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Buckraking Around the World With Tony Blair

The sanctimonious P.M.’s big business with dictators.

KAZAKHSTAN'S vast oil reserves and proximity to Afghanistan have made it a crucial ally in the past decade, but few observers have any illusions about its corrupt, despotic ruler. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has led the country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991; in 2011 he was reelected with 95 percent of the vote. The rubber-stamp parliament has granted Nazarbayev the permanent right “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time” and to approve all “initiatives on the country’s development.”

Yet Nazarbayev has found one important Western cheerleader. Last year, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared in a dreary neo-Stalinist propaganda video produced by a Kazakh TV station and exclaimed that Nazarbayev had displayed “the toughness necessary to take the decisions to put the country on the right path.” The movie features extensive interviews with Nazarbayev and Western energy executives praising him, as well as fawning interventions from Blair. “In the work that I do there, I’ve found them really smart people, capable, very determined, and very proud of their country,” he enthuses.

Blair’s fondness for Central Asian dictators is not limited to Nazarbayev. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, is the man that a WikiLeaks cable compared to Sonny Corleone, thanks to his thin skin and temper. His domestic critics have been imprisoned, and less than sycophantic media outlets have been harassed. But none of this seems to have bothered Blair, who traveled to Azerbaijan in 2009 and saw a leader with a “very positive and exciting vision for the future of the country.”

Why is Tony Blair, the man who embodied liberal hawkishness and democracy promotion, shilling for these dictatorships? Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that he is earning millions of dollars advising Nazarbayev on “governance” and that his lucrative Azeri trip was paid for by a wealthy local businessman and former government lobbyist. It is generally taken as a given that politicians, upon leaving office, will enter the private sector and earn a good living. But for the pious, moralistic leader who wagered his career on bringing down Saddam Hussein through a war he portrayed as a humanitarian imperative, the contrast with his public sector service is striking. Blair’s ambition to create a more democratic world may have shrunk, but his bank account has certainly grown.

BLAIR'S WORK in Central Asia is just a small component of the burgeoning business he’s built since resigning in 2007. The Financial Times estimates that last year alone he took in $30 million from giving speeches and consulting with governments and corporations. His customers have included JPMorgan Chase—which pays his firm, Tony Blair Associates, approximately $4 million annually according to the newspaper—and the monarchy of Kuwait, which has an unflattering record on human rights. Blair has also established a network of nonprofit smiley-face initiatives, such as the Faith Foundation, which “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions.”

Yet it’s not always clear which hat Blair is wearing while traveling the globe. Before Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, Blair held six private meetings with the Libyan leader, with whom he’d formed a close geopolitical alliance during his years as prime minister. (Papers found in Tripoli after Qaddafi’s overthrow showed that Blair had even offered advice to Saif Qaddafi on his Ph.D. thesis.) A Blair spokeswoman wrote to say that the former prime minister “kept in touch with Colonel Qaddafi after [Blair] left office and visited a number of times. But he also constantly urged reform of Libya’s system.” Meanwhile, Blair has set up a complex, deliberately opaque corporate structure that makes it impossible to know how much money he is making. “He’s willing to spend good money to keep it hidden,” said Richard Murphy, an accountant and founder of the London-based Tax Justice Network. Blair has thus far declined to accept a peerage that he is entitled to, which Murphy suspects owes to the fact that he would have to disclose his income to the House of Lords if he did so.

Blair’s Kazakh contract was sealed last fall and will reportedly pay him as much as $13 million. A source with inside knowledge of Kazakhstan’s leadership told me that the former prime minister is expected to help buff Nazarbayev’s personal image internationally. Blair’s office claims that he is “supporting the development of the reforms” underway and that while he was “well aware of the criticisms made of the Kazakhstan government ... there are also visible signs of progress.” It’s not clear what “reforms” or “progress” Blair is referring to. In late June, Human Rights Watch issued a report that detailed “significant setbacks” in Kazakhstan, including the use of criminal charges for “inciting social discord” (which carries a maximum sentence of twelve years in prison). The report also highlighted police and military violence against striking oil workers last December. During the clashes, twelve protesters were shot dead. (His office also acknowledged that he recommended the Kazakh government hire a London P.R. shop called Portland, whose senior officials include erstwhile Blair aides Tim Allan and Alastair Campbell. Meanwhile Portland is lobbying for Nazarbayev in the United States.)

