Blacklist
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Blacklist

How Westerners Backed Russian Oligarchs

The Russian tycoons concealed their assets in our backyards

The Russian oligarchs have been going through dark times since the start of the war in Ukraine. Everywhere, especially in the United Kingdom, France and the United States, numerous sanctions have been imposed on those who could not have become rich without the help of the Russian state. But what is not enough discussed in this matter is that these famous oligarchs have seen their assets skyrocket thanks to the help of Western institutions that rolled out the red carpet for them.

London, the Oligarchs’ Sanctuary

London has played a major role in the rising in power of the oligarchs. Since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s reign, the British capital has become the Russian elite’s favorite spot. It is in this metropolis that Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the two most famous auction houses in the world, were founded. These two companies allowed two oligarch brothers, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, to evade taxes and judicial sanctions the U.S. government imposed on them as early as 2014. A backstage operation that was conducted through the art industry and, of course, front companies, the usual trick.

It is also in London that the law firm Tulloch & Co. has set up shop. According to the Pandora Papers, the documents that incriminated hundreds of politicians and members of the business elite for tax avoidance and corruption, Tulloch & Co. structured networks of front companies on behalf of Andrey Vavilov, a former Russian politician, but also of the oligarch Alexander Mamut, as well as of Vitaly Zhogin, a banker wanted in Russia for fraud. Tulloch had arranged for these clients’ assets to be transferred to the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, and the Bahamas.

Swiss Banks in the Front Row

No surprise here: Swiss banks, with their opaque system, have greatly contributed to protecting the oligarchs’ assets. These banks hold up to $213 billion deposited by Russians in offshore accounts, according to the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA). At Credit Suisse, about 4% of these assets, or 33 billion Swiss francs, allegedly belonged to Russians. That institution, it was learned, had asked its investors and business partners to destroy any document relating to the loans offered to the oligarchs for the purchase of yachts and private jets.

It was also known that billions of pounds belonging to the oligarch Alisher Usmanov and his business empire had been deposited in secret accounts at Credit Suisse. Usmanov is under sanctions from the European Union (EU). His sister, Saodat Narzieva, is said to hold or have held at least 27 accounts in the same institution, one of which had a balance of 1.9 billion Swiss francs.

Credit Suisse appears in at least one other case, this time involving Suleyman Kerimov. Kerimov had acquired four prestigious villas in the Cap d’Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur, France, via front companies. One of these properties was worth 127 million euros, but Kerimov reportedly paid only 35 million for it, the rest having been handed over to “intermediaries in the form of kickbacks” through special accounts. The banks that facilitated these fund movements were Credit Suisse, Barclays, and Société Générale Private Banking, in Monaco.

American Companies Step In

It is not only in London and Switzerland that the oligarchs have received help to hide their assets. American institutions also wanted their share of the pie. Among them are Baker McKenzie and Concord Management.

Baker McKenzie, a Chicago-based international business law firm, has helped oligarchs evade taxes by employing shell companies, trusts and complex structures set up in tax havens. Rostec, an arms maker, is among half a dozen state-controlled Russian companies that awarded contracts to Baker McKenzie while facing international sanctions. In fact, Baker McKenzie was involved in more than 440 offshore companies registered in tax havens, according to the Pandora Papers. Nike, RJR Nabisco and Apple are also among its customers.

Concord Management, a financial advisory firm based in New York, has meanwhile allowed Roman Abramovich, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and whose fortune is estimated at $13 billion, to secretly invest in large American hedge funds and private equity firms, again through front companies. In 2015 and 2016, investigators from State Street, a financial services firm, filed suspicious activity reports to alert the U.S. government to transactions that Concord Management carried out on Abramovich’s behalf.

All these companies have enabled the men close to Putin to grow their assets in Western lands. None of them has so far been subject to sanctions.

Sources

Business Standard, France Culture, ICIJ #1, #2, #3, Sénat des États-Unis, The Guardian, The New York Post, The New York Times #1, #2

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