An Oligarch, A Think Tank And The Rise Of American Kleptocracy?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2019

By Bertie Harrison-Broninski

Industrialist Len Blavatnik, left, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton speak at the Film Society of Lincoln Center 40th Anniversary Chaplin Award Gala at Lincoln Center in New York, U.S., on Monday, April 22, 2013. Clinton presented Barbra Streisand with the award honoring her work in film. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ukrainian-born billionaire Lenonard Blavatnik has ignited controversy once again with his lavish donations to British and American institutions. This time, it is by giving $12 million to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), an influential thinktank with close ties to senior business, government, intelligence and foreign-policy communities in the US.

The move has prompted a series of open letters signed by “U.S., European and Russian foreign policy experts and anti-corruption activists”, who fear that such donations are “a means by which Blavatnik exports Russian kleptocratic practices to the West”. Many of them are CFR members themselves, and their letters are rounded off with footnotes demonstrating Blavatnik’s links to Putin’s inner circle and questioning the sources of his wealth. Their second letter states that the impact of the donation “extends far beyond the potential value of the money…beyond even CFR. That impact will touch upon the health of American democracy.”

None of this will come as any surprise to those who have followed Blavatnik’s spending over the past 15 years. While his philanthropy has seen him knighted by the Queen in the UK and hailed by some as one of the world’s most generous benefactors, his donations within political and educational spheres have repeatedly led to scrutiny and protest.

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