Pandora papers cast doubt upon ex-Tory minister’s claim that he was not paid by Kazakh government for flattering biography
Jonathan Aitken flew from London to Washington in April 2010. Former Conservative MP and minister, who was famously imprisoned for lying, was visiting the US to launch his new book, a flattering biography about Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazabayev. He said to a crowd of diplomats and senators that biographers were artists under oath. He said, “They like painting on large canvas.” He also added, “I have never seen a more dramatic or turbulent canvas than Nazarbayev’s life story.”
Aitken’s speech to the Library of Congress was incomplete because it failed to mention a crucial point: A Kazakh PR company appears to have secretly commissioned his book and paid for it. According to the Pandora papers leaks, Aitken received PS166,000 for his literary endeavors. The money was sent via Hong Kong and to the British Virgin Islands, and then discreetly to Oxford by Aitken Consultancy & Research Services Limited, the ex-MP.
According to documents, WorldPR also paid the bill for Aitken’s overseas book tour. The Capital Hilton was where he stayed, just two blocks from the White House. The leak shows that Aitken’s receipt for $1,527 (PS1,117), which lists three nights of accommodation, laundry, and a meal at the bar and grill as well as Twigs restaurant and high-speed Internet access, is worth $1,527. The Library of Congress was paid $6,996 by the PR company for venue hire. Later, the Kazakh Embassy funded a speaking engagement at New York’s Harvard Club.
Ironically, Aitken’s political life came to an abrupt and troublesome halt in 1996 when he lied before the high court about who paid for similar stays at Paris’ Ritz hotel. It was not a central Asian dictator, but the son of the King of Saudi Arabia. Aitken was sued after revelations in The Guardian and the program World in Action that Aitken had been a glorified fixer since the 1970s.
This is embarrassing news for Aitken who claimed that he has come out of a seven-month sentence in prison after being convicted of perjury in his libel case against the Guardian. The newspaper refuted Aitken’s false claim that Lolicia, his wife, had paid the Paris bill. Aitken’s memoir Pride and Perjury was published after his release. He confessed that he had rediscovered his Christian faith while in prison and became a priest three years later. This is the latest chapter in the story of a talented but flawed man who once aspired for the role of prime minister.
Aitken is still a prominent public figure. He was ordained by St Paul’s Cathedral. Since then, he has been serving as an unpaid prison chaplaincy attached to a Westminster parish. He was a member on the Conservative party taskforce for prison reform, and has also served as a trustee of several criminal justice charities. He has spoken at religious meetings as well as at the House of Commons. Before he was made a reverend, he stated that he had a difficult time tempering his enthusiasm with Christian humility.
Aitken thanked Kazakh foreign ministers in the acknowledgments to his book, Nazarbayev, the Making of Kazakhstan: Capitalism to Communism. He said that the Kazakh foreign ministry had paid for his hotels at Astana and Almaty. Reuters also reported that Aitken claimed he had not received any payment from the Kazakh government, a claim now appearing to be misleading.
Jonathan Aitken says that biographers are artists under oath.
Aitken said that Nazarbayev, a charismatic and compassionate leader who built a strong economy and eliminated Soviet-era nuclear weapons from his country, was Nazarbayev.
The critics were not convinced. The Guardian called the biography “a fascinating, well-planned snow job: quite possibly the most hagiography of this year.” The London Review of Books also condemned the biography, stating that its flattery was “from the banal and the cringing.” All noted that the book glossed over Nazarbayev’s autocratic behavior and intolerance for dissent. Amnesty International observed that torture by his security forces was widespread, and carried out “with impunity”.
The documents show that the payments below-the-table were made by WorldPR. This firm was run by Patrick Robertson, Aitken’s former press advisor. Robertson is Kazakhstan’s honorary consul in the Bahamas. According to its website, WorldPR “has worked for numerous Kazakhstan government departments and agencies” since 2004. Other clients include Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, and Azerbaijan (another oil-rich postSoviet state that persecuted opponents while also running a campaign called “Global Britain”.
According to leaked documents, WorldPR purchased 3,000 copies of Aitken’s book from publisher Continuum. This is now part of the Bloomsbury Group. The cost was PS30,000. The biography was sold in total 466 copies. These were purchased by the public at bookshops and online. Robertson spent $96,000 on Russian media consultancy services and paid $116,000 to a Moscow publisher to translate Aitken’s follow-up book, Kazakhstan & Twenty Years of Independence. The deal included 10,000 copies in Russian and a media launch.
Robertson, a passionate Brexiter, lives in St Moritz (Switzerland). As a student at Oxford, he established the Bruges Group, a rightwing thinktank whose members and advisers included a number of prominent Tories including Margaret Thatcher. Robertson was still friends with Thatcher. His offshore records show that Robertson sent Thatcher a PS100 bouquet of flowers in 2011.
The controversy surrounding WorldPR’s “strategic communication” activities has been widespread. According to Tom Burgis’ book Kleptopia, Robertson was involved in a “black PR campaign” against Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh businessman. The book claims that this included “covert operations”, an elaborate plan for cyber-assaults and general media manipulation. Robertson also claimed that Ablyazov sent him abusive texts.
According to the Pandora documents, Aitken may have received his covert payments for book projects between 2007 and 2010. A bill dated April 2009 by Aitken’s company to WorldPR for PS33333 was marked “agreed last instalment fee for the book project”. It is not clear if the cash will cover one or both Aitken’s Kazakhstan titles. WorldPR is registered in Panama and based in Hong Kong. Fidelity Corporate Services, an off-shore management company in British Virgin Islands, managed its financial accounts. They are a few hundred pages long.
These files provide a glimpse into Robertson’s method. He set up Sovereign PR in 2011 to manage a lucrative contract with Socar, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company. Robertson devised a plan for his client. Robertson created a plan of action for his client. He also commissioned two books about the Nagorno–Karabakh region, which was claimed by Azerbaijan.
Aitken received a medal for his biographical work. Erlan Idrissov (Kazakh ambassador to the UK), presented Aitken with a government award in 2017. Idrissov stated that it was in recognition of Aitken’s contributions to the country’s international reputation.