Big Saturday Read: Kompromat: Why the Mohadi case must worry both allies & opponents
Alex T. Magaisa
Back in 1999, Russia’s prosecutor general was a man called Yuri Skuratov. He was launching an investigation into government corruption when things literally fell apart. His world came crashing down one night when a video of a man having a sexual encounter with two younger women was broadcast on state television.
The head of the Russian intelligence service (FSB) at the time confirmed that the man in the scandalous video was Skuratov. The head of the FSB was Vladimir Putin. He was soon elevated to the office of Prime Minister during the last days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. A short while later Putin became the President, an office he still occupies.
Skuratov was a victim of what Russians call kompromat. In her book How Russia Really Works, leading Russian scholar Elena Ledeneva says the nearest English equivalent for the term is “compromising material” which refers to “discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, or business.”
As a strategy, it involves hoovering dirt concerning a person of interest in the hope that it might be useful at some point. If it is not useful to the collector, it might be handy to another person who is willing to pay for it. In short, it is the weaponization of toxic information concerning an individual or entity to achieve a political or business objective.
An old strategy
According to Russian experts, kompromat is an old strategy dating back to the years of the Soviet Union which continues to be used in various sectors including politics, business, and even international diplomacy. In 2009, a British diplomat was recalled from Russia after a scandalous video of him with two sex workers was published on the internet. In business, it is used as leverage in deal negotiations. But it is in politics where its use has been most prominent, as in the case of Skuratov whose career and reputation were left in tatters. The corruption investigation suffered premature death.
Types of kompromat
In her book, Ledeneva explains the different types of kompromat:
· First, it may be information concerning an individual’s political activities. This includes instances where a political office holder has abused his or her office, broken legal rules, and has been disloyal to the leadership.
· The second type is information regarding an individual’s economic activities of the illicit type, such as business dealings, tax evasion, corruption, money laundering, bribery, etc.
· The third type is information on an individual’s criminal activities. They may have been accused of sexual abuse, rape, or even murder but cases were not prosecuted.
· The fourth type is information concerning an individual’s private life and this includes their sexual behaviour. Collectors of kompromat collect information that an individual would want to keep secret, such as an individual’s sexual orientation.
Therefore, in one sense, kompromat is a commodity that is used for bargaining in business and political deals. It can be sold to those who want to use it. It is used as an instrument of “informal persuasion”. In another sense, it is a weapon that is deployed to silence critics and opponents. More generally, it qualifies as an instrument of informal governance, where it is used to control and direct the conduct of public officers, business leaders, and opposition activists.
The case of Yuri Skuratov is a good example where Kompromat was used to shut down an anti-corruption investigation. The use of so-called “honey-traps” where a target is lured into a sexual relationship is an old strategy. In 2010, several Russian opposition activists were secretly recorded after being lured in honey-traps.
Power of the unpublished
Although the effects of kompromat are more visible when it is published, experts argue that it is more effective in unpublished form, when it is a threat. As Ledeneva points out in her book, “Kompromat displays some of its discrediting potential when published, but it is its power in unpublished form that is used for bargaining and is most difficult to scrutinise”. It is powerful in undisclosed form because it is the threat of disclosure that drives the target to comply. At that point, the target feels they have something to lose in the event of a disclosure. This gives them the incentive to comply to avoid disclosure.
Once it has been disclosed, however, its potency expires. While it might achieve its immediate purpose, the advantage of an undisclosed Kompromat is that it can be used again and therefore remains potent. The logic can be summed up as follows: You can achieve big things when kompromat is disclosed, but you can achieve bigger things when it remains a threat. The problem of course is that as Ledeneva points out, it is harder to analyze the use and effects of unpublished kompromat because while it might be suspected, there is no firm evidence. Therefore, it is possible to suspect from the behaviour of a politician that may he or she is a victim of kompromat, but you can never be certain until there is disclosure.
The target of an unpublished kompromat finds himself in a dilemma. Although blackmail is illegal and he might, in theory, report it to law enforcement authorities, two factors stand in the way. First, reporting the matter would simply lead to the disclosure of something that he would prefer to remain secret. He would rather comply with the demands of the kompromat holder than risk disclosure through reporting. Second, reporting the case might be pointless where the holder of the kompromat controls the law enforcement. This is usually the case where the most powerful are the ones who collect kompromat on others.
