The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
Of all the days he could get sick, this was the worst possible day. Eugene Gourevitch, once Kyrgyzstan’s premier financier and confidant of the ruling family, was now a wanted man.
It was the spring of 2010, and the corrupt government of this small Central Asian nation had just fallen in a bloody uprising. Ironically, that government itself was a rotten product of an earlier coup, the optimistically misnamed Tulip Revolution of 2005. While political tumult rocked the country from within, Kyrgyzstan assumed an outsize role on the international stage. The war in nearby Afghanistan prompted Washington to set up a military base next to Kyrgyzstan’s main airport. The American encroachment worried Moscow, Kyrgyzstan’s old imperial patron that maintained a base of its own there. And neighboring China was also concerned about the expansion of American influence so close to its borders.
None of this mattered much to Gourevitch. His head swayed from side to side as he struggled to stay awake in the backseat of a car smuggling him out of Kyrgyzstan. Gourevitch was so ill that he didn’t even notice when the car rattled across the border into neighboring Kazakhstan. At least, that is where he hoped he was headed. He had to trust his escorts, a pair of shadowy Chechen operatives who had made him a simple offer: They would smuggle him out of the country, but it was going to cost him. Exactly how much would be determined later. Gourevitch wasn’t in a position to haggle. He had to save himself from the revolutionaries who were on the prowl for the former regime’s associates, particularly those with knowledge of financial operations of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his entourage. And Gourevitch was at the top of that list.
Barely two months earlier, Gourevitch had been living a very nice life. Rolling in cash and connections, he was the very picture of a high-flying investment banker. A fawning television interview from those days showed a confident Gourevitch dressed in a dark blue suit, a radiant yellow tie, and matching cufflinks. On camera, he dismissed rumblings about the nature of his Kyrgyz breakout as “envy of our success.”
The first crack in his reputation appeared in March 2010, a month before the revolution. After years of sifting through complex financial transactions, prosecutors in Italy brought criminal charges against dozens of suspects in an audacious scheme that had allegedly bilked the Italian Treasury out of hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent tax refunds. Gourevitch was among those charged in the Italian case. Kyrgyzstan’s opposition had a field day. For years, there had been unconfirmed rumors about the financial shenanigans of the Bakiyev regime. And now, for the first time, one could pin them on a man. And what a convenient man it was: a Soviet-Jewish immigrant to the United States, a confidant of the president’s son, and now an indicted associate of the Italian mafia. Still in his early 30s, Gourevitch had already amassed an interesting resume that included, among other things, a stressful stint in African finance. By his own admission, he was drawn to unconventional business projects. One of his many projects in Kyrgyzstan was managing the country’s $300 million development fund.
Now, following the ouster of the Bakiyev regime, Gourevitch found himself with a target on his back. He took his wife and daughter and fled. Their gated community had become a target for vigilantes looking for the associates of the former regime. Through his guards, Gourevitch arranged to rent an apartment in Bishkek where his family was now hiding. When Gourevitch and his wife made a quick trip to their old rented house to pick up some clothes, family albums, and other personal effects, they were greeted by the owner, who, shotgun in hand, told them to get lost and never come back. “It’s funny today to even talk about these things, but someone out there in Bishkek is wearing my suits and ties,” Gourevitch told me.
OUT OF ALMATY
Gourevitch had bigger things to worry about than missing clothes. He needed to get out of Kyrgyzstan. It would be far easier for his wife and daughter to sneak out because their names were unlikely to be on any major international black lists. So Gourevitch paid someone $20,000 to chaperone them through the official Kyrgyz-Kazakh border crossing, where their U.S. passports were stamped and they were safely on their way to Almaty and then to New York.
Gourevitch couldn’t travel with them. On top of the Kyrgyz manhunt, he was also the subject of an Interpol “red notice” seeking his arrest and extradition on the Italian charges. Having gotten his family out, he spent four days pacing around his rented Bishkek apartment pondering how to escape from the country where he’d been a chauffeured princeling only two months earlier. This is where the mysterious Chechens found him. Gourevitch suspects they were tipped off by his old security detail. The good thing about the Chechens was they had no ulterior motives, no political vendettas, and no righteous fury about Gourevitch’s past. They were interested only in his money. That was also the bad thing about the Chechens.
So off to Kazakhstan they went, using smugglers’ trails that avoided any official checkpoints. Once they reached Almaty, Gourevitch was presented with the bill: $20 million. Still running a high fever, Gourevitch thought he was hearing things. But the Chechens weren’t kidding. “They wanted $20 million, otherwise they would kill me,” Gourevitch said. It took all his powers of persuasion to get the Chechens to settle for less. Despite claims about his fantastical wealth, Gourevitch maintained that he was not that rich. His real payoff, he told me, would have come with the initial public offering of Asia Universal Bank (AUB), the country’s premier financial institution. Over the previous few years, the bank had grown from an obscure startup into a major international money-laundering operation that directly benefited Bakiyev’s entourage, according to Kyrgyz investigators. Although the bank’s owner denied the charges, the new government wasted no time in dismantling and nationalizing it. The initial public offering, of course, was off the table.
