Vladimir Putin Sheds Legitimacy to Extend His Rule in Russia | Time


The joke almost came true last week as Russians voted to approve amendments to the country’s 1993 constitution.

The most important reform, and the real reason for the exercise, was to reset presidential term-limits, allowing Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for twenty years and is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin, to remain in office until 2036.

Officially, the amendments came into effect once the results of the July 1 vote were published. But Moscow bookstores have been selling copies of the new constitution for weeks, and the Kremlin began referencing it in draft bills as early as May.

Source: Vladimir Putin Sheds Legitimacy to Extend His Rule in Russia | Time

Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech shows he’s still waging culture wars | Vox


Trump’s descriptions of the rise of an extremist left — which were often exaggerated or false in their characterizations — are inflammatory in part because they rely on a narrow, nationalistic, and racialized definition of “our values” that amounts to a sweeping rejection of the idea that America’s history of slavery and white supremacy should be questioned. And in framing the debate over the monuments this way, the president revived the racialized nostalgia politics that animated his 2016 strategy for mobilizing Republican voters.

Although that proved a successful strategy during that election, there are reasons to be doubtful that his tack of fomenting a culture war will in fact galvanize his base in the way he hopes. Chief among them is that his presidency has been engulfed by crises in the form of an out-of-control pandemic, a historic recession, and a fiery national debate over racism.

Source: Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech shows he’s still waging culture wars – Vox

MEPs alarmed by ‘politically motivated persecution’ in Ukraine | EURACTIV.com


“We are alarmed by continuous attempts to misuse the Ukrainian justice system for politically motivated persecution of political opponents,” said lawmakers from the informal Friends of European Ukraine group in a statement on Friday (3 July).

After the peaceful power transition of 2019 election in the post-Soviet country, “current attempts to prosecute political opponents pose a risk of democratic backsliding,” the group of MEPs added.

Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, is suspected of abuse of office by illegally pressuring the then-chief of Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Yehor Bozhok, into appointing Serhiy Semоchko as his deputy.

Poroshenko is involved in 24 investigations, with three others recently closed, and denies any wrongdoing, calling the probes selective justice ‘at the orders of [Volodymyr] Zelensky’, the current president.

Source: MEPs alarmed by ‘politically motivated persecution’ in Ukraine – EURACTIV.com

Coronavirus, Trump, the Economy Leave Americans in a Very Bad Mood | US News


Americans are watching with anguish as the nation grapples with systemic racism, but also upset over protesters’ defacing of statues of those representing the country’s worst racist sin, slavery.

They worry about the economy, slowed by the pandemic, but fear more the spread of the coronavirus. Strong majorities of voters think President Donald Trump doesn’t care about people like them and is neither honest and trustworthy nor bringing the nation together.

Any joy former Vice President Joe Biden may feel over his lead in polls is tempered by the fact that strong majorities of his voters are motivated more by ousting Trump than sending Biden to the Oval Office.

Source: Coronavirus, Trump, the Economy Leave Americans in a Very Bad Mood | America 2020 | US News

Beijing’s New Security Law Has Stifled Hong Kong’s Autonomy and Hopes


Millions of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to promote democracy in 2019. The world looked on, astonished and impressed. Now, it looks on in despair: Beijing has imposed a hard-line national security law on the city, bypassing both public consultation and the local legislative process to go after protesters accused of “colluding with foreign forces,” advocating “separatism,” or merely damaging the city’s “premises and facilities.” A struggle for public order has been redefined as a national security crackdown.

China’s “one country, two systems” model—initiated with Hong Kong’s handover in 1997—sought to return the freewheeling city to Chinese sovereignty without destroying the basic freedoms on which it was grounded. Hong Kong was to continue to adhere to its own rule of law, rather than to the version applied in the mainland, where the law is a tool for forcing compliance with Communist Party dictates.

Twenty-three years after the handover, China has abandoned its promise of a separate system for Hong Kong. The city has done its part, serving China as one of the world’s leading centers of finance, culture, and education. But China never fully carried out its commitment to the democratic reform needed to sustain Hong Kong’s wavering autonomy. Now, it has brought Hong Kong fully under the national security state governed from Beijing.

The Basic Law, enacted in 1990, provided Hong Kong with a “high degree of autonomy,” allowing for democratic self-rule and the preservation of legal and judicial systems from before the handover. The law supports the “ultimate aim” of “universal suffrage” and commits to maintaining the British-style common law system and applying international human rights covenants. This arrangement was to last for 50 years, during which time the mainland system could not intrude.

Such avoidance was not to be left to chance. The Basic Law stipulates that mainland Chinese government departments cannot interfere in Hong Kong, nor do mainland laws apply in the city, except under limited circumstances. One article requires Hong Kong to enact national security laws “on its own.” Maintaining public order was likewise to be a local responsibility.

