This the way the world works: Azerbaijan and Bell Pottinger

Bell Pottinger's SA campaign; Ilham and Mehriban Aliyev in Red Square

Stories hitting the British papers yesterday give a graphic insight into the way that neoliberal capitalism really works, writes Phil Hearse. And how British finance and public relations companies have no moral qualms at all about anything that makes money.

First is the continuing scandal of top UK public relations firm Bell Pottinger, an outfit that in the past has handled public relations for a string of repellent clients, including General Pinochet’s Chilean foundation, Oscar Pistorius, Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad and the brutal Egyptians and Saudi regimes.

Following revelations about the allegedly corrupt dealing between South African president Jacob Zuma and the billionaire South African Gupta brothers, Bell Pottinger was hired by the brothers to defend them.

It devised an utterly cynical campaign which claimed that the Guptas were victims of an attack by ‘white monopoly capital’. Critics of the Guptas were called out as defenders of white privilege, including by hiring rent-a-mob charlatans: in reality it is the Guptas themselves (and Zuma) who are complicit with the white privilege which persists in South Africa’s post-apartheid neoliberalism.

Now the company is in meltdown and has been suspended from the Public Relations and Communications Association; its ultra-posh CEO James Henderson has resigned and its main investor, Chime, (co-owned by US investment firm Providence Equity Partners and Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP group) has pulled out. There but for fortune goes half the British PR industry.

On a much bigger scale are the revelations about a giant money laundering and corruption operation by the bloody regime is Azerbaijan (nicknamed the Azerbaijan Laundromat), which involved $3bn worth of payments and mainly went through London via the Danske Ban’s Estonian branch. Four UK finance companies were involved in handling Azeri payments.

At the centre of this is Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family, which featured prominently in the 2016 Panama Papers offshore tax havens scandal, centred on British firm Mossack Fonseca. President Ilham Aliyev has appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyev as first vice president.

What was all this money for? First it was a method of hiding money stolen from Azeri taxpayers in international tax havens, probably in the British-administered Virgin Islands; second it recycled similar money into the hands of wealthy Azeris; and third it bought powerful influence among Western politicians and opinion-formers. Key among them was Edouard Linter, a former member of the European parliament, who was a foreign observer in Azeri elections (he gave them a big thumbs up) and later founded the Society for the Promotion for German-Azerbaijan Relations.

Also involved was Karin Mitrev, a Bulgarian member of the board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, whose wife Irina Bokova happens to be director general of Unesco. Bokova organised a photo exhibition at Unesco headquarters entitled ‘Azerbaijan – A Land of Tolerance’. You couldn’t make it up.

Bell Pottinger and the Azerbaijan scandal lift a small corner of the carpet of a massive world of corruption and influence buying at the heart of modern capitalism. Western banks are awash with the ‘hot money’ from drug dealers, gun runners, people traffickers and brutal dictatorships worldwide.

The idea that the British government and the intelligence arms of the British state don’t know about all this is absurd. Of course they do, but they take it for granted that financial dealings with sleazy foreigners only benefit Britain, or more precisely the ultra-wealthy British financial and public relations elites. It’s them, after all, that the British state is there to defend.

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