Ah, Tony Blair — you can’t keep a good hustler down. One minute he’s singing the praises of formaldehyde at the opening of a methanol power plant in Azerbaijan (£90,000 for a 20-minute talk), the next he’s accepting a gig ‘consulting’ in Kazakhstan. For his advice on ‘issues connected with policy and the economy’, he could reportedly make as much as £8 million a year.
In May, Blair and a gang of his associates were spotted at a meeting of the Foreign Investors’ Council in Kazakhstan. Among them was Lord Renwick of Clifton, vice-chairman of JP Morgan, which (coincidently) pays Mr Blair £2 million a year for advice — and Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man, a generous Labour donor, and the largest employer in Kazakhstan. Blair praised the nation’s ‘wonderful’ achievements.
How things have changed. Ten years ago an authoritarian leader of an ex-Soviet state would get excited if Vanessa Mae came to town. These days, they find that if they toss enough coins and crank up the organ, former leaders of western governments will dance for them like performing monkeys.
Blair has now joined the select group of ex-statesmen from liberal democracies who work for authoritarian regimes. Tony Blair Associates has been building its foreign contacts book for some time: the government of Kuwait is among its high-paying clients. Somehow, even with all that pro bono work he does building peace and inter-religious harmony in the Middle East, he still finds time to advise unelected monarchs and owners of methanol power plants in Azerbaijan.
In fairness, Kazakhstan is probably the least awful country in Central Asia. But it has never had a free election; no man criticises the president very loudly if he knows what’s good for him; and there are many reports of human rights abuses.
Nursultan Nazarbayev has run the country since 1990, when Gorbachev appointed him to clean up corruption in the (then) soviet republic. That didn’t work out very well, but Nazarbayev has done rather well for himself, which is probably why Blair is suddenly coming over all coy. His spokesman denies that he is making a profit ‘directly or indirectly’ from the arrangement, whatever it may be. Kazakh sources, on the other hand, insist he has already opened a gleaming new office of Tony Blair Associates in Astana, the capital.
Blair wasn’t the only former European leader in Kazakhstan in May: Romano Prodi, former EU commission president and ex-Italian prime minister, was also lurking about, though we don’t know yet whether he snagged any large consultancy fees. There can be no doubt, however, that consulting for despots — international reputation laundering, as it is otherwise known — is a booming trade.
It used to be the Americans who made the biggest bucks when dealing with despots. Until 2008, for instance, an organisation founded by Harvard academics called the Monitor Group netted $250,000 a month for providing Colonel Gaddafi with advice and face-to-face meetings with celebrity academics.
But the business of reputation laundering for tyrants now gravitates towards London. It is increasingly common for the capital’s top public relations firms to work for dubious countries, rather than dodgy people. Many of these firms have nice, shiny, anodyne names — Chime plc, for instance, is headed by the former No. 10 adviser Lord Bell, and includes Zambia among its clients. Portland PR, run by Blair’s former press secretary Tim Allan, advises the Kremlin on its dealings with the British government. Ambassadors are ok, it seems, but top London PR firms are better connected and more influential.
There are limits. When Omar Bashir, president of Sudan, put out feelers to see if ‘Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières’ (a division of Chime) would help him clean up his image after all that messy genocide/criminal indictment business, they turned him down. But they didn’t mind taking on Sri Lanka, which had recently been facing awkward allegations about bombing civilians and butchering lots of Tamil rebels.
When pressed, academics, politicians and the PR men of liberal democracies who work for dictators often claim they are trying to effect positive change by subtly presenting forward-looking ideas and, er, democratic values. At least that was the Monitor Group’s excuse when their links to Gaddafi were exposed. Perhaps some of their employees even believed it.
Portland insists it abides by a PR code of conduct and does not ‘agree to any communications activities that are illegal, unethical or contrary to professional practice, nor have we ever been asked to pursue any such activities by clients’. Lord Bell is rather more candid: ‘I am not an international ethics body,’ he told the Guardian. ‘We do communications work. If people want to communicate their argument, we take the view that they are allowed to do so.’