Beijing officials frequently accuse Hong Kongers of not understanding “one country, two systems.” They emphasize the “one country” component but downplay the “two systems.” But the Basic Law’s elaborate model makes no sense except as a formula to protect Hong Kong from the intrusion of the mainland system. Hong Kong, in contrast to mainland China, was not to be a place where those who opposed the government, defended rights, or reported on sensitive topics could land in jail on such charges as “inciting subversion” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

The new national security law threatens these protections. But it is not the first instrument to do so. From the beginning, the Basic Law reserved to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) the ultimate power to interpret its provisions. That committee also controls the pace of democratic reform in the region. Hong Kong’s courts have vigorously applied international human rights standards in reviewing local statutes and the behavior of local officials—but they have done so under the oversight of the Standing Committee. Moreover, the Standing Committee has slow-walked democratic reform, leaving in place a system that ensures that Hong Kong’s chief executive will effectively be chosen by Beijing (through a Beijing-friendly election committee). The city’s Legislative Council, moreover, was designed in an annex to the Basic Law to ensure a pro-government majority.

Disempowered in this fashion, Hong Kongers have often taken to the streets to defend their autonomy and the rule of law. The more Beijing interferes, and the more indifference both the mainland and the local governments show toward public demands for democratic reform, the greater the intensity of the protests.

Such tensions came to a head in 2019, when the Hong Kong government put forth a bill that would have allowed China to extradite Hong Kongers across the border to face mainland justice. Hong Kong has extradition treaties with several countries, including the United States, but it never made such an agreement with the People’s Republic of China, because the system of justice there did not meet international standards. The extradition bill sparked such public outrage that first one million, then two million protesters filled the streets in June 2019.

The government eventually withdrew the extradition bill, but the concession was too little, too late. Rather than backing down, the protesters then added new demands that the government back an independent investigation into police behavior, withdraw severe charges against arrestees, cease to characterize the protests as riots, and advance democratic reform. “Five demands, not one less” became the mantra of discontent.

The authorities responded with increasingly aggressive police actions and excessive criminal prosecutions. A November election for the rather powerless District Councils served as a referendum of support for the protesters, with friendly candidates winning 57 percent of the 2.9 million votes cast and taking control of 17 out of 18 councils. But neither Beijing nor the local government was willing to address popular concerns. Ultimately, only the global pandemic was able to temper the protests.

The Standing Committee drafted its National Security Law for Hong Kong in June, a year after the protests began. The NPC had directed the committee to apply the law directly, bypassing the local Legislative Council. The measure was to “prevent, stop and punish” threats to national security and root out foreign interference, which Beijing loudly (and without evidence) proclaimed to be the driver of the protests.

The law, whose 66 articles elaborate multiple avenues of Beijing’s control, was drafted and enacted in secret, without public consultation. It expressly overrides all local laws that are inconsistent with it, and it effectively amends the earlier Basic Law, although it was adopted without the required amendment procedures. The new law reiterates the Basic Law’s requirement that Hong Kong “respect and protect human rights,” but it provides no reliable mechanism for doing so. A local court would surely be condemned by mainland officials if it dared to declare parts of the new law invalid.

The new law calls for the central government in Beijing to set up an office in Hong Kong for the “safeguarding of national security.” Already, Beijing had declared its liaison office in Hong Kong exempt from the Basic Law requirement that mainland departments not interfere in the city’s affairs. This new national security office is explicitly tasked to “oversee, guide, coordinate and support” local national security activities and investigations. Under such constraints, could any local court declare the acts of the mainland public security officers who will staff it to be in violation of the Basic Law, let alone human rights? A provision of the law goes so far as to exclude local jurisdiction over the mainland officials exercising such duties.

The power to interpret the new security law rests with the Standing Committee, such that the local courts appear to be left with only a circumscribed role to play. The chief executive is to “designate a number of judges” among current or former local judges to hear national security cases. But under the new law, Hong Kong’s government will be required to establish a Committee for Safeguarding National Security, to which Beijing will appoint a national security adviser—an official from the mainland who will effectively oversee many of the chief executive’s national security duties, including, presumably, the designation of security judges. How can these judges act independently when they are appointed under such executive oversight?

Of greatest concern, however, is the new law’s provision for jurisdiction to be removed from Hong Kong courts and transferred to the mainland in complex cases involving a “major and imminent threat to national security.” The hated extradition law has seemingly snuck in the back door. How will ordinary people judge whether their actions meet these vague criteria, whose determination by mainland officials, as previously noted, is not subject to local jurisdiction? The chilling effect on free speech is already evident.