One might imagine that the kompromat is kept on and for use against the usual enemies. But kompromat is also kept on friends. This is neatly summed up in a quote attributed to Russian journalist Yulina Latynina who is quoted as having said, “To keep Kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep Kompromat on friends is a must”. It’s more important to keep kompromat on friends. One is never sure when it might be handy. Unsurprisingly, a leader will keep kompromat on his subordinates to ensure loyalty and obedience and to discard them when they are no longer useful.
Kompromat on Mohadi
While its contribution to political vocabulary is undoubtedly significant, Kompromat is by no means a uniquely Russian phenomenon. It is a useful concept to examine the application of informal mechanisms of governance that exist parallel to the formal systems. Where a regime relies on Kompromat to dispose of unwanted members, instead of formal methods, it becomes a practice of governance.
The Mohadi case is a classic case of the use of Kompromat in Zimbabwean politics. It is not the first time that Kompromat has been publicly used, but so far it has been deployed against regime enemies and critics. Its deployment against a “friend” and a key member of the establishment represents an ominous sign which does not bode well for the future.
In February 2021, audio telephone recordings of Mohadi speaking to his lovers and arranging to have sexual encounters were published by online news site ZimLive.com. The women that he was allegedly having sexual affairs with were married. They were also his subordinates. Mohadi’s language was raw, aggressive, and embarrassing. In one call, he tells his lover that he has taken two cups of aphrodisiacs to enhance sexual performance. In another, he makes a direct demand for sexual services and because they have no suitable venue, he settles for his office.
Abuse of Power
Apart from the moral questions over his conduct, the awkward conversations suggested abuse of power by a superior over his younger female subordinates. In one call, he refers to one of the married women as his “wife”. She responds to his fervent declarations of “love” with a mere “thank you” or nervous giggles, hardly expressions of harmony and reciprocity. It’s a language of domination, consistent with sexual violence although packaged as a consensual relationship.
If it were a country that takes sexual harassment and abuse more seriously, there would have been a high-level investigation into Mohadi’s conduct. In a situation where one party to a sexual relationship is a powerful principal and the other is a subordinate, consent is hardly a straightforward matter. There is a vast array of literature that explains why victims of sexual abuse in the workplace are driven into silence. However, a cursory review of comments on social media about women suggests much needs to be done to improve public awareness in this area.
One of the big challenges is the prevalence of rape myths in society. Rape myths are defined by scholars Lonsway and Fitzgerald as “attitudes and generally false beliefs about rape that are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women. Rape myths are attitudes and generally false beliefs about rape that are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” Such attitudes make light of sexual abuse and even lead to blame being apportioned to victims of sexual abuse. Society needs to confront this beast of rape myths because they perpetuate a culture of abuse.
That there is no interest in investigating this potential abuse is therefore not surprising. Since this was Kompromat, the fate of the women is of secondary interest to those who were deploying it. In the circumstances, if they were victims of abuse by a powerful man, the women suffered triple-jeopardy, as they were not only shamed but were also instrumentalized as part of Kompromat in an aggressive battle of masculinities. If those who deliberately exposed Mohadi's foul behaviour were interested in justice, they would have been investigating him and asking broader questions whether this is isolated or a reflection of systematic abuse of subordinates by principals in the government. They have no interest in investigating themselves.
Foul deed exposed by foul means
In any event, Mohadi found himself in a scandalous situation. How did this happen? This is a troubling, but important question. Evidently, someone tracked his communications and secretly recorded them. The fact that there are different recordings suggests that this was a systematic operation of a nature that can only be handled by state organs. This was an inside job. That person or group had deliberately channeled the Kompromat to the media via a leak to Zimlive.com. Whoever recorded and leaked the telephone conversations must have been sure that there was no legal risk and that he had the protection of the state.
