Follow the Money
Is Paramaribo following the lead of London ?
Oliver Bullough / The Guardian
Amsterdam, 1 maart 2022–It is a vast question, worthy of a book in itself, and one that even the National Crime Agency would struggle to answer, let alone me. Then came her second question: “What assets has that hidden money gone into?”
I tried my best – I mentioned property, private schools, luxury goods – but I think she and I both knew I’d fluffed it. I should have brought along specific examples, with times and dates and names. The embarrassing truth is that, although I have written about Russia and its neighbours for two decades, during which I have increasingly specialised in analysing corruption, it had never really occurred to me to ascertain precisely how much stolen Russian money had found a home in the UK, or to chart exactly where it had ended up.
If someone like me had been this culpably incurious, it is hardly surprising that politicians with dozens of other priorities have had to scramble to understand what we’re facing. But for the past couple of months, I have belatedly tried to discover an answer to the foreign affairs committee’s questions.
It turns out that the situation is even more worrying than I had suspected.
A way to begin investigating exactly how much Russian money there is in Britain – and how much of it is dirty – is to look at the official data. According to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service, at the end of September, Russian investors held financial assets in the UK worth a total of $3.5bn (£2.6bn). Our own Office of National Statistics provides a broader measure of all Russian investment in the UK, and assessed it – at the end of 2016 – at £25.5bn.
That seems like a lot of money but, on a national scale, it’s small change. Investors from Finland alone have a stake in Britain worth twice that much, and we don’t lose sleep over the Finns destabilising our democracy. Sadly, the statistics are telling a misleading story. Russian money that moves through another jurisdiction before arriving in Britain isn’t counted as Russian and, since the overwhelming majority of money that enters and leaves Russia does so via tax havens such as Cyprus and the Bahamas, this means the official figures reflect only a small portion of the money the MPs were interested in.
Over the past decade, £68bn has flowed from Russia into Britain’s offshore satellites such as the British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Gibraltar, Jersey and Guernsey. That’s seven times more money than has flowed directly from Russia into the UK. (On top of that, some £94bn has poured out of Russia into Cyprus, £13bn into Switzerland, and £23bn into the Netherlands, which has its own network of tax havens.)
This wealth is not actually in the offshore centres – it is just registered there, which helps to obscure its origins. If you’re a Russian official whose wealth is wildly disproportionate to your salary, this anonymity allows you to spend your money in London without anyone realising you’re a crook. The French economist Thomas Piketty estimates that more than half of Russians’ total wealth is held offshore in this manner – some $800bn (£597bn) – and by a tiny number of people, perhaps just a few hundred. “Rich Russians live between London, Monaco and Moscow,” Piketty wrote in a blogpost in April. “Post-communism has become the worst ally of hyper-capitalism.”