In broad daylight, dozens of masked police and plain-clothed strongmen burst into the foyer of the swanky Sofiyskiy Fitness Club. It was May 25, 2017, and the posh gym—located in the heart of Kyiv, Ukraine, and known for its turquoise-tiled hot tubs and parade of celebrity members, like former world boxing champion-turned-mayor Vitaly Klitschko—was stunned. Towel-draped patrons and high-heeled staff scattered, as the mob overwhelmed the doormen, brandishing a bogus new property deed and demanding immediate transfer of the club’s ownership to certain elites connected with the country’s ruling authorities. Three-plus years on, the rightful owners are still fighting the seizure in the courts and the media.
Video of the takeover—which transpired right across from the Ministry of Justice—was captured on security cameras. I watched the footage slack-jawed from the comfort of my home in Washington, D.C.; I was a member of the Sofiyskiy, having joined in 2015 while in Kyiv on a Fulbright fellowship. I’m a social anthropologist who has focused on political change and governance for nearly four decades on both sides of the Atlantic, including Eastern Europe. Following the fortunes of the club has become a case study on what happens when government and law are weaponized, quite literally, by politicians conflating politics and business.
The practice of organized property theft, “predatory raiding,” has become common in Ukraine, Russia, and other post-Soviet countries. “Dirty togetherness”—tightknit networks whose members snake through business, politics, and government to achieve their underhanded agendas—mushroomed across Ukraine and its neighbors after the Soviet’s Union’s collapse. As oligarch-kleptocrats “grabitized” the state resources of post-Soviet countries, legions of Western lawyers, bankers, and PR enablers arose to abet them.
In time, the oligarchs and their enablers’ ethically questionable doings spilled to the West, infecting signature institutions from Harvard University to the Council on Foreign Relations, and becoming business as usual.
While all this predates the rise of Donald Trump, the excesses of Trump-affiliated players like Paul Manafort—who helped elect Ukraine’s Putin-sponsored president Viktor Yanukovich from an office near the Sofiyskiy—have brought dirty togetherness in America to a much more public light. Consider Rick Perry. He resigned last fall as Secretary of Energy after emerging at the epicenter of Congress’s impeachment probe. As Secretary, Perry merged his agency’s energy policy with promoting his political allies’ business in Ukraine, while at the same time waging political war on behalf of Trump against Joe Biden and his son Hunter. (Hunter’s service on the board of Ukraine’s biggest natural gas producer is ethically challenging, but certainly not equivalent to subverting U.S. government policy toward a crucial ally in search of a partisan smoking gun.)
This booming state capture—the backdoor privatization by industry of government policies—increasingly entangles state and private interests in arenas from energy, education, and environment to finance and foreign policy. Jay Clayton, who runs the Securities and Exchange Commission, spent much of his law career defending the Wall Street firms he now polices. Many of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s top advisors come from the for-profit college industry in which she has investments.
But before President Trump further poisoned the polluted governance ecosystem, it had already been decades in the despoiling. Republicans and Democrats alike have long been advancing state capture and the contracting out of government functions to the private sector. Since at least the mid-2000s, private contractors have been running intelligence operations, most government information technology work, and databases tracking foreigners as they entered and exited the United States. Even regulation is sometimes outsourced to private companies. Certain consulting firms, in sectors like finance, have been tasked by the government to financially oversee private banks at the same time that these same banks were their clients, a state of affairs that has led to big lapses, including accusations of whitewashing the records and reputations of troubled banks. In 2015, there were 2.6 contract workers (bound by fewer rules than their government counterparts) for each government employee. Contractor companies have long driven public priorities, with elected and appointed officials only signing on the dotted line.
The civil service, too, has been undermined. While Trump’s sweeping executive order in October would eliminate job protections for many civil servants and ease politicization of policy decisions, previous administrations have also attempted to make government workers more partisan-friendly.
Naming “acting” and “temporary” cabinet officials and employees is yet another means to do so. Trump’s slew of often conflict-of-interest-ridden “temporary” agency heads, most recently in the Pentagon, has circumvented the confirmation process and sideswiped the Senate’s role in checking presidential appointment power. He also exploded the number of so-called special-government consultants, a status that enables individuals to (legally) “consult” on policy while still keeping a private sector job.
Trump has specialized in these improvisational practices, but they, too, are not new to him. During the Obama administration, top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin famously performed “representational juggling.” While working at the State Department, she also played roles in the Clinton Foundation and the consulting firm Teneo that was tied to it. When it is unclear when one role ends and the other begins, players cannot be held to account, and corruption is, if not inevitable, eminently more possible.
Such overlapping roles lend actors the ability to deny responsibility. A retired general who serves on a government advisory board shaping policy or procurement decisions can gain access to proprietary information that is invaluable to his corporate clients. He can plausibly deny that the client advice he offers is influenced by the information he gleans in his government role. The difficulty of establishing whether he is acting in the interest of national defense or a private entity challenges accountability.
