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A Ukrainian Oligarch Bought a Midwestern Factory and Let it Rot. What Was Really Going On?
Politico
Casey Michel
Sunday, October 17, 2021

In recent weeks, the world has learned incredible new details about corruption, illicit financing and money laundering by the super-rich, thanks to the Pandora Papers. The papers are a tranche of nearly 12 million documents, revealed by an international group of journalists, that describe how global elites — from the king of Jordan to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle to an alleged mistress of Vladimir Putin — use shell companies, trusts, real estate, artwork and other financial secrecy tools to squirrel away enormous amounts of money. And much of it is perfectly legal.

Many of the stories in the Pandora Papers follow a playbook that is depressingly familiar at this point: Global heads of state and business elites hide their wealth in pursuits that are emblematic of the super-rich: coveted beachside properties in Malibu, as in the case of the Jordanian monarch, or the Czech prime minister’s $22 million chateau in the south of France, or dozens of pieces of high-value artwork, moved secretly through shell companies by one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families.

But this kind of transnational money laundering, which we’ve come to expect, is only part of the picture. Recently, wealthy elites have begun looking for other places to park their funds, places they think authorities won’t look. Places that offer all the financial secrecy these elites need, but that few would associate with lives of luxury. As a result, shadowy and sometimes ill-gotten wealth has started pouring not just into yachts and vacation homes, but also into blue-collar towns in the U.S. whose economic struggles make them eager to accept the cash.

One of these small towns appears to have been Harvard, Ill., a depressed factory community that allegedly became part of a sprawling network used by Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky to launder hundreds of millions of dollars earned from a Ponzi scheme. Kolomoisky, who was recently hit with U.S. sanctions for “significant corruption” in Ukraine, is separately accused by the Justice Department and Ukrainian investigators of using a constellation of shell companies and offshore bank accounts to move millions in misappropriated funds out of Ukraine and into a series of real-estate investments in the American Midwest. (Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing, claiming he made the investments with his own money.)

The story of Harvard suggests that lax U.S. laws around shell companies and real-estate purchases, in addition to a broader lack of regulatory oversight, may be putting America’s heartland in the crosshairs of elites like Kolomoisky. It’s a reality of global corruption that U.S. lawmakers are only just starting to grapple with: As money-launderers and illicit financiers hide their money in the American Midwest, they’ve become part of the story of the decline of small-town, blue-collar America.

With a population of just under 10,000, Harvard, Ill., is a speck of a town equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee. Like the other towns in the region, you’ve likely never heard of it — and like other towns in the region, Harvard’s best days are decades behind it. But in the late 1990s, the massive telecom company Motorola announced it would be putting a new manufacturing plant in Harvard. Construction began on what would become the largest building not just in Harvard but the entire region: a 1.5-million-square-foot facility, sprawling over 320 acres, part office and part plant, shaped like a giant wishbone. “It’s a huge, huge building,” one local, Ed Soliz, said at the time. “It looks like a small university.” With a $100 million price tag, Motorola said it would require a staggering five thousand employees to operate the facility — to help craft the next generation of Motorola phones and lead the global telecom market into the 21st century.

But within a few years of finishing construction, the bottom had fallen out of Motorola’s business model. Suddenly, the building in Harvard had no purpose. Rather than a testament to Harvard’s future, it was a testament to corporate blinders. And for years it sat there, like a beached whale, waiting.

Then, in 2008 — as the country began tipping fully into the Great Recession — an investor in his early 20s from Miami named Chaim Schochet showed up. Working on behalf of a firm called Optima International, Schochet offered $16.75 million for the empty building. A far cry from the Motorola investment, but more than locals could have hoped for. They happily accepted. Glimmers of potential sprang once more. “Hope burns eternal,” Roger Lehmann, a member of the Harvard Economic Development Corporation, said after the purchase.

At the time, there was no reason to think Schochet and his colleagues were anything but savvy businesspeople, snapping up properties across the Midwest. Optima International was a parent company to a constellation of related firms (including one called “Optima Harvard Facility LLC”). Prosecutors would later dub this the “Optima Family,” with its American operations overseen by two Americans named Mordechai Korf (Schochet’s brother-in-law) and Uri Laber. As the Justice Department alleged in a series of civil forfeiture cases, this “Optima Family” plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into investments in state after state: commercial real estate in Cleveland and Dallas and Louisville, steel factories in West Virginia and Kentucky and Ohio, production plants in Michigan and New York and Indiana. Time and again, these investors swooped in, pledging jobs, revitalization and a lifeline for towns watching their economic lifebloods dry up.

