20 years under Putin: a timeline

The recently adopted law prohibiting Russian officials from owning foreign assets has come into force. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, considers its effectiveness and its political consequences.



Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko announced on August 19 that the upper house of the Russian parliament had complied with a new law restricting the right of Russian officials to hold foreign assets. Nine senators who chose business over service in the chamber have resigned, including Andrei Guryev, Andrei Molchanov, Nikolai Olshansky, Dmitri Ananyev, and Sergei Bazhanov, all of whom were included on Forbes’s 2013 list of the world’s richest people. No departing Federation Council members openly attribute their departure to the asset ban. Other senators demonstrated their “patriotism,” according to Matviyenko, by staying in the Federation Council and moving their assets home, where their money can now work for the Russian economy.

Outside the council, politician Anatoly Chubais sold his shares in foreign firms and transferred the proceeds to accounts in Russia, according to the Rosnano press service. He also sold a Swiss management company, SFO Consept AG, that managed his Russian assets. Deputy Communications Minister Denis Sverdlov left his post to become an advisor in the same ministry; it is notable that his wife has foreign accounts. Mikhail Abyzov, head of the Open Government project; business ombudsman Boris Titov; and thirty-nine Duma deputies say they have moved their accounts to Russia.

In the regions, Roman Abramovich responded to the new asset ban by resigning as speaker of the Chukotka parliament, a post he reportedly gave up willingly. Meanwhile, there have been a higher than usual number of divorces by officials, leading many observers to surmise that foreign assets will remain with the divorced spouse. Some officials began the process of moving money home even before the bill was passed: earlier this year, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov transferred his offshore assets from a family trust in the British Virgin Islands back to Russia. According to one recent study, more than $800 billion of offshore wealth belongs to Russian residents, much of it to a tiny elite.

The new legislation bans state officials, their spouses, and their underage children from holding bank accounts abroad or owning foreign-issued stocks and bonds. It covers all officials holding state positions, including the president, most cabinet ministers, members of the board of the Central Bank, top regional officials, and key executives of state-owned corporations. Violating the law can result in dismissal. First proposed by Putin in December 2012, an earlier version of the law would have banned officials from owning any assets abroad, but the parliament softened the bill after elites expressed dissatisfaction with its strictness. Ownership of foreign real estate is now allowed as long as it is declared. It is unclear whether the milder, revised version of the ban is an example of the limits of Putin’s hold over the elites or, alternatively, an instance of a favorite Putin tactic—he may have floated the harsher ban to absorb public criticism so that the final version would not look so burdensome by comparison.

The “nationalization” of assets provides Putin with a means of enforcing the loyalty of the elites, whom he regards with suspicion after the street demonstrations of 2011–2012, which some may have financially supported. (There also are signs that the powerful Alfa Bank is quietly backing Alexei Navalny’s insurgent mayoral bid in Moscow.) If a businessman in public office brings his assets home, that person will be more beholden to the Kremlin and less vulnerable to Western pressure. The unexpected financial crisis in Cyprus, where up to $31 billion of legal and illegal assets had been deposited, strengthened Putin’s argument that Russian money would be better protected in domestic banks.

The “nationalization” of assets provides Putin with a means of enforcing the loyalty of the elites, whom he regards with suspicion after the street demonstrations of 2011–2012.

The policy on assets is also a part of Putin’s broader campaign to strengthen the regime’s positions. Other steps toward this goal include the Kremlin’s efforts to control the Internet, increased pressure on NGOs, the revival of the Popular Front, Putin’s move to distance himself from the ruling United Russia party, and reforms to ballot access procedures. Above all, “de-offshorization” can be seen as the keystone of the Kremlin’s drive against corruption, a widespread popular concern. In a poll conducted by the widely respected Levada Center, 55 percent of respondents said that they perceived parliamentarians to be the wealthiest public officials, with 44 percent calling legislators’ wealth “criminal.” Roughly two-thirds supported stricter controls on officials’ assets, saying that lawmakers should understand “how ordinary people live”.

Despite much work by the Kremlin and the legislature, the current assets law has many loopholes. Its provisions can be circumvented by placing foreign assets in a trust (because beneficiaries can be difficult to determine) or by transferring assets to an offshore company. Moreover, since the ban applies only to bureaucrats, their spouses, and their underage children, someone trying to get around the law can shift his or her assets to adult children. More clever officials can also sell shareholdings with an agreement to buy them back after a certain period of time at a preset price. The Duma is reportedly preparing amendments to close the loopholes, but many experts are skeptical that they will do much good. Pavel Kudyukin of the Higher School of Economics believes that it will be difficult to uncover the existence of foreign bank accounts.

As is often the case in Russia, the ban on foreign assets is likely to be enforced selectively—and rarely against Kremlin loyalists. Former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has so far avoided criminal prosecution, despite massive evidence implicating him in corruption. A July blog post by Navalny alleged that Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin ally, is connected with various offshore property and companies. So far, law enforcement authorities have not looked into Navalny’s charges.

On the other hand, Vitaly Malkin, one of Russia’s richest lawmakers, resigned in March from the Federation Council over documents Navalny had posted that claimed that Malkin held undeclared foreign real estate in Canada and the United States. The previous month, opposition activists forced the resignation of United Russia co-founder Vladimir Pekhtin, who headed the Duma’s Ethics Commission, after uncovering evidence that he co-owned undeclared property worth more than $2 million in Florida. Pekhtin said he left the legislature to deflect blame from United Russia. The opposition saw his departure as a major coup, coining the term “Pekhting” for the practice of launching Internet investigations against officials. But in reality, the departures of Malkin and Pekhtin were likely orchestrated by the Kremlin out of concern that people might side with the opposition unless the Russian leadership was seen to be clearing its ranks.

No matter how inconsistently the foreign assets ban is enforced, the officials’ resignations—and more circumstantial evidence such as the flurry of luxury construction near the Sochi Olympics site—suggest that the new law may be changing the behavior of Russia’s elite. Russia needs something to offer those citizens who are accustomed to vacationing in the world’s most exclusive resorts, noted one commentator. Flamboyant oligarch Alexander Lebedev has noted sarcastically that if Russians can’t go to the West, they can always vacation in Cuba or Belarus, not to mention North Korea.