While government impartiality was eroding well before Trump took office, what is substantially new is straight from the dirty togetherness playbook: installing senior aides in agencies to monitor loyalty; dismissing officials who resist corruption while promoting loyalists who foster it; firing inspectors general in retaliation for unwelcome investigations; fudging the guidelines of public health agencies that don’t square with Trump’s political ends; using chief law enforcement officer William Barr as if he were the president’s personal attorney; and weaponizing the police and security forces for partisan ends. In Washington this summer, it seemed to me like Kyiv redux when armed, badge-less troops marched through Lafayette Square at Trump’s behest to clear peaceful protesters so he could brandish a Bible.
A key component of the Trump legacy doubtless will be a government more poised than ever to serve politicians, not the public.
Can civic institutions provide a counterweight? Many of them are similarly beholden to private interests. For well over a decade, I have charted how bedrock institutions of American democracy, from think tanks and academic institutions to philanthropies and political parties, have become strikingly porous and open to serving unaccountable agendas. Both the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute have, in recent years, without disclosing their sources, accepted money from foreign governments on which they also commentate.
Through these institutions and other means, our national policies are progressively being hijacked by forces that are difficult to see or trace. “Consultants,” “government relations specialists,” and “public relations” experts have become a major force in persuading legislators, relevant government officials, and even the public to support policies that will benefit a particular industry, group, or even foreign government. Whereas several decades ago former high-ranking officials might have sought the title “lobbyist” to display their influence, today they take a role with a corporation or law and lobbying firm, frequently in the “public sector” or “government affairs” group. Such shadow lobbyists sway policy on issues from health care to mortgage lending to telecommunications to finance and foreign policy. In some cases, they work on behalf of (often unsavory) foreign powers—without disclosing and sometimes even obscuring the identities of their sponsors.
The post-retirement careers of recent former presidents exemplify how quickly such unaccountable behavior has become acceptable. A generation ago, U.S. presidents left office and became known essentially for one pursuit: President Gerald Ford served on corporate boards; President Jimmy Carter took up philanthropy. But former President Bill Clinton has crafted overlapping roles that cross all these pursuits. He consulted for Teneo, among other business ventures, whose operations sometimes overlapped with his Clinton Foundation and its nonprofit Global Initiative, blurring boundaries between business and charity. The many roles Obama has assumed since leaving office appear more bounded than Clinton’s. Yet for these two former presidents and many top officials, high office has become a stepping stone to raking in tens of millions of dollars though speaking fees, book deals, and consulting.
National security, too, is often sold to the highest bidder. Scores of A-list former politicians work on behalf of foreign regimes without recording that fact with the U.S. Justice Department, as the law requires. That’s a key reason why rogue dictators and oligarch-kleptocrats are so successful in laundering their images. Len Blavatnik, a Soviet-born American who partnered with oligarchs and organized crime icons doing Putin’s bidding, and whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned for employing its assets to further “worldwide malign activity,” including intrusion in the 2016 elections. Blavatnik has donated millions to august institutions including Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today few seem to blink when respected leaders and former top officials use their good reputations for profit, even working for criminal operatives who pose foundational threats to Western democracy. Former U.S. homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, for instance, serves on the legal team of former Manafort business partner Dmytro Firtash. Firtash is an organized crime figure and oligarch so embedded in Russian politics that he fled Ukraine with Yanukovich in the 2014 revolution and faces extradition to the United States on corruption charges. Chertoff, while representing Firtash, also chairs the board of Freedom House, an NGO that purports to defend democracy around the world.
It’s no wonder, then, that like Ukrainians, whose confidence in their government is at a world low, Americans’ trust in public institutions and leaders has plummeted in recent years.
If our leaders decline to defend our democracy, it makes it all the more imperative that we as citizens do so. Might we have something to learn from the Sofiyskiy experience?
A few months after the raid, manager Iryna Ryabchenko, one of the fitness center’s family owners, explained to me what happened over coffee. “The guy who wanted to raid our property goes to his best friend, a member of Parliament and head of the Committee on Economic Policy Issues. He’s also the right-hand man of the country’s prime minister,” she said. “They get the Minister of Justice to arrange the [bogus] registration and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to supply security. Then an aide of the member of Parliament becomes director of the company that acquires our property.”
Despite wealth and standing, the family found themselves powerless to stop the takeover of their prime property. Even the famed Klitschko, a gym regular who bantered with me during workouts, could not help save it. Rather than give up the fight, though, the Sofiyskiy’s confiscation spurred Ryabchenko to political action. She has since banded together with hundreds of others as an activist in Financial Maidan, an NGO working for change and government reform.
In the United States, it is tempting to anticipate a Biden presidency with the expectation of relief: once again, a sane leader who follows scientific advice and doesn’t fire people via Twitter, flout time-honored norms, or tell more lies than truths. But our new normal of rogue government did not appear from the ether, and a Biden-Harris administration cannot magically reverse this predicament, any more than Americans will rush to their offices when the first COVID-19 vaccine is approved.
Instead, we must take robust action to reclaim our institutions, beginning with government, a pillar of democracy. Rebuilding government that serves the public, starting with restoring the civil service and insourcing government functions, is imperative. We will need a groundswell of grassroots pressure to accomplish this, mobilizing everyday citizens and the elite and the monied class, who also must grasp that in the long run, systemic ethical compromises will defeat everyone, including themselves. Because without the reforms necessary to reverse decades of damage to our democracy, in the not-too-distant-future, you, too, may wake up one day to find your neighborhood gym has been raided.