The problems with the National Security Law do not end at the courthouse. Much as the Basic Law did, the new law requires that elected officials swear their loyalty. Based on some official comments, many worry the government may add a pledge of support for the new security law. Many opposition candidates will see such a pledge as a betrayal and will be reluctant to swear their allegiance. And the main crimes the new law covers are vaguely defined: separatism, subversion, terrorism, and “colluding with foreign or overseas forces.” China has often used counterterrorism as a cover for repressing or monitoring minorities and dissidents.

The collusion charge could be used to stifle international human rights advocacy, journalism, and even private meetings with foreign officials—presumably reaching anyone who lobbies for sanctions or support. Under Articles 37 and 38, the law applies to offenses by individuals and corporations, residents and nonresidents, within and outside the region. Those found guilty could in some cases face life sentences.

A little less than a quarter century ago, Beijing invited the international community to treat Hong Kong as separate from mainland China. As an autonomous region that respected the rule of law and protected human rights, Hong Kong enjoyed special trade arrangements, customs agreements, and global immigration that helped make the city a capital of international finance, its economy among the freest in the world. All of these achievements are now at risk. Many democratically minded Hong Kongers now feel that they are left with only two possible moves: to flee or to forgo their freedom to support their political beliefs.

Source: Beijing’s New Security Law Has Stifled Hong Kong’s Autonomy and Hopes

How China, Russia, and Others Have Weaponized Corruption

How States Weaponize Graft


Graft is nothing new; it may be the second-oldest profession. Powerful people and those with access to them have always used kickbacks, pay-to-play schemes, and other corrupt practices to feather their nests and gain unfair advantages. And such corruption has always posed a threat to the rule of law and stood in the way of protecting basic civil and economic rights.

What is new, however, is the transformation of corruption into an instrument of national strategy. In recent years, a number of countries—China and Russia, in particular—have found ways to take the kind of corruption that was previously a mere feature of their own political systems and transform it into a weapon on the global stage. Countries have done this before, but never on the scale seen today.

The result has been a subtle but significant shift in international politics. Rivalries between states have generally been fought over ideologies, spheres of influence, and national interests; side payments of one kind or another were just one tactic among many. Those side payments, however, have become core instruments of national strategy, leveraged to gain specific policy outcomes and to condition the wider political environment in targeted countries. This weaponized corruption relies on a specific form of asymmetry. Although any government can hire covert agents or bribe officials elsewhere, the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence—and their nondemocratic enemies have figured out how to exploit that weakness.

The fight against corruption has generally been marginalized in public and academic discussions of foreign policy. The problem is usually treated as a law enforcement challenge or a good-government issue—something that holds back political or economic development but that does not rise to the level of national strategy. Today, however, weaponized corruption has become an important form of political warfare. Defenses against it must move into the mainstream of international policy work in every vulnerable government, including in the United States.

Strategic corruption differs in important ways from the more traditional forms that scholars call “bureaucratic corruption” and “grand corruption.” Bureaucratic corruption is the pervasive conversion of ordinary public service into a “bid for service”: for example, in many countries, simple steps such as getting a driver’s license or passing a building inspection require paying a bribe. This is the sort of graft that hobbles economic development by allowing well-connected insiders to profit from investment at the expense of genuine growth.

Grand corruption occurs when business leaders or major criminals (or oligarchs, who are a combination of the two) directly pay off top government officials in exchange for favors, such as a preferential position or control of a key economic sector that presents opportunities for high-margin plunder—often banking, telecommunications, or natural resources such as oil and gas. Both forms of traditional corruption erode weak states, leading to breakdown and civil conflict—a process playing out right now in countries such as Algeria, Bolivia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Venezuela.

In bureaucratic and grand corruption, the payer and the payee are mainly just trying to get rich. In strategic corruption, by contrast, the greed is still there, for at least some of the players, but the corrupt inducements are wielded against a target country by foreigners as a part of their own country’s national strategy. Sometimes, but not always, these schemes entail violations of the law, including by citizens of the target country. In other cases, the conduct may be technically legal but still involves “the perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties,” as the venerable Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “corruption” puts it. For that reason, some corrupt acts are punishable by law; other kinds must be left to the judgment of citizens, if they are brought to light.

The first great effort to counter strategic corruption in the United States sought to do just that. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), signed into law in 1938, arose from congressional investigations into communist and Nazi propaganda in the United States. The law required representatives of foreign sponsors to register, allowing what the legislation’s authors called “the spotlight of pitiless publicity” to do its work.

In the 1960s, more congressional investigations led to a set of major amendments to FARA, which focused the legislation more on foreign sponsorship of political lobbying rather than propaganda. For the next few decades, foreign influence peddling remained a relatively marginal phenomenon, characterized by the efforts of a handful of dictators and their cronies to buy influence in Washington and other Western capitals.