Naturally, when the recordings landed at Zimlive.com, the editorial team concluded that it was too good a story to be ignored. It is unlikely that any serious journalist would have ignored them. This was a senior public official involved in a serious sex scandal and quite literally, abuse of office given that Zimbabwe’s second in command was using his office for sexual trysts. Those who delivered the Kompromat knew it would be published. That the state which is usually aggressive over publications that embarrass the leadership was mute strengthened the case that this Kompromat had been collected and deployed with superior approval.
The problem for Mohadi was not only that this Kompromat was published but how much more was still unpublished. Zimlive.com did not publish all the scandalous affairs at once. It seems they were being drip-fed by those who held the Kompromat. They probably had more coming. The uncertainty must have caused him great anxiety and anguish. Each day, something new was arriving. The message was clear and unmistakable: resign or we will continue leaking more Kompromat. Fearful that worse was to come, Mohadi threw in the towel. It is notable that when he did, the Kompromat tap stopped running. The problem for Mohadi is that even though he is out of office, he probably fears that his tormentors still have Kompromat on him.
Kompromat and the Archbishop
Mohadi is not the first high-profile victim of kompromat in Zimbabwean politics. In 2007, a prominent critic of the then President Robert Mugabe met a similar fate. Archbishop Pius Ncube of the Roman Catholic Church was a vocal and fearless critic of the Mugabe regime. He had a large local and international audience. His station as a man of cloth amplified his voice which soared above all others and caused the Mugabe regime lots of trouble. One way to get at him was to undermine his credibility and in matters of the heart, the regime identified the towering cleric’s kryptonite.
One night, the state broadcaster, the ZBC broadcast a grainy video of a man in a compromising situation with a woman. It was the Archbishop. The woman was a married member of the congregation. It was an embarrassing episode that wrecked the career and reputation of the top cleric. The regime had gone hard on the man of the cloth, but it achieved its goal: he was silenced. For the Mugabe regime, the silence of the Archbishop meant it had one less powerful critic. The clergyman was the victim of a sting operation carried out by the intelligence agency which had planted cameras in his bedroom under the guise of carrying out some repairs. The fiery priest was a victim of Kompromat.
So, the Mohadi case has precedent. The only difference is that in the cleric’s case, it was Kompromat on an enemy of ZANU PF, while in Mohadi’s case, it was Kompromat on a friend. Mohadi’s friends understood Latynina’s statement both in letter and spirit: “To keep Kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep Kompromat on friends is a must”.
Strengthening Mnangagwa’s Hand
That the Kompromat on Mohadi had approval from the most powerful figures within the regime is evident by the indifferent response to the publication of salacious details. If the regime did not approve of the use of Kompromat, it would have come down hard on the publishers, Zimlive.com. They have come down hard on the private media for far less. That they did not, in a situation where they would normally be expected to show aggression suggests that the Kompromat was released because those at the very top of the establishment wanted it to be disclosed. It was their Kompromat. If Mohadi does not see it, he is deluded.
Secondly, if the authors of the Kompromat were not known or approved by the regime’s establishment, Mnangagwa would have been very worried and he would have taken stronger action to identify the source. If Mohadi was at risk of Kompromat, why wouldn’t he also be at risk from the same sources? Mnangagwa and the entire security establishment would have panicked and thrown the kitchen sink at Zimlive.com to identify the source of the leak. But if you are in control of the Kompromat and its leakage, you have no reason to panic. Instead, it is those around you who must live in fear.
They must be fearful because not only do they now know that there is Kompromat on them but that it can be weaponized against friends. If anything, the use of Kompromat on Mohadi strengthens Mnangagwa’s hand in the party. A dictator from the past, Stalin was known to use Kompromat on his subordinates, especially his heads of secret services. It was a means of control.
Some take the fact that Mohadi remains Mnangagwa’s co-number two in the party even though he has left the government as a sign of goodwill. If Mohadi believes that, he is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. This is just a façade. Mnangagwa knows that Mohadi is powerless. He is just giving him a lollipop to stop him crying while he waits for his next move. If Mnangagwa wanted him to stay, he would not have allowed him to resign. He would have ignored the scandal just like he has pretended there is no scandal over his other Vice President, Chiwenga who is going through an embarrassing divorce and custody battle with his estranged wife, Marry Chiwenga. The way he is treating his wife, including preventing her from seeing their children is callous and unbecoming of a senior leader of the government.