In just a few years, the “Optima Family” collected over a dozen mills, plants and other facilities across the American heartland. All of them had fallen victim to America’s yearslong manufacturing slump, part of the broader deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. All of them were eager for any injection of financing they could get, and for any promise of a brighter future. And, according to prosecutors, these purchases were all directly connected to a powerful steel and banking tycoon in Ukraine who was buying American properties to hide stolen money.

Shortly after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, investigators in the country alleged that Ihor Kolomoisky was secretly overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world had ever seen, totaling at least $5.5 billion. Legal filings from American prosecutors last year detailed how Kolomoisky allegedly used his control of Ukraine’s largest retail bank, PrivatBank, to loot staggering sums from Ukrainian depositors, and then used a series of shell companies and offshore accounts to whisk the money out of the country and into the U.S.

The idea seems to have been to purchase troubled assets that American sellers were eager to offload. Even if the buyers ultimately took a loss, the assets were still outside the grasp of Ukrainian investigators and could still act as vehicles through which to funnel money. Perhaps most importantly, the properties could be bought without much inquiry into the source of the monies: For two decades, American real-estate professionals have benefited from a “temporary” exemption to anti-money laundering laws, allowing them to avoid performing due diligence on the customer making the purchase.

In subsequent efforts to seize the operation’s assets, American prosecutors laid out a theory that much of Kolomoisky’s operation was overseen by Laber and Korf, who “created a web of entities, usually under some variation of the name ‘Optima,’ to further launder the misappropriated funds and invest them” across multiple states. According to the DOJ, the funds lifted from PrivatBank bounced through a number of shell companies and offshore accounts, before being injected into the Optima network, and from there into assets around the American Midwest. And all of this took place while Kolomoisky — now sanctioned by the U.S. for what the State Department calls “significant corruption” and “ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes” — grew his power and wealth within Ukraine itself, creating a gargantuan private militia and reportedly manipulating elected officials along the way.

The details gathered by U.S. and Ukrainian investigators and laid out in DOJ filings and court cases around the world, from Delaware to the UK to Israel, comprise what one analyst said might be “the biggest case of money laundering in history.”

Kolomoisky says he bought the American properties with his own money, denying the Justice Department’s allegations about laundering ill-gotten funds. Neither he nor his American associates (who also deny wrongdoing) have been named in any criminal complaints. Reached for comment prior to publication of this article, an attorney for Korf and Laber responded, “Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber have never engaged in money laundering of any kind, and they have no knowledge of anyone else doing so. Any allegations against Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber arise from Ukrainian political disputes they have nothing to do with.” Kolomoisky and Schochet, the Miami investor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Schochet has not been targeted by name in the government filings, and the government has not suggested he is personally a target of their investigations. But the DOJ complaint notes that the Harvard plant purchase was part of the sprawling Optima laundering scheme (including fraudulent loans used to purchase the plant in the first place). The investigators describe how, using investments in steel mills, skyscrapers and industrial plants across the Midwest and Rust Belt, Kolomoisky could take full advantage of America’s permissive climate for money laundering — all, apparently, to help clean the proceeds of his massive Ukrainian Ponzi scheme.

After Schochet finalized the purchase in Harvard, locals say they saw little of him. “Chaim wasn’t around much,” Charlie Eldredge, head of the Harvard Economic Development corporation, told me. “I would see him once a year, once every other year…. Clearly it wasn’t the focus of their interest.” He added that it quickly became clear the Optima network “didn’t really have any real plans [about] what to do with the facility.”

More than five years after the purchase, no jobs had returned and no further investments emerged. Unpaid property taxes kept accumulating, starving the strapped local government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2016, Optima sold the building at a $7 million loss to a Chinese Canadian businessperson. Years of neglect by various owners began to take a toll: Soon, the factory went dark entirely. With a half-million-dollar tab in unpaid electricity bills, the juice was cut off, forcing local officials to visit with flashlights. “It’s just heartbreaking to see that beautiful place sitting vacant,” the McHenry County treasurer said in 2018.

Along the way, the massive building itself — its factory and fitness center, its child care rooms and 500-seat auditorium, even its pair of heliports — continued a slow march toward implosion. Mold began creeping along the walls and roof, into the pipes, into the recesses of the building. The factory’s entire fire suppressant system, including over 20,000 sprinkler heads, began falling apart. “The mechanical [equipment] all needs to be replaced,” Mayor Michael Kelly said. “The roof leaks. No one’s really taking care of it.”