Things began to change in the 1990s. Suddenly, there were many more buyers. The collapse of communism put more than 20 new governments into the marketplace. All of them, and many more, were eager to make friends and influence people in Washington, the capital of the world’s sole remaining superpower. There, they found many consultants and lawyers ready to offer high-priced advice. A particularly lucrative new line of business was helping funnel U.S. or global investment to countries newly opened to business. And as the United States and others leaned more on economic sanctions as a policy tool, foreigners needed more and more help navigating the regulatory machinery.

Meanwhile, because of the deregulation of the global financial system during the 1970s and 1980s, it was much easier to move and invest money in all directions and be able to get it back out again. Open and prosperous countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States were becoming the preferred shelters for the billions of dollars that every year are laundered through anonymized companies, real estate investments, and other schemes. As early as 2001, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development identified anonymized companies as a primary means for hiding illicit transactions around the world. The United States, lacking national legislation that requires transparency about the “ultimate beneficial owner” of corporate entities, gradually became a financial haven for money launderers, terrorist financiers, kleptocrats, and smugglers. For that reason, the striking growth of transnational criminal networks during the post–Cold War era has aided not just traditional corruption but also the strategic kind; after all, as the journalist Oliver Bullough memorably put it, “the evil money always mixes with the naughty money.”

The cumulative result of all these shifts has been an exponential increase in the scale of U.S. commerce involving foreign interest groups. Americans with connections (real or merely claimed) to decision-makers now enjoy opportunities that can lead to all sorts of corrupt behavior. Political consultants and former U.S. officials who spend time in the large, lucrative, and lightly regulated marketplace of influence peddling face frequent tests of their ethics, integrity, and patriotism. Some handle these challenges with care and dutiful propriety. Others do not.

Perhaps the most prominent case of strategic corruption in recent years is the Ukraine imbroglio that led to the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019. Many Americans may think of this as primarily a domestic political scandal. But it is crucial to understand its foreign roots.

Trump was impeached because over the summer of 2019, he sought to condition his and his administration’s future relations with Ukraine on Kyiv’s willingness to help him dig up dirt on his political opponent Joe Biden, blame former Ukrainian government officials (and not the Kremlin) for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and cast doubt on evidence that U.S. prosecutors had used to put one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers, Paul Manafort, in prison. But the story actually started long before Trump did any of those things, and its primary authors were not Americans.

Beginning in 2018, a group of plotters launched a concerted effort to smear the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and push for her removal from office. The group included two naturalized American citizens with ties to Ukraine, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman; their American lawyer and partner Rudy Giuliani (who also works as a personal lawyer to Trump); and two former Ukrainian law enforcement officials, Yuriy Lutsenko and Viktor Shokin. Parnas, Lutsenko, and Shokin passed on derogatory information about Yovanovitch and Biden—including allegations later proved to be false—to Giuliani and Pete Sessions, then a Republican congressman from Texas. Giuliani encouraged media coverage of the claims, which were then amplified by Trump and his son Donald Trump, Jr.

But behind this group were bigger players with deeper pockets, and it was their agenda that was driving the campaign. According to federal prosecutors in New York who indicted Parnas and Fruman last fall on charges of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, the pair, who had little money of their own, had been donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. political action committees through a shell company backed by foreign funds. They had other plans, as well. The Associated Press reported that in March 2019, Parnas and Fruman proposed a deal to Andrew Favorov, an executive at the state-owned Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, in which the company would import U.S. liquefied natural gas. As part of the deal, Favorov would replace the company’s widely admired chief executive, Andriy Kobolyev. Parnas and Fruman told Favorov that the U.S. ambassador, Yovanovitch, would likely oppose the deal—but they assured him that she would soon be removed from office.

The men, it seems, were hardly freelancing. As the journalist Catherine Belton writes in her recent book, Putin’s People, Parnas and Fruman were working for Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian tycoon “who’d taken over the Turkmenistan-Ukraine-Russia gas trade with the backing of the Kremlin.” (The federal prosecutors in New York revealed that Firtash has provided at least $1 million to Parnas.) According to The Washington Post, under Parnas and Fruman’s proposal, Naftogaz would agree to write off hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that Firtash owed the company.

The plot’s political objectives and Firtash’s apparent involvement elevates this sordid tale from the level of ordinary sleaze to that of strategic corruption. Firtash is a well-known figure in Ukraine. For many years, he managed trade with Ukraine for Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian gas company that is, in the words of the economist and Russia expert Anders Aslund, “probably Russia’s foremost geopolitical tool in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.” For Russia, effective control of the gas trade in and through Ukraine is a national objective of paramount importance. And Firtash was Gazprom’s man in Kyiv; indeed, according to Aslund, “Firtash appears to have been a Kremlin influence agent rather than a businessman.”