Former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was forced into exile in 1997, is dismissive of Blair’s alleged efforts. “He can offer all the advice he wants but you can’t have better governance in Kazakhstan without changing the government,” he said when we met in London.

Blair isn’t the first prime minister to cash in after leaving Downing Street. His predecessor, John Major, took a senior position with the American private equity firm Carlyle Group and Margaret Thatcher netted $500,000 per year as a consultant with Philip Morris. But they were far more discreet and restrained than Blair in their business dealings. Blair’s transformation into a human cash register has outraged many in Britain, and he continues to collect a pension and benefits that cost taxpayers more than $250,000 per year. “Blair is transfixed by money,” Peter Oborne, chief political commentator for The Daily Telegraph, told me. “This sort of behavior is more common in America, where the culture is more commercial and presidents—in particular Bill Clinton—have acted in a financially unscrupulous fashion after leaving office.” According to John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, “Blair loved being on the world stage and then he was forced out of office against his will. His business deals allow him to remain on the stage and continue to hobnob with the rich and powerful.” Blair’s office stated that there has “been a lot of inaccuracy” reported about his earnings, but declined to provide specifics.

As noted by Oborne, Blair’s friend and political doppelgänger Bill Clinton (estimated net worth: $38 million) is also making large amounts of money from speechifying and consulting. But Clinton, as always, has shown himself to be more deft than Blair. While Clinton and his foundation have taken money from an assortment of dubious sources, the forty-second president has been marginally more discerning in picking his clients. He made introductions in Kazakhstan for Canadian mining magnate Frank Giustra; Blair went directly on the Kazakh dictator’s payroll.

WHEN BLAIR was prime minister, he did indeed deliver some memorable speeches. The All American Speakers Bureau, one of several agencies that have represented Blair, lists his minimum fee as $200,000—twice the rate of Donald Trump. However, the huge sums that he currently commands are something of a mystery, given the content of his private sector lectures. “The reason I am in Dongguan now is because I was told that everything that was happening here was amazing,” Blair said during a 2007 speech at a VIP banquet in China. “Dongguan’s future is immeasurable.” Such twaddle infuriated Chinese newspapers, which said Blair’s empty remarks showed he was only interested in “digging for gold” and “money-sucking.”

One could argue that these banalities at least do no harm. More troubling was his speech in Azerbaijan, which was paid for by Nizami Piriyev, a presidential ally and the owner of a methanol plant. According to a transcript cited by the Daily Mail, Blair shilled for the plant with a mixture of green platitudes and name-dropping. “I had this conversation with Al Gore about the environment, where Al says to me, ‘When there is a will, there is a way,’” he said. Blair knew little about the topic he was speaking on and appeared to be mouthing lines fed to him by his local handlers. He even found time to praise formaldehyde, a byproduct of methanol’s industrial process (and a human carcinogen). “To be honest until I looked at the list of what formaldehyde does, I had no idea of how many parts of my life was governed by the existence of this thing,” he marveled. “When I go back home, I will tell to my nine-year-old boy: ‘Stop all other studies and concentrate on formaldehyde and you will be fine!’”

During a trip to the Azeri capital of Baku in July, I met Hikmet Hajizadeh, who runs a pro-democracy think tank. In 2010, his son Adnan was sitting in a restaurant when thugs burst in and viciously beat him; yet he was charged with “hooliganism” and spent more than a year in jail. Adnan’s real crime had been to produce (along with a friend, Emin Milli, who was jailed on the same charges) a satirical video that made fun of the regime for importing donkeys at about $41,000 a head from Germany. “It’s like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union here, but the government wants to impress Western investors,” Hajizadeh told me. “That’s why Blair was brought in. His speech was just for P.R.” For the regime, that is certainly true. For Blair, it was about something more shiny and tangible.

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor for Harper’s magazine. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine. 

Click here to read a response from Blair's office.