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Russian billionaires bounce right back

Oligarchy is a weekly newsletter tracking how the super rich are changing the world for the rest of us. Also in this edition: what’s next in sanctions on Russia and who launders the reputations of the reputation launderers?

I’ve been spending an enjoyable morning surfing the latest Forbes billionaires list, which is packed full of tidbits on all the wealth creators who do so much to make life worth living (for themselves). It’s unusual for me to be pleased to see the arrival of a new billionaire, but I’ll make an exception for Peter Jackson because the Lord of the Rings films got my family through three consecutive weekends during lockdown, which is just about enough for me to forgive him for the Hobbit trilogy, which we watched over the subsequent three weekends. They were so awful that a 15-minute washing up scene counted as a genuine highlight.

Despite the good news of Jackson’s ascent to what Forbes calls “the three-comma club,” there are 87 fewer billionaires this year than last and those who remain have taken a hit to their wealth.

  • “They’re worth a collective $12.7 trillion, $400 billion less than in 2021. The most dramatic drops have occurred in Russia, where there are 34 fewer billionaires than last year following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Forbes notes.

Well, that’s good. We can pat ourselves on our backs. Sanctions have worked, and Putin’s oligarch chums have suffered for the Kremlin’s misdeeds.

  • “You have to pay for everything in your life. Even for your friendship with the president,” said Gennady Timchenko, in the pull-quote attached to his profile on the Forbes website.

Mr Timchenko is an old friend of Putin’s who made his money as an oil trader, and indeed received a license to export oil from Putin himself back in 1991, when the future president was a mere city official. He has now slumped from being the 78th richest man in the world, to being 173, which is a dramatic demonstration of the might of Western sanctions. 

Or is it? 

As ever, the devil is in the small print. The cut-off point for inclusion in this year’s list was March 11, and a lot has changed since then for anyone with assets denominated in rubles. Timchenko, for example, was down to his last $11.3 billion, but has accumulated almost $8 billion in the last month and bounced right back up again into the top hundred.

And spare a thought for poor Vladimir Lisin, who was the richest Russian on the list when it was published, but is now bumped back into second place by a resurgent Vladimir Potanin. Potanin has seen his wealth increase from $17.3 billion to $26.4 billion in the last month. Or, to put it another way, he’s earned the equivalent of six Peter Jacksons (or just over five Rihannas) in four and a bit weeks.

There might not be quite as many Russian billionaires now as there were last year: 100, compared to 122, by my calculation. But there are already 12 more than there were in March, which means – at this rate – the damage will be fully repaired by summer. So, does this mean sanctions aren’t working? Well, it does show that the Russian efforts to defend the ruble have been superficially effective, but that is only half the story. Sanctions have disrupted trade, and thus caused significant price rises in imported goods.

  • “I used to buy cans of Dutch-made baby formula for 2,500 rubles before Feb. 24,” Marina, a Moscow resident, told Reuters. “Now the same can costs 4,500 rubles while boxes of kasha (a porridge-based drink for children) have gone up to 100 from 64 rubles for a 500-ml box.”

The currency has been largely supported by a government demand that all companies that earn dollars or euros have to exchange 80 percent of them for rubles, which has essentially outsourced market interventions and saved the Central Bank from having to do it. That means the oligarchs are now piling up wealth in rubles, rather than their usually-favored hard currency, which could have all sorts of interesting consequences, not least the fact that – with nothing for anyone to spend all the money on – the ruble is appreciating.

However, since the ruble is now not convertible, it’s hard to see how that translate into Forbes’ traditional estimates of wealth. It’s not like Potanin, Timchenko or any of the other oligarchs can nip over to the United States and buy a stake in a major social media company, for example.

  • “The trick is not establishing capital controls. Everybody can do it,” said Peeter Luikmel, who heads the Bank of Estonia’s monetary policy and foreign economics division. “The trick is to lift them later without significant damage.”

Of course, oligarchs are adapting to the new world of restrictions on their wealth and may not mind the fact they are cut off from their traditional playgrounds. Russia is a huge and beautiful country after all, and I have had some truly wonderful holidays in Siberia, the Caucasus mountains and elsewhere. 

So where should they go when they want some time off? Here’s a primer from Project Brazen on how Vladivostok could well be an acceptable substitute to harbors in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

  • “The good news for the yachts is that the port of Vladivostok is large enough to dock even the longest of yachts. More good news: Thanks to global warming, the port rarely freezes anymore. (Although, for good measure, the port does have ice breakers on hand, should freezing occur.) That’s pretty much where the good news ends,” it notes. 