Firtash was arrested in Vienna in 2014 after federal prosecutors in the United States charged him with attempting to bribe officials in India. A Russian businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin loaned Firtash 125 million euros to cover his bail. Firtash has since fought his extradition from Austria with the help of many American lawyers, including former officials from both political parties. Among them are Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, two attorneys with close ties to Giuliani; Firtash has said that he has paid the pair more than $1 million to represent him. DiGenova and Toensing have denied that Firtash was involved in Parnas and Fruman’s dealings, and according to The Washington Post, the lawyers were able to arrange an unusual meeting with the U.S. attorney general, William Barr, to plead Firtash’s extradition case. (Meanwhile, money may not be the only thing of value that Firtash’s American associates have gotten out of the relationship: according to The New York Times, Firtash’s legal team in Austria has supplied Giuliani with documents that he claims show wrongdoing by Biden.)

DiGenova and Toensing have also appeared on Fox News, not to explain Firtash’s side of the story but to warn millions of American viewers that a supposedly wicked banker, George Soros, was trying to take over U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine. Soros, they claimed, was manipulating American diplomats there. Firtash’s lawyers were referring to the work of the foundations that Soros has funded to pursue his vision of an “open society.” Whatever one thinks of Soros’s preferences in U.S. politics, his foundations have done enormous good in supporting transparency and law enforcement initiatives in eastern Europe. The Kremlin and its friends have prioritized undoing that progress and so have targeted Soros with vicious and often anti-Semitic propaganda.

The Ukraine scandal, Belton writes, “exposed both the fragility of the American political system and how it had been corroded from within. ‘It looks like the whole of U.S. politics is for sale,’ said a former senior Russian banker with ties to the security services. . . . ‘It turned out everything depended on money, and all these [Western] values were pure hypocrisy.’”

The upshot is that by spending millions of dollars and dangling bait about information to help Trump, Firtash and his associates are apparently trying to keep him from being extradited, put control of Ukraine’s energy sector in more pliable hands, get rid of the American officials who stand in the way, and propagate conspiracy theories that have long been a staple of Russian propaganda. It is no coincidence that these aims almost completely match the Kremlin’s. It’s quite an agenda—and little of it originated in the United States.

Putin’s regime is hardly the only one that has weaponized corruption to advance its national interests; Beijing has gotten in the game, as well. Consider the case of a once high-flying Chinese energy conglomerate, CEFC China Energy. The actual character of the company’s operations and its chief executive, Ye Jianming, remains mysterious. Ye had invested and arranged official connections around the world, including in the Czech Republic. In 2018, an expert in Prague who was tracking Ye’s efforts told The New York Times that “it’s been clear for some time that this is not just a Chinese commercial company, that they had some intelligence ties.” As a CNN report put it, “at its height, [the company] aligned itself so closely with the Chinese government that it was often hard to distinguish between the two.”

The mystery deepened in November 2017, when U.S. authorities arrested a CEFC executive named Patrick Ho on charges of bribery and money laundering. A former Hong Kong government minister, Ho was well known for speeches extolling China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massively ambitious infrastructure plan intended to link China to Africa and Europe through road, rail, and maritime networks that China believes will stimulate trade and economic development.

Ho was not just relying on his oratorical gifts. In 2014, he offered President Idriss Déby of Chad $2 million, hidden in gift boxes. Two years later, he arranged for a bribe of $500,000 for the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. The bribes were meant to open the oil and gas markets in those countries to Chinese business. And the BRI wasn’t the only thing Ho was promoting: U.S. federal prosecutors also alleged that he had arranged for illicit arms sales to Libya and Qatar and had offered to help Iran move sanctioned money out of China.

A few months after Ho’s arrest, the chief executive of CEFC China Energy, Ye, disappeared. He is believed to be detained in China, and the company has been formally taken over by a Chinese state enterprise.

Owing to China’s history of conflict with the British Empire, China’s leaders are familiar with the way the British operated in the nineteenth century, and they seem to appreciate how the empire’s power did not rely solely on soldiers or warships; it came, rather, from the empire’s control of ports, canals, railroads, mines, shipping routes, telegraph cables, commercial standards, and financial exchanges. Students of British imperial history could only shake their heads with recognition last year when they heard Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, the foreign minister of strategically located Djibouti, tell The Washington Post, “Yes, our debt to China is 71 percent of our GDP, but we needed that infrastructure.” China now fosters land and sea connectivity in a global system built to Chinese norms and standards of cooperation, financed by a network of Chinese-funded banks, and enabled by Chinese graft and bribery on an epic scale.