“The building won’t just be valueless — it will be a catastrophe for the town, because it will have to be demolished,” Eldredge told me in 2020. “And the net cost for that, after salvage, is probably three to five times the city’s annual budget. It will be a financial catastrophe.” He paused, pondering the implication: This hundred-million-dollar promise to a small outpost in northern Illinois ended up with a foreign oligarch apparently using it to hide his money from investigators. (The building was sold just last month to a group of developers from Las Vegas for an undisclosed amount.)

Harvard is hardly the only American town that saw Optima swoop in, making big promises that ended in disappointment. In Warren, Ohio, a steel plant purchased by Kolomoisky’s network had so many safety issues that several explosions occurred onsite, with employees repeatedly ending up in hospitals. Other plants and factories have ended up gutted and shuttered, laying off hundreds of American workers. One 70-year-old plant in Kentucky, after shutting its furnaces and tossing its employees to the curb, reportedly even refashioned itself as a Bitcoin-mining operation — without bothering to bring any of the jobs back.

Over and over, Kolomoisky’s team showed up, purchased the properties and seemingly lost interest — leaving broken dreams, busted plants and bleeding economies in their wake. As Harvard’s Eldredge told me, “I think there’s certainly a good many citizens who feel it’s better the building had never been built.”

As it turns out, the decrepit Harvard plant had another chance to avoid falling into disrepair. But the story of how that opportunity collapsed suggests just how deeply kleptocratic networks have become embedded into the American economy. In 2016 — just as Ukrainian officials began investigating the depths of Kolomoisky’s alleged Ponzi scheme — the oligarch and his team somehow found a buyer willing to take on the former Motorola plant. The new buyer was another firm with links to overseas investors, this time headed by a Chinese Canadian businessperson named Xiao Hua Gong.

Gong, who goes by Edward, openly claimed he wanted to transform the plant into a smartphone manufacturing base. According to Eldredge, Gong was initially “very charming and full of conversation of what wonderful things he was going to do.” Not too dissimilar from a certain Ukrainian network that parachuted into Harvard a few years prior, singing much the same tune.

A year after the sale, though, still nothing had happened with the building. And then Canadian authorities dropped a bombshell: They accused Gong of running his own transnational money laundering scheme, charging him with fraud and money laundering. Follow-on allegations from New Zealand authorities detailed how Gong had led a “multi-national pyramid scheme,” eventually resulting in the country’s largest-ever settlement, worth over $50 million. If the various allegations are true, this means the Harvard Motorola plant has entered not one, but two separate dirty-money pipelines.

Following the charges against Gong, the plant remained frozen until its acquisition a few weeks ago. Local authorities couldn’t touch it, as it was part of ongoing investigations attempting to unwind Gong’s network. And the residents of Harvard watched the factory, and its initial promise, sit vacant. “It’s almost as if these oligarchs, that they have so much money that the rules don’t apply to them, they can do whatever they want,” Kelly sighed. “I think the community sees that the Motorola plant has been a huge albatross for us.”

He paused, and took a breath. “The building is f---ing cursed.”

We only know about Harvard because American and Canadian authorities, aided by partners in Ukraine and New Zealand, targeted the specific money laundering networks allegedly linked to Kolomoisky and Gong. But given the miles-wide availability of other American money laundering services — from real estate to private equity, hedge funds to anonymous trusts, artwork to accountants — there’s no reason to think the Motorola plant is the only multimillion-dollar American asset that’s been bandied between parallel kleptocratic networks.

“I’m not sure people do understand how damaging taking dirty money really is to the United States,” former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who has deep experience investigating post-Soviet money laundering networks, testified in 2019. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.”

As Harvard, Warren, and other small towns allegedly targeted by Kolomoisky’s network learned, that flood of money will wash through — but the streambed will dry up just as quickly, with adverse consequences for the people in those towns who hoped to benefit economically from the investments. As Greenaway added, after 2008, Americans sought to unload huge numbers of unprofitable properties, with little idea of who was buying them or whether these purchases might be new nodes in a broader transnational scheme to hide foreign wealth.

Which is exactly what seems to have been the case in each of the overlooked, forgotten towns Kolomoisky and his team touched. Places like the towns in America’s steel-production heartland, reliant on the aging steel plants for another generation of jobs that will now never come. Places like Cleveland, which watched Kolomoisky and his men roll in and dominate an entire downtown, leaving a “gaping hole” behind. Places like Harvard, whose residents are watching this economic lifeline turn into an economic millstone, rotting right in front of them.

