It’s Happening Here: What a Ukrainian Fitness Club Taught This Anthropologist about Dirty Togetherness in America

Kyiv, Ukraine, May 25, 2017. Picture the scene: The swanky Sofiyskiy Fitness Club, featuring turquoise-tiled hot tubs and such celebrity members as former world boxing champion-turned Kyiv mayor Vitaly Klitschko. Suddenly, towel-draped patrons and high-heeled staff scatter, as dozens of masked police and plain-clothed strongmen burst into the foyer. In broad daylight and captured on video right across from the Ministry of Justice, they overwhelm the doormen and brandish a bogus new property deed, 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.

When I joined the Sofiyskiy in late 2015 I was 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. Sensing a kindred spirit in Yelena, the stiletto-sporting sales manager and former English teacher, I challenged her to give me, an academic in dumpy workout clothes, a discount if I took the pole dancing class with her. She accepted, and I would subsequently learn much more than that I’d better keep my day job. Following the fortunes of the club would teach me what happens when government and law are weaponized, quite literally, by “dirtily together” politicians conflating politics and business.

The practice of organized property theft, “predatory raiding,” that afflicts Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries hasn’t yet come to America. But Ukraine’s experience with corruption offers compelling insights. Conditions that enable raiding, from the grinding down of impartiality in government to its capture by industry, have, over the past several decades, taken root in the United States. They mesh with the practice of “dirty togetherness” — under-the-table transactions among trusted associates — that mushroomed 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 gaining acceptance as normal.

Both the home-grown eroding of government and the American debut of dirty togetherness well predate the rise of Donald Trump, though the excesses of Trump-affiliated players like Paul Manafort have brought the latter to public light. Before becoming Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort helped elect the kleptocratic Putin-sponsored president Viktor Yanukovich, working from an office near the Sofiyskiy. And while Trump has further poisoned the polluted governance ecosystem he inherited, it was decades in the despoiling. A Biden-Harris win will not magically reverse this predicament, any more than Americans will rush to their offices when the first COVID-19 vaccine appears.

Politics-as-Government

The family owners of the Sofiyskiy, despite their wealth and standing, were powerless to stop the takeover of their prime property, just up the hill from the Maidan square where the 2014 revolution unfolded that ousted the Manafort-enabled Yanukovich. Even the famed Klitschko, a gym regular who bantered with me during workouts, could not help save it. Owner/manager Iryna explained how raiding works: “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…. 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.”

These players, part of a tightknit, dirtily together network whose members snake through business, politics, and the ruling government, have counterparts in Trump’s circle of enablers. Consider Rick Perry. He resigned last fall as Secretary of Energy after emerging at the epicenter of Congress’s impeachment probe into the president’s twisting of foreign policy to try to stain rival Joe Biden. 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 Biden and his son, Hunter. Hunter’s service on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s biggest producer of national gas, is ethically challenging, but certainly not equivalent to subverting U.S. government policy toward a crucial ally in search of a partisan smoking gun.

Such overlapping of partisan politics and business with government agendas permits a new standard of state capture by industry of U.S. government agencies, from energy to education to finance. At Energy, Perry slanted the administration’s policy to benefit coal companies. 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, the object of numerous allegations of fraud and lawsuits from former students.

Republicans and Democrats alike have supported the erosion of impartiality in government that has made possible this flagrant fusing of official and private interests. Decades of advancing state capture and contracting out to the private sector of large swaths of government work in areas including homeland security, intelligence, military, and technology are key culprits. The civil service, too, has been undermined and diplomacy sidelined. If not for the steady corrosion of government impartiality, could President Trump have taken such a wrecking ball to government: starving it by not filling numerous jobs; slashing budgets; driving diplomats away in droves; and privatizing parts of national parks by authorizing mining and drilling operations? On October 22 he issued the most piercing attack on the civil service in living memory: a sweeping order that will eliminate job protections for many civil servants and appears designed to politicize policy decisions. Executive power is the clear victor: Trump has swelled the number of executive orders, on the rise since Ronald Reagan, making end runs around Congress. And he has appointed a slew of “temporary” agency heads and cabinet officials, thus circumventing the confirmation process and sideswiping the Senate’s role in checking presidential appointment power. Despite this carnage, none of these targets of attack are wholly new with Trump.

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 errand boy; and weaponizing the police and security forces for partisan ends. In Washington this summer, it seemed 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.

The result is that government is more and more poised to serve politicians, not the public — a state of affairs that will not simply evaporate when Trump leaves office.

Selling Out Signature Institutions

Can civic institutions provide a counterweight? For well over a decade, I have charted how bedrock institutions of 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.

National security, too, is often sold to the highest bidder. Scores of A-list former politicians work on behalf of foreign politicians and regimes without recording that fact with the U.S. Justice Department, as the law requires. That’s why rogue dictators and oligarch-kleptocrats seeking to launder their images have enjoyed such success. Harvard, MIT, and most recently, the august Council on Foreign Relations, have each eagerly accepted millions of dollars from Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born American who partnered with oligarchs and organized crime icons doing Putin’s bidding, and whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned for employing their assets to further “worldwide malign activity,” including intrusion in the 2016 elections.

And today few seem to blink when respected leaders and former top officials use their good reputations for profit, even working for criminal figures 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 Dimitro Firtash. He’s an organized crime figure and oligarch so embedded in Russian politics that he fled Ukraine with Yanukovich in the 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.

Is it any wonder that Americans’ trust in public institutions and leaders has plummeted in recent years, as in Ukraine?

Lesson from Ukraine?

If our leaders decline to defend our democracy, it makes it all the more imperative that we as citizens must do so. Might we have something to learn from the Sofiyskiy owners? The raid spurred Iryna to political action. Despite the election of a new president last year, her expectations for reform have not been met, she told me, and she has banded together with hundreds of others to form the Financial Maidan, an NGO working for change.

In the United States it is tempting to anticipate a Biden presidency with the expectation of relief: to once again have a sane leader who follows scientific advice, doesn’t fire people via Twitter, flout time-honored norms, and tell more lies than truth. That would indeed be a lot. But our new normal of rogue government did not appear from the ether. Having a different president won’t miraculously change this. No matter what happens on Election Day (and after), we, too, must take robust action to reclaim our institutions, starting with government. Elites and the monied class also must grasp that in the long run systemic ethical compromises will defeat everyone, including themselves. Otherwise, the reforms necessary to reverse decades of damage to our democracy may be as likely as me winning a pole dancing contest.

— Janine R. Wedel is University Professor at George Mason University and author of Unaccountable: How the Establishment Corrupted Our Finances, Freedom, and Politics and Created an Outsider Class.

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Janine R. Wedel is University Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

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