Experts disagree about whether, on balance, the BRI poses a threat to U.S. interests. Regardless of one’s judgment on that question, however, it’s essential to see that corruption is central to the BRI, which involves little transparency and lots of money and which puts officials all over the world in hock to the Chinese Communist Party. It also connects infrastructure on three continents to an authoritarian government in Beijing known for collecting personal information and suppressing dissent. Not all local officials take the same insouciant view as the foreign minister of Djibouti; some may need to be influenced in other ways.

That may be why China has taken a more systematic approach to strategic corruption in Australia. During the last few years, revelations of Chinese efforts to reshape Australia’s political environment have dominated headlines in the country. Wealthy donors with ties to Chinese authorities have funded Australian political organizations and election campaigns, organized efforts to influence public opinion, and contributed to politicians who have praised China. In 2018, after media accounts revealed one such donor’s under-the-table contributions to an Australian senator—who then provided countersurveillance advice to the Chinese donor—the senator was forced to resign his seat.

In 2005, a Chinese diplomat named Chen Yonglin defected to Australia and later wrote that “the Communist Party of China had begun a structured effort to infiltrate Australia in a systematic way.” The Australian authorities agree. After retiring last year as director general of Australia’s main intelligence agency, Duncan Lewis went public with a warning about China’s “insidious” agenda. “Not only in politics but also in the community or in business, [such foreign interference] takes over, basically, pulling the strings from offshore,” Lewis said. What Australia is experiencing is a version of the strategic corruption that alarmed Americans in the 1930s and led to the passage of FARA. In 2018, Australia enacted the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, which is based on FARA but improves on it.

U.S. adversaries are not the only ones that have weaponized corruption. Turkey is just one example of a nominal ally that has also tried its hand at the technique. Last year, U.S. federal prosecutors charged the second-largest state-owned bank in Turkey, Halkbank, with organizing a massive scheme to evade international sanctions on Iran by shipping gold to the Islamic Republic in exchange for oil and gas. After initially protesting that U.S. courts had no jurisdiction, Halkbank pleaded not guilty, and the case is awaiting trial in New York. But Turkey wasn’t just trying to undermine the effort to isolate and weaken the Iranian regime, which is one of Washington’s most important foreign policy goals; it was also attempting to produce a specific policy outcome.

In 2016, an Iranian Turkish businessman involved in the conspiracy, Reza Zarrab, was arrested in the United States. There was a significant chance that he might plead guilty and talk, perhaps about the involvement of senior Turkish officials in his scheme. Before Zarrab entered his plea, however, Giuliani and his longtime friend Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, agreed to represent Zarrab and worked hard to free him.

Before allowing the two lawyers to represent Zarrab, the judge in the case held a number of hearings to explore their potential conflicts of interest. Giuliani’s law firm was a registered agent for Turkey, and the judge noted that Giuliani might be barred from reaching a resolution to the case “that would be contrary to Turkey’s interests.” In February 2017, Giuliani and Mukasey traveled to Turkey to discuss Zarrab’s case with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Then, according to The Washington Post, in the fall of that year, the two lawyers secured a meeting with Trump in which they lobbied the president to release Zarrab; the bait was the idea of swapping him for Andrew Brunson, an American pastor whom the Turks had arrested on pretextual charges.

According to the Post, Trump was tempted, and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was called over to the Oval Office. He was surprised to find Giuliani and Mukasey there and refused to go along with the deal. Nor would the Justice Department. The White House chief of staff at the time, John Kelly, was also reportedly quite concerned about the Giuliani-Mukasey-Trump effort to interfere in a criminal investigation. The swap never occurred (Brunson was released anyway in 2018), and Zarrab eventually pleaded guilty and spilled vital evidence that led to the indictment of Halkbank.

Ever since, Halkbank and Turkish officials have worked on Trump, trying to protect the bank from having to pay the kind of huge, multibillion-dollar fines levied in a similar case against the French firm BNP Paribas. Their task has been made easier by the fact that Tillerson, Kelly, and many other potential objectors are now gone and that there seems to be no shortage of willing interlocutors in addition to Giuliani. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has become a key go-between for relatives of Turkish leaders—including one of Erdogan’s sons-in-law. Last year, Lindsey Graham, a Republican U.S. senator from South Carolina, was fooled by a prank caller posing as the defense minister of Turkey, who recorded Graham’s assurances that Trump was “very sensitive” to Turkey’s concerns about the Halkbank case and that Trump wanted “to be helpful.”

