Nick Kochan in London -
The appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as an adviser to the government of Serbia gives him another toehold in Central and Eastern Europe. Blair’s empire, which reaches into many government offices, continues to expand, as does its balance sheet, which today stands (according to some estimates) around the €150mn mark.
As I disclose in my just-published book, “Blair Inc: The man behind the mask”*, Tony Blair Associates already advises Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, the government of Mongolia and several businessmen, including Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian oligarch. Now he will support Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s campaign to bring Serbia into the EU fold.
But what is the source, and credibility, of Blair’s power? Blair’s key credential is his decade of experience at the helm of the UK government, which culminated in his discredited role in the Iraq war. Blair claims to have modernised the UK, although many would attribute that to Margaret Thatcher. Yet Blair is apparently advising leaders of emerging countries how to manage their cabinets, their political advisers and their parliaments, using a model based on the centralisation of power around the leader and careful management of the delegation of power. Other members of Blair’s team are former colleagues, including his former press official, Alastair Campbell, and his former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.
Blair’s purported capacity to open doors in Western capitals is also attractive to autocratic leaders of the former Soviet bloc looking to win international acceptance. President Nazarbayev has used Blair to initiate a visit by the British PM David Cameron to Kazakhstan.
Blair has five operatives on the ground in Astana, occupying offices in the building of Karim Massimov, the prime minister. Local sources say Massimov has used Blair to persuade Nazarbayev to push through plans to build up Islamic banking in the country. Blair has known Nazarbayev since 2000 and Blair’s writ runs in his office. Blair also introduced Sir Dick Evans, the former head of British Aerospace, to the Kazakh president to run the national airline. Evans has been on the board of Samruk-Kazyna, the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund, since 2006. Kazakhstan pays Tony Blair Associates £8mn a year for his services.
The addition of the Serbian contract suggests Blair’s role in CEE is expanding. But one prop of his empire of consultancies has just been removed. His pro-bono job as representative of the “Middle East Quartet” of Russia, the US, EU and the UN (tasked with channelling investment to the Palestinian territories) was a calling card to enter the highest echelons of Middle Eastern governments. In particular it cemented his position in the United Arab Emirates, where he is a close confidant and paid servant of the ruling family and its sovereign wealth fund Mubadala. It is understood the UAE is funding other Blair contracts including that with Serbia, which also enjoys close ties with the UAE.
Blair’s relationship with Serbia is laden with irony, as he pushed for the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 during the Kosovo war. Serbian PM Vucic was information minister then and is listed as editor of a book titled, “English Gay Fart Tony Blair”. The book was written by Vojislav Seselj, a nationalist politician languishing in a jail in The Hague on suspected war crimes. In fact, Blair has rebuilt his bridges with Serbia and his team have made regular visits to Belgrade, with Campbell giving a lecture there at the end of January.
Rival Serbian politicians say Blair is a “bizarre” choice of adviser to Vucic, given the previous fierce criticism. Borko Stefanovic, leader of the largest opposition group in parliament, said: “How can you say such things about someone and now present him as a key factor in making our government more efficient?”
The Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk funds Blair’s Faith Foundation. The relationship enables Pinchuk to call on Blair to visit his factories as well as give speeches at his conferences. Blair has made numerous visits to the steel mills of Interpipe, Pinchuk’s largest concern. Amid mutual congratulation between the two men, Blair said during one visit, “I have visited a huge number of Great Britain [sic] mills. Interpipe Steel is undoubtedly an outstanding creation.”
Blair’s Faith Foundation also cooperates with The Victor Pinchuk Foundation in educational conferences. The same mutual adulation occurs at conferences organised by Pinchuk at the Black Sea resort of Yalta. The Ukrainian uses these events, and Blair’s presence, to press Ukraine’s case for membership of the EU. That said, observers have commented that Pinchuk was noticeably slow to support the protesters that ultimately removed former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych in 2014.
Pinchuk retains substantial commercial interests with Russia, although these have come under massive strain since the Crimea crisis. Observers in Ukraine have questioned Pinchuk’s ability to continue funding Blair’s operations, as Interpipe experiences growing financial fallout from the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where its factories are located.
The sustainability of Blair’s consultancy businesses has yet to be tested. Privately, leaders say the ex-prime minister recycles other people’s ideas and spends insufficient time in any single national cabinet office or with any leader to make any noticeable difference. What is not in doubt is that Blair has found a recipe to make quick, big money. Who pays and what they get for it will not bother the British showman.
* “Blair Inc: The Man behind the Mask”, by Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan, published by John Blake Publishing.
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