Indeed, PR is a business, not a religious calling, and it is a business that requires you to manage — or distort — the public’s perception to your client’s benefit. Extending the service from making celebrities look slightly less odious to providing puffery for repressive regimes is a logical, albeit unscrupulous step. It’s surely not as bad as selling weapons to murderous regimes, or selling surveillance equipment to police states. But the ethical calculus must change when statesmen such as Blair become involved. These, after all, are men who have pontificated at great length about good and evil, and democracy and freedom. Maybe they’ve even fought a war or two in the name of those noble causes. Surely they mean some of that stuff they said? No? Oh, all right then.
But if western statesmen are in it for the money, access to power and a continued sense of their own importance, what do their clients get? Valuable business and political contacts of course, although much of that is illusory. Since your average dictator cannot grasp the notion of surrendering power voluntarily, many of them no doubt assume that individuals such as Blair or Schroeder, who in a few weeks went from being German chancellor to chairman of a Russia-to-Germany pipeline, are still secretly running the show. Last year Oleg Gordievsky, the ex-KGB agent turned MI6 informer, claimed that Russian foreign intelligence had assigned a woman spy to work as a researcher for Mike Hancock MP, and that she had netted the Kremlin its best info in 30 years. If true, this says a lot about the Kremlin’s mindset: it is willing to believe that even a bearded Lib Dem oddball with an eye for the ladies can be a valuable asset, simply by virtue of being an MP.
Many dictators just pine for acceptance in the prosperous, democratic West. Tyrants of the world love London, Malibu, and the south of France. Nazarbayev’s son-in-law even bought Prince Andrew’s old digs of Sunninghill, Berks, for £15 million a few years ago — £3 million more than it was worth. This craving for respect inspires projects such as Baku, a Cosmo-style magazine published by Condé Nast under the tagline ‘Art, Culture, Azerbaijan’. Its editor-in-chief is the Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s beloved daughter Leyla. Who needs free elections when you’ve got exciting travel features and photographs of models on glossy paper, just as glamorous as the ones you see in Paris?
Kazakhstan’s president, however, seems to be aiming for something greater than mere social standing. He allegedly believes that Blair will be able to secure him a nomination for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize, to mark the 20th anniversary of his reign. Nazarbayev does appear to have a strong desire to be viewed as a Great Man in the wo
rld. Why else would he have granted Jonathan Aitken 23 hours of interviews, which resulted in his hagiographical Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan (2009)? A Nobel Peace Prize would be the ultimate PR coup, however undeserved.
When foreign statesmen can’t satisfy an authoritarian leader’s vanity, celebrities are still called in to help. Last month, Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal head of Chechnya, celebrated his 35th birthday with a lavish theatrical extravaganza that featured tributes from 1980s action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank (who sacked her manager when she realised the nature of the engagement). Kadyrov used the talented duo to confer legitimacy upon his own good self by broadcasting his celebrity endorsements on Chechen TV. And what is Tony Blair these days but a high-end version of Van Damme? He offers Mr Nazarbayev a propaganda triumph: ‘Behold, citizens! The former prime minister of the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world is working for us!’
This bizarre phenomenon will be with us for some time. Gone are the days when former prime ministers returned to the back benches and lived out their days on an MP’s salary. Harold Wilson and Ted Heath didn’t know what they were missing. By acting as international consultants, today’s ex-statesmen can continue leading the lifestyle of a world leader, with the limos and security teams and the other perks.
The world is what it is. The leaders of western democracies have always schmoozed with tyrants, struck deals with fascists and crooks, played one nasty type against the other in the pursuit of the national interest. That’s politics. But the new, younger generation of western leaders seem to believe the same ethical standards apply to questions of self-interest. They’ll shill for just about anyone, so long as the money is good and it gives them a groovy feeling of self-importance. Margaret Thatcher and Norman Lamont may have defended Pinochet’s brutal regime, but they were never on the dictator’s payroll. They tended to believe what they were saying. Then again, perhaps Tony Blair really does like formaldehyde. It’s good for preserving corpses after all.
Daniel Kalder is the author of Strange Telescopes.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 5, 2011