While ZANU PF elites must fear the use of Kompromat against them, it is opposition leaders and critics who are at greater risk. While Mohadi’s was welcomed by citizens and to be fair, the man was beyond the pale, the use of Kompromat presents a serious moral hazard. This type of Kompromat represents the use of the state’s capacity to harvest information through its agencies and to weaponize it to achieve a political objective. The moral hazard is that the lack of resistance to its use might give the impression that it is a legitimate strategy. Where the current political objective is to remove Mohadi, in the future, the objective will be to go after regime opponents and critics and they will be fair game.
If it happens, it won’t be the first time that the ZANU PF regime has deployed Kompromat against opposition leaders. It had a field day in 2012 when opposition leader and former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s affairs were published. There is no denying that this was a setback. Up until the 2013 elections, the opposition party feared that there was more Kompromat in ZANU PF’s arsenal. There were constant rumours that ZANU PF was holding video recordings of salacious encounters. In the end, nothing of that nature was ever published. Maybe they had nothing. Or someone decided to hold back. When former Vice President Joice Mujuru was unceremoniously pushed out of government and ZANU PF in 2014, there also claims by her opponents that there were scandalous videos of her – in this case, it was the former First Lady, Grace Mugabe making a threat of using kompromat against Mujuru.
However, after the Mohadi case, regime opponents and critics should be worried that the regime is not only listening to their private telephone conversations but that it is going a step further to use the information as Kompromat. If the regime is willing to use Kompromat against one of its own, what more for opposition leaders and other regime critics? The regime always could snoop on private communications, but using that information has been frowned upon. The risk is that the use of Kompromat, in this case, has opened the floodgates and there will be more in the future, but this time targeting opponents and critics of the regime.
Repressive regimes know that the most valuable asset of their opponents and critics is their integrity. They, therefore, aim to destroy their integrity. Kompromat is a potent weapon on integrity. The dilemma for the opponents and critics of the regime is that they have no incentive to defend Mohadi but they have cause to worry about the method that was used against him. They want to welcome Mohadi’s downfall but it would be foolhardy to ignore the means that were used to fell him. If the regime had Mohadi’s telephone recordings, how many does it have of opposition leaders, political activists, and critics? This is likely just the start of the public use of kompromat and the opponents of the regime will have to contend with it in the run-up to 2023.
Like his Russian counterpart, Mnangagwa’s background is steeped in the intelligence services. He has no scruples about eavesdropping and using the information to his advantage. It is more likely that there are bigger political targets of Kompromat than Mohadi. And those targets are in the opposition circles. Critics will also have to exercise caution. One type of Kompromat is to fabricate offences against opponents, including planting evidence of embarrassing offences.
Undermining formal institutions
The problem with Kompromat is that it undermines formal institutions. It creates a shadow government consisting of a parallel set of informal practices, controls, and constraints. Such informal systems tend to dominate and weaken formal institutions. Take a situation where there is Kompromat on judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and the police. The entire justice system and the rule of law will become meaningless because these actors cannot perform their roles effectively. Instead, they must dance to the tune of those who might be holding Kompromat on them.
An atmosphere of uncertainty only makes the situation worse because each judge, magistrate, or prosecutor must act as if someone has Kompromat on them and is watching them. The way it works is deceptively simple: if you do not know whether they have Kompromat on you, you must err on the side of caution and do what you reckon is expected of you. Therefore, if you are a magistrate and a political activist appears before your court applying for bail, you do not have to be told by anyone in the system to deny the activist bail. You simply refuse bail because you believe that is what is expected of you, even if applying your reasoning and the law, you should be granting bail. You fear that if you do not comply, kompromat will be used against you. With the way magistrates and prosecutors have been behaving in political cases, there is reason to believe that kompromat is in use.
In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt describe how Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori also used a similar form of blackmail to hijack formal institutions. His intelligence supremo, Vladimiro Montesinos, directed the intelligence service to record political opponents, judges, businessmen, journalists, and legislators engaging in illicit activities such as receiving bribes or patronizing brothels. The video recordings were then used to blackmail them. They would have to comply or the recordings would be published. It was a Peruvian form of Kompromat. The Mohadi case is a reminder that this is probably happening in various sectors which leaves important referees captured.
