(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You would expect the biggest leak of offshore data in history to contain lots of damaging information about Russian President Vladimir Putin, or at least his close circle of friends. But the Russia-related portion of the Pandora Papers, an almost-3-terabyte cache of information about offshore companies and their end beneficiaries that took 600 journalists more than a year to research, appears to be disappointing. The findings are dated, relatively insignificant or both.
Although the Pandora Papers are far from a complete or even statistically representative reflection of the global shell company industry, the relative thinness of these findings suggests that Putin and his people have drawn conclusions from previous revelations, such as the Panama Papers, which lent international prominence to Putin’s cellist friend Sergei Roldugin and his remarkably active offshore companies. It also indicates that the widespread narrative of the Russian kleptocracy’s dependence on the West as a safe haven for its capital may well be inaccurate in 2021 — or indeed, may have missed the point for years.
The international network coordinated by the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found 336 “politically exposed persons” among 29,000 offshore beneficiaries, meaning about 1.2% of the shell company owners are officials or their close relatives and associates. The 19 politically exposed Russians make up only 0.4% of 4,400 Russian beneficiaries (the biggest “national delegation” in the data). Only three Russians made the ICIJ’s list of 50 “power players,” deemed by the investigative organization to be the Pandora Papers’ most prominent PEPs in the eyes of the international audience. They are Konstantin Ernst, chief executive officer of the state-controlled Channel One, Svetlana Krivonogikh, whom the now-banned Russian investigative outlet Proekt alleged was Putin’s ex-girlfriend, and oil billionaire Gennady Timchenko, known to be close to Putin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday dismissed the leaks as “just a set of largely unsubstantiated claims.”
Russian speakers can peruse the Russia-related findings on the website of Important Stories, the Moscow-based investigative team led by Roman Anin which had been chosen by ICIJ as its Russia partner. Important Stories reporters are some of the country’s best, with some serious tech chops. They’re also fearless: After police raided Anin’s apartment and interrogated him, and authorities declared the outfit, as well as Anin and other reporters, to be “foreign agents” under a repressive law used to silence independent media, Anin and his colleagues didn’t close shop or emigrate as some others have done. Instead, they just kept digging. “Foreign agents” are required by law to register a company in order to file burdensome financial reports to the authorities; Anin named his and his colleagues’ firm “Important Foreign Agents,” the proud name under which it is now registered with the Russian Justice Ministry.
So I have little doubt that this team has done a thorough job with the material it parsed. The reporters themselves will probably disagree with me about the importance of what they unearthed, but I just can’t get excited about Timchenko’s alleged offshore dealings from 2007 and 2008, long before he was sanctioned by the U.S. government in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014; or about Krivonogikh’s alleged apartment in Monaco, apparently acquired in 2003; or about a free voyage on an oligarch’s yacht, allegedly undertaken by Anton Vaino, then not yet Putin’s chief of staff, in 2012. Though the data obtained by ICIJ include records as recent as 2019 for most shell company factories, and even fresher ones for some of them, the Russia stuff is mostly quite stale, with the notable exception of Ernst’s alleged involvement in an offshore scheme to convert state bank loans into Moscow commercial real estate: That story is at least post-2014. (The relatively recent dealings of some smaller fish were also in the database, but their lesser prominence takes away from their impact).
The year 2014 is a watershed because Ukraine-related Western sanctions have since made it harder for politically-connected Russians to acquire overseas assets or even run their Russian deals through offshore chains to ensure solid property rights under English law. Even if a Russian PEP wasn’t hit by sanctions directly and immediately, like Timchenko, he or she couldn’t but entertain the possibility.
Putin has been calling on Russian business to “deoffshorize” for a decade, but his rhetoric had little effect until Putin launched a new Cold War by invading one part of Ukraine and fostering a separatist uprising in another. Post-Crimea, Russia embarked on the path of self-isolation, at first somewhat reluctantly because wealthy Russians, including Putin’s friends, had indeed developed something of a lifestyle dependence on their French villas and British Virgin Islands-based business empires. But then Putin and his entourage seem to have discovered that their wealth and power were undiminished by less access to these attributes of globalization. The Soviet elite, after all, didn’t have resort to these trappings, and Russia is big and diverse enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for luxury. The post-2014 chic includes majestic palaces on the Black Sea, the likes of which could never be built or bought on the Cote d’Azur, and opulent vineyards in Crimea and Southern Russia, where French and Italian vintners produce wines that can rival their home countries’ best. In Russia, a palace and a wine estate like the ones linked by now-imprisoned corruption fighter Alexei Navalny to Putin’s closest circle can simply be explained away as expensive hotel projects; there’s less and less public scrutiny as independent media outlets come under pressure and activists are forced to flee the country.
The Putin elite has no hopes of escaping, if push comes to shove, to some Caribbean island to nurse exotic cocktails and their billions. The Russian president’s circle has dug in close to the sources of its wealth, fully intending never to be uprooted. Rather than panic in the face of Western pressure which has shut off some of the previous opportunities, these powerful people cut their losses and turned their attention inward focused on coup-proofing. Some of the golden eggs they’d scattered around have been lost, but they still have the hen that lays them — Russia — firmly by the throat.
But how about all those thousands of Russia offshore owners in the Pandora Papers database? Many of them, of course, are beneficiaries of the regime, too, but by no means major ones. Even the wealthiest of these businesspeople, even the most seemingly well-connected, cannot feel secure because, unlike Putin’s old guard, they cannot be certain of his personal protection. In the end, a billionaire tycoon is as exposed as a car dealer or restaurant owner to the corruption in the justice system and to empowered law enforcers’ naked greed.
Trying to play the globalization game is risky these days: Just look at the recent case of Ilya Sachkov, founder of information security firm Group-IB, headquartered in Singapore since 2019. His attempts to combine public disapproval of Russian hacking activity in the West, necessary to do business there, and an ability to keep winning lucrative state contracts in Russia have landed him in a Russian jail on treason charges. But, unless you belong to Putin’s narrow circle, it’s an almost unavoidable risk. Between 2014 and 2020, capital outflow from Russia reached $390 billion, more than the $330 billion exported in the previous seven years.
Much of that money is corruptly made and is a corrupting influence in its destination countries. But even for the best investigator, the pickings from searches for “Putin’s money” in this stream of outbound cash are likely to be slim.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.