By John Helmer, Moscow
When one of the cleverest of international business intelligence agents retires from the secret world to write thrillers for a well-known London publisher, there are bound to be many in Moscow who are curious to know what he chooses to reveal about Russia’s oligarchs, their business practices and personal habits. If you leave out the long-legged Russian beauties yearning to unbutton themselves, and the fresh bloodspatter from the corpses of reporters, traders and lawyers eliminated for knowing too much, what conclusions does he draw from this phase of Russia’s history?
Chris Morgan Jones ought to know, and since he won’t give the game away about how he came by his knowledge, I shan’t either.
In his 341-page novel, An Agent of Deceit , there’s no sign of the crime on which everything else turns, until more than half way through, when this is what the evidence points to: “his offshore companies received transfers from a dozen companies incorporated all over Russia, and it was only beyond these that real businesses generated the money itself. From sitting in a thousand meetings, Lock [the doomed hero] knew roughly what these did: they overcharged their captive, state-owned clients for goods and services; they bought product cheap and sold it on at market rates; they secured licences that they never intended to use and could sell on at vast profit. But that was all.”
The problem is that there’s no crime there. There’s also no criminal liability at the climactic confrontation between the oligarch, the doomed hero, and the business intelligence agent. That’s when the oligarch says: “You and I are the same, Richard [doomed hero again, with only moments left to live]. An agent of convenience for someone else. Those were not my men trying to kill you. They were government men.” So the evil oligarch turns out to be not guilty of almost everything – except running his business subsidiaries through cut-out companies the doomed hero arranges off the shelves of a dozen tax havens for state purposes which are, by definition, legal.
So why exactly is he doomed? According to the oligarch, because the Kremlin says so. “You have worried some very important people. Kremlin people. They see the interests of Russia at risk. They see their own interests exposed….If you come back to Russia, with me, you will be safe. Outside Russia, they will not let you exist….Richard, you know what happens to people like us when we are not useful any more. I am on the verge of not being useful…”
The idea here is an intriguing one — if a little less than thrilling in the way Ian Fleming and John Le Carre used to portray their Kremlin evildoers. According to Morgan Jones, the oligarch he calls Konstantin Malin – oil, aluminium and a company called Sibirskenergo are three of his business lines – is only the front-man for more powerful political figures. Their objective, it is suggested by a journalist who seems to have been murdered for reporting it, is “to channel Rusisan influence over its neighbours’ energy industries.”
Is that what gets a girl’s throat cut these days? Or this from an English oil consultant based in Tyumen, who suddenly disappears without a trace. According to him, is the oligarch skimming a fortune for himself? “…no. it’s for winning back what Russia lost in 1989. It’s part of the new economic empire. Put Farringdon together with everything that the oil majors own, and Gazprom, and everything else, and you get Russia controlling half its neighbours’ energy industry – more even.”
If you can count the damage Russia’s neighbours have inflicted on her since 1989, that sounds prudent, innovative, even patriotic. So why do four people wind up dead, and one of the long-legged Russian beauties stalks off from her table at Café Pushkin without touching her solyanka?
This is a paradox Morgan Jones hasn’t solved; at least not in his first book. On the one hand, there is a great deal of that special quality of fear which is second-nature to living in Russia. Morgan Jones’s characters record six forms of fear – of their bosses, of administrative power, of big-city Moscow, of being pursued in the dark, of ice on the streets, of justice (improbable, that last one). There is also this seventh: “in Russia there are few accidents.”
On the other hand, there is the colossal improbability that the raison d’ état of IRI (Imperial Russia Revivified) should be entrusted to a know-nothing English lawyer who is paid $10 million over more than a decade for executing money transfer instructions between entities he nominally controls through a single holding company in the British Virgin Islands. Just how unknowing the Englishman is spills embarrassingly when his oligarch employer asks him, after he has stumbled during testimony before an international arbitration tribunal: “Do you think it likely, Richard, that the largest foreign investor in Russia’s oil industry would not know the difference between kerosene and gasoline?”
No oligarch whose affairs have been investigated inside or outside the courts of the US, UK, or Switzerland has made himself so vulnerable. Wait a minute – there was one who relied on a lawyer like Morgan Jones’s doomed hero for arranging his cashflows. But that plot was swiftly rolled up by angry plaintiffs taking them to court. The lawyer managed to slide harmlessly away, keeping more of the loot than his principal.
It is also odd that in Morgan Jones’s version the greatest fear inspired in the doomed hero comes from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), although Malin the fictional oligarch makes no investment in US assets, and never crosses the American frontier. The only jurisdiction the US Government agents are presumed to have for pursuing the case is a money-laundering one, with Russian cash moving through US clearing banks on its way to new destinations, inside and outside Russia.
In the real world, the federal US courts have never allowed jurisdiction over cases against Russian oligarchs, not for money-laundering, nor for the more potent charge of racketeering, based simply on evidence of the movement of money through US banks. In a 2004 case involving libel claims by Mikhail Fridman, the federal US appeals court has allowed a wide degree of latitude to US journalists in reporting what Russian oligarchs have done, or are suspected of doing. However, the US media have opted instead to promote the oligarchs, especially when they set records for meal tabs in Manhattan restaurants or buy local sports teams.
The FBI, it is true, has shown special interest in one Russian oligarch – Oleg Deripaska – and is reportedly determined to deny him a US entry visa. According to Deripaska himself, in a 2009 interview for a London television show, this is nothing more than a game of blackmail to extract sensitive information about his Kremlin connexions. Speaking in dialogue snatch style, which Morgan Jones has transcribed to fiction nicely, Deripaska is on record to deny telling the FBI what it wants to know. “There are Russian interests I would never go through”, he claimed. Classified State Department cables reveal that some American agents prefer the good-cop to the bad-cop approach, and are protective of the oligarchs for what they hope to get out of them.
In Morgan Jones’s tale, once the doomed hero starts running (London, Berlin), he turns out to be more frightened of the FBI, even of Swiss prosecutors, than he is of the pursuing oligarch. It doesn’t even dawn on him, or the business intelligence agents in hot pursuit, that the Russian government has put its men on his tail. Is Morgan Jones hinting at a deeper plot, the one in which the oligarch is forced by the Americans to betray his Kremlin masters?
Strangely, the one government which stays mute, on holiday, and uncalled for throughout the shenanigans is the one the thriller-teller knows best – Her Britannic Majesty’s. This is doubly odd because the investigative agency hired at the start to do a black job on the oligarch, and the ex-journalist who winds up cradling the doomed hero’s head as he breathes his last, are British; their helpers are all ex-secret service types. Since in the annals of non-fiction, the Russian oligarchs go to London to fight their rivals in the High Court, promote their shares on the London Stock Exchange, and borrow money in the City, this novel appears to be avoiding the voluminous paper trail of how oligarchs and Kremlin officials actually work together, and which of them controls whom, and for what motives.
Is Morgan Jones hinting at murky connivance at oligarch misbehaviour by the British authorities? A corrupt cover-up by famous British public relations companies? Or is he preparing the ground for his sequel, when his intrepid investigator tries again to exercise his moral muscle.