The case of Kasyanov
The principal purpose of Kompromat, when used against political opponents, is to threaten or damage their reputation and weaken them as a political force. The home of Kompromat provides another classic example. Mikhail Kasyanov was the Prime Minister under Vladimir Putin between 2000 and 2004. He later became a critic and opponent of the Putin regime and was chairman of the opposition party, PARNAS (Party of People’s Freedom).
Just a few months before parliamentary elections in 2016, a grainy video of Kasyanov appeared on Russian national television. He was having a sexual encounter with his personal assistant, Natalia Pelevina. The two were also recorded making remarks disparaging fellow party leaders during that encounter. Kasyanov who was 58 was married and had two children.
This was classic Kompromat against a political opponent. It damaged his reputation and caused serious rifts in the opposition party. According to The Observer newspaper, Kasyanov had been nicknamed “Misha Two Percent” on account of an alleged customary demand for two percent for every deal that he supported. After the grainy video, the paper wrote, he was given a new nickname, “Misha two-centimeters.” It was a serious blow to the opposition’s party’s political fortunes in the elections that followed.
Why have they changed so much?
Understanding the use of Kompromat is important because it may help to explain why some opposition leaders change and begin to behave in ways that do not make sense to their supporters. Suddenly they have lost their ability to criticize the government, even when it continues to violate human rights. It’s as if they have lost their voices. Instead of criticizing the government and holding it to account, they start appeasing it. Some might even begin to speak the opposite of what they used to say when they were in the opposition.
In such circumstances, people wonder whether someone is holding a gun to their head. It’s not a gun. They are probably victims of Kompromat. Remember Kompromat is not just grainy videos of illicit sexual encounters. As Ledeneva described, it is also evidence of economic crimes including fraud, embezzlement, bribery, and corruption. In some countries, they bribe you and secretly film you taking it. But no one can ever know as long as the Kompromat remains unpublished and as long as the target complies with instructions, it will never be known. People can only suspect that there is Kompromat.
The problem, as we have already observed, is that Kompromat is at its most effective when it is unpublished. This means only those who hold the Kompromat and the targets of it know for sure that it is at work. It’s only in rare cases such as the Mohadi matter where we can see Kompromat at work, otherwise the rest of the time, it does its work quietly because it exists as a threat of disclosure, rather than actual disclosure. Many times, we can only speculate that there is Kompromat in play, influencing and shaping behaviour.
“Kompromat is most powerful when it isn’t used, and when its targets aren’t quite clear about how much destructive information there is out there. If everyone sees potential landmines everywhere, it dramatically increases the price for anybody stepping out of line,” wrote journalist Adam Davidson in The New Yorker in July 2018. He was writing about the allegations that Russia held Kompromat on the then President Donald Trump. Americans suspected that the Russians had some hold over Trump, who could not be drawn to utter any serious criticism of Russia or its leader, Putin.
Davidson’s theory was that Trump had engaged in some illegal activities in the past and there were people in Russia who had Kompromat on him. Like everyone else in the Russian system, Trump feared that there was kompromat “may be a lot of it – but he doesn’t know precisely what it is, who has it, or what might set them off”.
It is conceivable that Mohadi found himself in a similar situation, leading to his resignation. Kompromat had been deployed against him by his friends within ZANU PF whose aim was to dispose of him. The problem is he was no longer sure how much more remained out there. The only way to stem the bleed was to do what they wanted, which was to resign. Other senior ZANU PF leaders will be stupid to think that they are safe. The use of kompromat against Mohadi is an ominous sign.
It’s hard to measure how much kompromat is being used because it cannot be known unless it is published and there is no need to publish it if the subject is complying. The strange behaviour of members of the opposition suggests that kompromat may be more common than we imagine. But even those who are still genuinely opposing this regime must watch these events carefully. It is unlikely Mohadi will go alone. The method that was used against him might be deployed against opposition leaders and activists in the run-up to the 2023 elections.