It’s impossible to say for certain what Turkey has offered through its informal channels to Trump. But in November 2019, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton delivered an off-the-record speech to a private group in which he reportedly expressed his belief that “there is a personal or business relationship dictating Trump’s position on Turkey.” Other evidence suggests this may be true: Trump has been remarkably deferential to Erdogan and has treated the Turkish president with a leniency that stands in stark contrast to the manner in which Trump has dealt with the leaders of close U.S. allies, such as former British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2012, when Trump Towers Istanbul opened, Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted her thanks to Erdogan for attending the opening ceremony. And according to the Washington Examiner, Trump himself once remarked in regard to Turkey, “I have a little conflict of interest, because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”

It is surprising that a state-owned bank of a nominal U.S. ally defied Washington by helping Iran thwart sanctions. But what is far more dismaying is that when this activity came to light, those involved looked for and found American proxies who could plead their case to prevent the U.S. government from punishing their behavior. That goes well beyond pay-to-play. It is pay-for-policy; it is strategic corruption. And so far, it has succeeded. Halkbank has not paid significant fines for its massive violations of the sanctions against Iran.

For the United States and its partners, strategic corruption poses three dangers. First, there is the direct and obvious threat of bad policy outcomes. Then, there is the more general risk that stems from rivals adopting corruption as a technique for global influence building, as the Chinese have done in developing the BRI. Such efforts amount to a steady reversal of the post–Cold War effort led by the United States and its allies to promote prosperity in developing countries through transparency, political reforms, and economic liberalization. In the past, by following such advice, countries could enhance their status in Western institutions and join the community of nations. In contrast, the new Beijing-centered system has built a global network of oligarchs who owe their positions and livelihoods to their Chinese patrons. As the Chinese system grows in influence and expands its geographic reach, it corrodes not only the development prospects of the affected countries but also their participation in open trade relationships and their security cooperation with others.

The third and final danger comes from countries such as China and Russia leveraging state-directed enterprises and illicit money flows to directly penetrate Western governments and institutions. Canadian banks, British real estate companies, and American lobbying and public relations firms, among others, now serve the interests of authoritarian states—wittingly or otherwise. In the United States, a steady drip of revelations about this foreign influence has fed citizens’ tendency to view their political system as corrupt and to conclude that U.S. policy is for sale to the highest bidders—even overseas rivals.

This is, of course, by design. As a 2016 study published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, “Russian influence centers on weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the Western democratic and economic system. . . . This is achieved by influencing and eroding democratic governance from within its own institutions.” That is why, as the scholar Larry Diamond recently warned, “large-scale endemic corruption poses the single most urgent internal threat to democracy—and renders it all the more vulnerable to external subversion.”

For a cautionary tale about what happens when strategic corruption goes unchecked, Americans need look no further than the United Kingdom. Putin believes that he has so neutered Washington’s closest strategic partner that he feels secure deploying exotic clandestine weapons there to conduct political assassinations. To amass this staggering degree of freedom to maneuver, Putin and his cronies exploited a number of weaknesses in the British system. The United Kingdom’s anonymous property registry allowed Russian oligarchs to swamp London and its financial sector, where they stashed dirty money. British libel law favors plaintiffs far more than the equivalent U.S. statutes and doctrines do, and Russian oligarchs have ruthlessly exploited that advantage with the goal of censoring speech that exposes their schemes. In 2014, for example, Cambridge University Press backed away from plans to publish the American political scientist Karen Dawisha’s book Putin’s Kleptocracy out of fear that Russians named in the book would unleash an avalanche of frivolous libel lawsuits—with the help of high-powered British lawyers, of course.

The growing threat from strategic corruption has gone largely unnoticed or underappreciated in the Pentagon and the State Department. It is not enough to subcontract the problem out to federal prosecutors and hope for the best; the response needs to move to the center of foreign and national security policy. That will require public and private campaigns to monitor corruption, efforts by lawmakers to eliminate vulnerabilities in the U.S. legal and political systems, and an end to Washington’s overreliance on economic sanctions, which will become less and less effective if U.S. rivals can offer alternative means of support.

The policy moves that Washington needs to take to avoid London’s fate are not glamorous; they will rarely involve precision munitions or SEAL teams. But they are nevertheless vital. For starters, the traditional agenda of promoting transparency needs to be updated and reinforced. A first step would be for the federal government and state capitals to tighten their regulation of limited liability companies, the anonymous nature of which allows them to hide funds of questionable origin and the ownership of luxury properties. Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Corporate Transparency Act, which would, among other things, require disclosure of the beneficial owners of registered firms or corporations. This is a step in the right direction. Congress should also conduct fresh hearings on the scope and enforcement of FARA, which needs another round of amendments.

The United States also needs legislation to make it harder to pursue baseless libel claims designed to harass and censor critics. Twenty-nine states have already passed such laws, but that is not enough. Federal legislation may be a better route.

