondent, from the mid-1990s onwards. I used to get into this argument all the time. I would explain that things worked differently in the west – that democracy involves a different kind of relationship between wealth, parliaments and power. That claim was routinely met with polite scepticism or outright derision. As if only a child would believe such political fairytales. A dispiriting trend in recent years has been hearing the same caustic cynicism in the UK.

And the more Russian money moved into Britain, the more enmeshed rich Russians became with London’s social, political and economic elite, the harder it got to argue that democracy operated to a higher standard; that its rules weren’t soluble in money; that the system didn’t always yield for rich friends of the boss.

That is why Evgeny Lebedev’s appointment to the House of Lords was so damaging even before it was revealed that UK intelligence agencies had a concern that the nomination posed a risk to national security.

When Boris Johnson nominated his friend for a peerage in July 2020 the brazenness of the favour attracted more comment than the Russianness. Then the fuss died down. It was hardly the first time that a seat in the Lords has been given to the friend of a prime minister. There are beneficiaries with thinner records of charitable benevolence than the one Lebedev’s friends cite to justify his ennoblement. He is not a Tory donor. (Other Russians with dual British nationality have funnelled millions into Conservative coffers.) It can’t be a case of cash for honours when there was no cash.

The House of Lords appointments committee didn’t like the Lebedev peerage but the prime minister was unmoved. He thought the objection expressed anti-Russian prejudice. The intelligence services changed their assessment of the risk. Spooks get stuff wrong. Did they just smile awkwardly and change the subject when the prime minister insisted on making his pal a peer?

Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny’s father and the source of his wealth, 였다 once a KGB agent. But that isn’t a hereditary condition. His attitude to the Kremlin might be described as temperate. 안에 2016 article for the Standard Alexander conceded that oligarchs had plundered Russia and also “sad to say, some of them are close to Putin”. But he insisted that the president himself was “not behind the looting”.

Lebedev Jr has said things in the past aligning with Kremlin views on the 2014 annexation of Crimea and casting doubt on the official UK account of the Salisbury poisoning, but that isn’t sedition. The newspapers he controls have come out against the invasion of Ukraine. His attraction to a seat in the Lords may be motivated by nothing more than vanity in collecting a limited edition ermine robe. (He hasn’t voted or spoken in a debate since his maiden speech.) 그의 friendship with Johnson is probably in the same category – a prime minister as high-end collectible.

But if that is the case, and the security services were making a fuss over nothing, there is still harm done. The spectacle is depressing, not because Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation is Russian, but because the absurd title and the corrupt process that created it bolster the most caustic, cynical view of the way British politics works. And at a time when we need to spread confidence that democracies do things better.

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