“I think it’s hurting small-town America,” Greenaway concluded. “I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.”

And that realization is long overdue. For years, the U.S. has largely overlooked the billions of dollars — and potentially more — in dirty and suspect money flooding into the country every year, stolen from national treasuries or made via bribes, smuggling or trafficking of humans and drugs alike. Much of this money comes to the country to be washed clean, to be transformed into legitimate assets and to obscure any links to its previous criminal owners.

The Biden administration has vowed to take on global corruption, recently elevating it to a core national security threat. But the intertwined stories of Kolomoisky and Harvard suggest there’s much left to do before we can even grasp the scale of the damage in America’s heartland — and figure out what to do about it.

Fortunately, we’ve started seeing movement in the right direction. The U.S. under the last few administrations has finally begun to tackle problems like shell company secrecy and anonymous real estate purchases, and Congress has introduced bill after bill to patch up the U.S.’s anti-money laundering regime. The Pandora Papers themselves have already spurred legislation, dubbed the “ENABLERS Act,” that would specifically require a whole range of Americans helping these networks thrive — “U.S.-based middlemen” like Korf and Laber, if American prosecutors are right — to conduct due diligence on the sources of foreign funds they handle. As of now, the only prominent American industry required to check whether the funds it handles are dirty is the banking sector — leaving the rest of the U.S. economy wide open.

Thanks to the wide number of industries that can freely work with illicit funds, we have no idea how many other oligarchs, warlords and kleptocrats may have sunk their teeth into steel towns, into farming communities, into manufacturing plants and oil hubs and port cities across America. We have no idea how much of a role they’ve played in enervating cities and towns across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. Nor do we have any idea how many towns like Harvard have suffocated along the way, their livelihoods lost, their budgets strangled, their economic fortunes imploded. All because of what we now know to be a notoriously lax legal regime that incentivizes oligarchs, heads of state and other global elites to look to the United States to shelter their money — and to grab the biggest piece of “American Kleptocracy” that they possibly can.

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The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • US Soldier Who Voluntarily Fought in Ukraine Says Hardest Days of War to Come

    A U.S. Army veteran who independently and voluntarily fought in Ukraine warned on Thursday that the hardest days of fighting the war are still to come, as the Russian military tightens its control over territory in the eastern part of the country.  Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Vasquez, who has returned from combat in the country but plans to go back, told the congressional Helsinki Commission during a briefing that while the Ukrainian military is better off now with increased foreign support, the most difficult fighting lay ahead for soldiers. “We have much more support now, and we have the weapons and gear that we need to be able to fight properly,” Vasquez said to the panel. “The fight’s harder than it was when I left. And that was hard fighting when I left.”  Vasquez shared moving and oftentimes difficult details of his time in Ukraine at the hearing, alongside retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rip Rawlings, who is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through he and Vasquez’ foundation, Ripley’s Heroes. Vasquez, who has gained a social media following through the videos he shares from the battle’s front lines, said he has “pretty much sold everything I owned” so he can return to the fight in Ukraine. Vasquez explained the evolution of Ukrainian combatants that he witnessed, saying when he arrived the soldiers were fighting “primitively” but then saw them turn into battle-tested warriors. “I was fighting with guys who had a red T-shirt on and sneakers,” said Vasquez. “We were going into battle with white Toyota Camrys with Javelin (missiles) in the back.” But as the fighters have grown more sophisticated, and weapons and gear has rolled in from other countries, Vasquez and Rawlings both warned that the fighting situation was fragile and said Ukraine needs continued support from allies. “We need more, they need more (weapons),” Rawlings said. “We are at a very tenuous and fragile point. This war could go in any direction, very unfortunately.” Rawlings also urged lawmakers to amend export controls that do not allow Americans to send certain military equipment, including certain body armor, to Ukraine. “It is the largest single obstacle that we face,” Rawlings said. “The biggest issue that we have is that a U.S. citizen can go purchase a set of level three body armor, but you cannot purchase it and give it to a Ukrainian.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) lauded the veterans for their decision to volunteer in the Ukrainian conflict at the briefing.  “Foreign fighters have actually come in to heroically volunteer and are enduring intense combat conditions and witnessing the gross human rights violations perpetrated by (Vladimir) Putin.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Highlight U.S. Volunteers Fighting for Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: SHOULDER TO SHOULDER On the Front Lines with the Ukrainian Military’s Foreign Soldiers Thursday, July 14, 2022 2:00 p.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r6604c3bdc74d6eb2ff6c8bfa86784358 In Russia’s war on Ukraine, an unprovoked attack, unspeakable atrocities, and genocidal intent is juxtaposed against a valiant defense of hearth and home, a spirit of national unity, and grassroots mobilization. Not since the 1930s has a foreign war between a larger aggressor and a smaller but tenacious underdog so captivated the imagination of freedom-loving people. Answering the call of conscience, many American combat veterans are now fighting alongside Ukrainian servicemembers, applying their experience in combined arms maneuver and decentralized command to help Ukraine win the war. This briefing will examine the war in Ukraine through the eyes of two American volunteers: former U.S. Army staff sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Rip Rawlings (USMC, Ret.). Vasquez fought in Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and soon plans to return to the battlefield. Rawlings is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through Ripley’s Heroes, a foundation he co-founded with Vasquez.

  • Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak Link

    ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Declare Putin’s War Genocide

    A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution characterizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an act of genocide on Friday.  A draft of the resolution, seen by Foreign Policy, argues that atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the direct targeting of maternity hospitals and medical facilities, and the forcible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia and Russian-held territory meet the criteria laid out in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  Congressional resolutions are commonly used by lawmakers to express strongly held sentiments by members of the House of Representatives or Senate. Although the resolution is not legally binding, it sends a strong message of condemnation of Russia’s actions and indicates ongoing efforts by members of Congress to provide continued support to Ukraine beyond military aid.  In April, U.S. President Joe Biden characterized Russian atrocities in Ukraine as an act of genocide. “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he said, speaking to reporters in Iowa. Biden’s remarks were echoed by the Canadian and British prime ministers while French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to use the term, underscoring long-standing differences within the international community as to what constitutes genocide.  As a crime, genocide is distinct from other mass atrocities, and it is defined in the United Nation Genocide Convention as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Since 1989, the U.S. State Department has recognized eight genocides, most recently declaring attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as genocide. U.S. designations of genocide can take years of gathering and analyzing evidence, and senior Biden administration officials noted that the president’s remarks in April did not constitute a formal U.S. policy shift. Arguing that events in Ukraine could constitute genocide, the resolution points to statements made in Russian state media and by senior officials, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that undermine Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty; the congressional resolution alleges that the atrocities were carried out with a specific purpose. Proving that the crimes are carried out with deliberate genocidal intent can often be difficult to prove in law.  A number of Russian soldiers and units—which were accused of committing war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, specifically torture, rape, and summary executions of civilians—were awarded in April by Putin, who designated the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade as Guards and praised them for their “mass heroism and valor, tenacity, and courage.” The resolution is set to be introduced by Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen and is expected to be co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of House members who sit on the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe. In April, the commission wrote to the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to endorse a declaration passed by the Ukrainian parliament characterizing Russia’s actions as genocide and urging the assembly to pass a similar resolution.

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

  • Supporting Ukrainian Refugees

    More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses discussed the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient.   Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Helsinki Commission on Sanctions Extended by Russia on Commissioners and Staff

    WASHINGTON—After Saturday’s announcement by the Russian foreign ministry that the latest list of Americans permanently banned from traveling to Russia includes all members of Helsinki Commission leadership, the overwhelming majority of commissioners, and nearly 20 current and former commission staff members, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The Helsinki Commission and our professional staff have worked consistently throughout our history to ensure that all OSCE participating States—including Russia—live up to their commitments to human rights and the rule of law. Clearly our work has made a significant impression on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies, if even staff who left the commission years ago are being sanctioned by the regime. With these actions to bar travel to Russia by experts on the country, Putin continues his campaign to isolate Russians from the international community. “We will continue to hold Russia to account for its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of the Helsinki Final Act, including the war crimes committed during its invasion of Ukraine, its suffocation of free media and civil society domestically, and its egregious attempts to undermine democracy across the OSCE region.”   While this latest list is one of the largest issued by Russia, Chairman Cardin and many other members of the Helsinki Commission had previously been barred from traveling to Russia.

  • Support for Ukrainian Refugees to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SUPPORTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES U.S. Policy and Visa Issuance Wednesday, May 25, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses will discuss the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1 Dana Francis, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration,U.S. Department of State (TBC) Panel 2 H. E. Marek Magierowski, Ambassador of Poland to the United States Irina Manelis, Esq., Principal, Manelis Law

  • Putin's Bribetakers and Warmongers

    The Helsinki Commission was briefed on 6,000 bribetakers and warmongers identified by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

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