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE SANCTIONS?

I still haven’t seen any comprehensive explanation from any major Western government concerning what exactly the plan is with the Russian sanctions regime, though there was this interesting snippet from Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer after his meeting with Putin on Monday.

  • “The sanctions will remain and be intensified as long as people keep dying in Ukraine,” he said, which suggests to me that a frozen conflict might be an acceptable outcome for some European leaders.

It’s interesting, however, to look at what happened to the European Union’s sanctions imposed after the Arab Spring, including against the ruling family of Egypt. The Mubarak family retained the U.K. law firm Carter-Ruck, and successfully fought back against the restrictions, with a series of legal victories. The most recent victory, secured on April 6, was that the sanctions were illegal from the very beginning.

  • “My family has suffered enormous reputational harm because of these wholly unlawful designations. We have already received a substantial payment from the EU Council to refund our legal costs as ordered by the Court of Justice. We expect to receive more funds from the EU Council as ordered by the General Court today. Moreover, I have also asked our EU lawyers to explore every possible legal avenue to seek damages from the EU Council as a result of its unlawful measures against my family,” said Gamal Mubarak, son of ex-President Hosni Mubarak, according to the law firm’s press released.

Transparency International estimates that Hosni Mubarak, who died in 2020 aged 91, stole around $70 billion during his time in office, and urged the European Union to create a more robust sanctions regime to prevent successful challenges of this nature from happening in future.

  • “Transparency International calls on the EU to use the upcoming reform of its asset recovery legislation to make it easier to confiscate stolen assets, to share publicly available data on asset recovery efforts and to enable the return of assets to benefit the victims. The Egyptian people suffered the rule of Hosni Mubarak for 30 years – the wealth he stole should now enrich them, not his family who supported the oppression,” said Kinda Hattar, TI’s Middle East and North Africa regional advisor.

There has indeed historically been a real problem with European sanctions falling apart when challenged. Many Ukrainian oligarchs retained lawyers to fight back against the seizure of their European assets after the 2014 revolution, and were often successful. Between 2008 and 2015, the EU lost around two-thirds of the challenges brought against its sanctions designations.

  • “While figures show that the Council is now winning more cases than it is losing, reversing the negative trend witnessed in the first years of litigation, Court challenges are far from over. These challenges impinge upon the international prestige of the EU and cast doubts on its commitment to support UN action,” notes this analysis commissioned for the European Parliament.

WHO WILL LAUNDER THE REPUTATIONS OF THE REPUTATION LAUNDERERS?

This is a very interesting selection of essays from the National Endowment for Democracy on how oligarchs have traditionally rebranded themselves as philanthropists by gifting money to Western institutions.

  • “While much of the focus on combating transnational kleptocracy has centered on money laundering, addressing the vulnerabilities that allow kleptocrats to engage in reputation laundering—the process by which they attempt to distance themselves from the illicit source of their wealth—is critical for combating authoritarian influence and defending the health and viability of democracy,” NED writes.

The authors are some of my favorite anti-klepto-enthusiasts, and I’d recommend taking a look at all of them, including this piece by Tena Prelec, which links the way that universities have become increasingly commercialized, particularly in the English-speaking world, with the willingness of kleptocrats to provide donations in return for positive publicity. This has not only dreadful consequences for the kleptocrats’ home countries, but also causes potential damage to academic freedom: how many universities are going to conduct serious research into the provenance of the the hand that feeds them?

  • “By allowing kleptocrats and their cronies to slip into the background of the global elite, the magic wand of reputation laundering obscures their criminality and allows such exploitation to continue at the expense and cost to citizens around the world,” Prelec writes.

This all threatens to make some of the world’s most prestigious universities look bad. Who will now help them with their reputations? Perhaps some kleptocrats could step up?

WHAT I’M READING

It was an oligarchy reader who first introduced me to the daft delights of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and I have become hooked. So, of course, I have spent some of the last few days reading the latest installment – Amongst Our Weapons – which was released on Thursday. It has nothing at all to do with oligarchy, but is instead about magical law enforcement, an enchanted lamp, a destroying angel, and more fun stuff.

I’m thinking of founding an oligarchy book club, which will be half made up of Deadly Serious texts on Important Economic Issues, and half made up of glorious and silly thrillers which take my mind off the other things I have to think about. 

I will be away on holiday for the next two weeks (so there will be no newsletters. Sorry!), and I will be spending much of the time trying to read the first kind of book but – let’s be honest – probably reading more of the second kind. I’ll see you on the other side.

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.

@OliverBullough