Gourevitch told the Chechens that all he had was $600,000 in an AUB bank account -- all of which was now worthless. Gourevitch also had a brokerage account in another bank with $400,000 in it. The Chechens made him call his banker to confirm that figure while they listened in. They took all of it and Gourevitch’s passport, and let him go.
Stranded in Almaty without documents or money, Gourevitch went where traveling Americans in trouble have gone before: the U.S. consulate. In consultation with his American lawyer, Gourevitch concocted a complicated plan: He would surrender to U.S. law enforcement on the Italian arrest warrant and be extradited to America so he could deal with his legal issues from there. In effect, Gourevitch wanted to use his Italian legal problems as a ticket out of his Kyrgyz legal problems, wisely judging the latter to be far graver to his health and safety. “I wasn’t expecting (the United States) to send a helicopter or a plane for me, but I was expecting something,” Gourevitch said. “If a wanted criminal comes to surrender to his home country, I thought they would make arrangements to take me to the States.” But the Americans, he told me, weren’t interested. Instead, they issued him a new passport and sent him on his way. (Citing privacy reasons, the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan declined to comment on his case other than to say that Gourevitch had paid a single very brief visit to the consulate.)
Money was also an issue. The Chechens had cleaned him out. So for the moment, Gourevitch was broke, an unusual condition for him. Help eventually materialized from an old friend, Maxim Bakiyev, the youngest son of the deposed president and now also a fugitive. After a brief sojourn in the United States and other international travels, Maxim had flown into Britain and applied for political asylum there. He was granted permission to stay while British authorities evaluated his application. Maxim accused Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders of trying “to make me a scapegoat for the chaos in the country”, and then faded from public view.
As ruthless as he was toward his enemies, Maxim could also be loyal to those he deemed useful, and Gourevitch assumed he fell into that category. As it would soon become clear, Maxim did have very lucrative reasons to keep Gourevitch safe and free, so he spirited him out of Kazakhstan. The destination was Belarus, the same reclusive European dictatorship where his father, the ousted President Bakiyev, had already settled.
BACK IN THE USA
Why was the Belorussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko so welcoming to the Bakiyev clan? One reason was dictatorial solidarity. For years, the oddball president of Belarus faced a disorganized but persistent opposition movement at home. He jailed a few opponents, sent others packing into exile, and mocked all as foreign puppets. He anointed his eight-year-old son as his successor and dressed him in military fatigues and tailored civilian suits. In 2002, he ordered the construction of a monstrous, glass-encased structure rising high above the drab landscape of eastern Minsk. Shaped like a multifaceted diamond, the structure glows in the dark with a shifting pattern of lights. It houses the national library. Wags joke that, in reality, it is a spaceship ready to blast off in an emergency and take Lukashenko and his armed miniature sidekick back home to whichever alien universe spawned them.
While still stranded on Earth, Lukashenko has reveled in being the enfant terrible of Europe and couldn’t miss a chance to snub his nose at his foreign critics. Inviting an ousted foreign dictator resented elsewhere to come stay in Belarus must have felt great for the mercurial Lukashenko. Besides, Gourevitch added, “Lukashenko understood that the Bakiyevs wouldn’t just live there but would make investments there.” Local media reported that Bakiyev purchased an opulent house for $2 million on the outskirts of Minsk, where he lived with a young Kyrgyz woman, his unofficial second wife.
Landing in Minsk, Gourevitch fell off the international law-enforcement grid. He once attended a birthday party for the former Kyrgyz president, who appeared to be in a good mood. But Gourevitch didn’t want to be a fugitive for the rest of his life. He wanted to deal with the Italian charges, perhaps enter a plea bargain, and even do time if absolutely necessary. It was the Kyrgyz prosecution that he wished to avoid. Eventually, Gourevitch told me, he and his lawyer persuaded the Italians to allow the disgraced financier to return to New York and resume negotiating the eventual terms of his Italian punishment.
As he awaited the resolution of the Italian case, Gourevitch drifted through life without fixed employment. “I’m not going to be able to go out and get a job with my track record, but thankfully there are other things I can do. I’m trading a bit for pocket money,” he told me. Occasional photos he posted on Twitter of palm trees and ocean scenes suggested he wasn’t starving.
I asked Gourevitch if he had any regrets about what he’d done in Kyrgyzstan, and the question made him think for a moment before answering. “The opportunities I saw there were beyond anything I’d imagined in my life,” he finally said. “And I think I lost perspective in certain ways in certain things that I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done.” He paused to defend his track record, suggesting that when all the bad were subtracted from all the good, there would still be a “net positive” for Kyrgyzstan.
At the time, I had no way of knowing that this man in a furry sweater sipping a cappuccino was spinning yet another conspiracy that was impressive even by the high standards one has come to expect of a Gourevitch venture. In early September 2011, investigators at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) noticed that something strange was happening to the shares of Global Industries, Ltd., a small Louisiana company building offshore oil rigs and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. One day that month, someone working through a brokerage account at an Austrian bank scooped up $1.5 million in Global shares, accounting for about one-tenth of the company’s entire trading volume on the Nasdaq exchange. The same buyer came back for more the next morning, purchasing another $2 million of Global’s stock, again about one-tenth of the daily volume.