The fight against strategic corruption sometimes blurs the traditional lines between counterintelligence, law enforcement, and diplomacy. That can pose problems even when the federal government is in the hands of a normal presidential administration and is functioning well. Corruption investigations can overreach; they can become politicized. But U.S. intelligence and foreign policy agencies must be alert to the danger posed by strategic corruption. The defense against this threat cannot simply be left to a U.S. attorney’s office or to the Treasury Department.

A normal U.S. presidential administration would have already opened a national security investigation into the campaign against Yovanovitch, taking a hard look at Firtash and his associates and using resources that extend beyond those available to the FBI. But even without any inside knowledge of the Trump White House, it is not difficult to imagine the difficulties such an investigation would currently pose for career officials. The Halkbank case presents some analogous problems. And there may be similar situations that are not yet publicly known.

But the means to fight strategic corruption exist, and a future administration might decide to use them in an honest manner. A conscientious executive branch could take advantage of tools such as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was established in 2004 to help check the dangers of overzealous or politicized investigations. And of course, there are older methods for cleaning house, such as agency inspector generals (now being targeted by the current president) and congressional oversight (if Congress ever manages to earn back the public’s trust, which has almost entirely eroded in recent decades).

The danger of strategic corruption does not have to be a partisan issue. An anticorruption agenda could unite those on the left and the right who favor economic transparency—which protects consumers, investors, and citizens alike—and who want to stamp out crony capitalism. Those shared values explain why anticorruption is an animating issue for civil society groups across the political spectrum, from Transparency International to the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative.

Although Trump’s impeachment has receded into the rearview mirror, the Ukraine debacle that precipitated it still presents an opportunity. Instead of merely contributing to the polarization and dysfunction that plagues Washington, that scandal and others can help reset the agenda for policy action. The Ukraine scandal is not just an alarm about the current U.S. president. It is a warning that drives home how vulnerable governments have become to a new form of political warfare, a strategy that takes advantage of freedoms in order to discredit them.

Source: How China, Russia, and Others Have Weaponized Corruption

Investors are waking up to a possible Biden victory in U.S. presidential election | Reuters


Plenty can change in the four months before the Nov. 3 vote, and many investors remain focused on whether a resurgence of the coronavirus will damage a nascent U.S. economic rebound.

Some money managers, however, are already preparing for the possibility of a Biden victory by betting against the dollar and cutting their positions in U.S. stocks.

“The president’s poll numbers have fallen off a cliff,” said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Hermes. “The market is looking at this and saying, ‘If the election were held today Biden would win.’”

Source: Investors are waking up to a possible Biden victory in U.S. presidential election – Reuters

History Will Judge the Complicit | Defense One

Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?

Romney went further. “Let me put it very plainly,” he said in March 2016, in a speech criticizing Trump: “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” Romney spoke of “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”

He called Trump a “con man” and a “fraud.” Even after Trump won the nomination, Romney refused to endorse him. On his presidential ballot, Romney said, he wrote in his wife.

Source: History Will Judge the Complicit – Defense One

What if Biden Wins? | Defense One


In speeches and statements and interviews, the candidate and his advisors have been sketching out a foreign policy that would put the United States, as Biden has said, “back at the head of the table.”

And over the past month, Defense One asked dozens of his aides, advisors, surrogates, and former Obama administration colleagues what the world might expect from his presidency. What they said is that Biden may not radically change the nation’s military, deviate from the era’s so-called great power competition, or even slash the bottom line of the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget. But how that money is spent, how the United States competes, and how the military is deployed to advance American interests certainly would.

But if Biden wins, will the world follow him? Will Americans?

Source: SPECIAL REPORT: What if Biden Wins? – Defense One

A Serbian journalist has a warning about American authoritarianism | Vox


For most Americans, having a president who poses a direct threat to democracy is uncharted, perilous territory. But it’s useful to remember that other societies have dealt with the same challenges in the recent past. To truly understand the gravity of the threat we face, it’s helpful to turn abroad — to talk to people who have seen democracy in their own country crumble.

Serbian journalist Stevan Dojčinović is just such a person. The editor-in-chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network in Belgrade, he, along with his reporters, has doggedly documented corruption and lawlessness in the Serbian government — an elected regime that, according to international watchdogs, has worked hard to undermine the fairness of the political system and freedom of the press.

“We were kind of building democracy for 12 years, and now we are in the process of going backward,” he tells me.

While America is not yet as bad off as Serbia, Dojčinović sees warning signs that America could go down the same road. In particular, he says, President Trump has the same willingness to abuse his position — cultivating a captive media, enriching himself and his family — that characterizes the current Serbian government.

Source: A Serbian journalist has a warning about American authoritarianism – Vox