The mystery buyer clearly knew something that the rest of the market did not, a piece of intelligence that was poised to lift Global’s shares out of small-cap obscurity and make them much more valuable. The suspense lasted for three days until a French firm announced its acquisition of Global Industries at a steep premium to its share price. The mystery buyer promptly sold Global stock at a profit of $1.7 million. The trades carried the fingerprints of a classic insider-trading scheme, but the SEC sleuths couldn’t identify the ultimate beneficiary. They did manage to freeze the proceeds of the final stock dump, rendering the profit illusory.
In London, Maxim Bakiyev was furious, for it was his money. And it was Gourevitch placing the bets, based on insider tips purchased from a British broker with good connections but with apparent financial difficulties. The reason we know all this is that Gourevitch was secretly recording his conversations with the broker for the benefit of the FBI. Starting in late 2011, the besieged financier had become a confidential FBI informant, helping the U.S. government build a criminal case against Maxim and the hapless broker, according to U.S. court documents.
How did the FBI get Gourevitch to talk? While Gourevitch was lying low in Belarus, decompressing after his escape from Kyrgyzstan and exploring his next venture, a U.S. judge issued a warrant for his arrest. That made Gourevitch a wanted man in three countries: in Italy, on charges of money laundering; in Kyrgyzstan, on charges of fraud and embezzlement; and now in the United States, on charges of extortion. U.S. investigators alleged that sometime during his stint in Kyrgyzstan’s world of high finance, Gourevitch had conducted an extortion conspiracy. Its target wasn’t specified in the court document I saw, but given U.S. law enforcement’s interest in the matter, it probably involved a U.S.-linked company or an individual. The charges appeared serious enough for Gourevitch to seek leniency by giving up Maxim.
Cooling his heels in London after the revolution that ended his family’s grip on Kyrgyzstan, Maxim had not wasted any time in trying to multiply his fortune. Through a shell company registered in New Zealand, he set up a Latvian bank account stuffed with $45 million worth of securities, according to U.S. court documents. With Maxim’s blessing, Gourevitch used the account for insider trading, applying “edge” information furnished by Tayyib Ali Munir, the London broker, who gleaned his investing tips from a network of well-connected sources, including a former director of the New York Stock Exchange.
The tips weren’t always solid. In 2011, Gourevitch and Maxim plowed $9 million into the shares of Intermune, a small U.S. biotechnology firm, following Munir’s tip that it would soon be acquired by a large pharmaceutical company interested in its patents. As months dragged on and no merger took place, Gourevitch and Maxim found themselves sitting on a pile of shares rapidly losing value. By contrast, the tip-off about the forthcoming takeover of Global Industries proved accurate. But Gourevitch and Maxim botched a perfect insider trade by letting greed cloud their judgment and buying so many shares that the SEC took notice and froze the transactions.
Since Gourevitch was broadcasting the whole scheme in real time straight to the FBI, Munir was arrested and charged with insider trading. He pleaded guilty in October 2012. Not much is publicly known about Munir. His lawyer told me he’s “just a little guy,” although he appears to have gold-plated social connections. That same October, Maxim was arrested in London on a U.S. warrant seeking his extradition to the United States on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Months later, U.S. prosecutors quietly dropped the charges against Maxim. Although no official reason was ever given, there have been reports of problems with the evidence in the case. The U.S. decision not to prosecute Maxim infuriated Kyrgyzstan’s new government, which accused him of fleecing the country on his father’s watch.
Lately, Kyrgyzstan’s political rollercoaster has seemed to slow down a bit. Although the 2010 revolution was followed by a spasm of inter-ethnic violence, and there are occasional street protests aimed at this or that perceived injustice, there have been no further revolutions. And with the Afghan war drawing to an end, Washington deemed the acrimony over its base in Kyrgyzstan to be not worth all the hassle any longer. In a few months, the base will be closed, and some of its operations will be moved to Romania.
I last heard from Gourevitch in October of 2013. He was out on house arrest in Italy, still grappling with an old tax-fraud case that first gave him international notoriety. Gourevitch was still hoping to reach a plea bargain with the Italians and travel to the United States to deal with an unspecified subpoena. At its core, his story shows how business is done in many corners of the post-Soviet, world where rapacious hangers-on seek access to global finance and make use of intermediaries and offshore companies. Gourevitch himself says he’s been turned into a scapegoat for sins not of his own making; and despite all the legal hounding, he’s still able to joke about it. Until recently, his Twitter profile read: “Former banker. Trader. Atheist. Family man. Born to spread misery vicariously and viscerally. Kyrgyzstan's Most Wanted. Not even remotely gangsta.”
Adapted from Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia by Philip Shishkin, published by Yale University Press. Copyright c 2013 by Philip Shishkin. Used by permission of the publisher.