From Russia with love, to Cyprus with cash

Perhaps the Russian oligarchs’ days of hassle-free, tax-free, risk-free banking are finally over...

Brits may not have known that much about Cyprus before this past week, but if you thought its only exports were olive oil, halloumi and suntans you need to add one more – money.

Of the £10.8bn invested in Russia in the third quarter of last year, £3.2bn came from Cyprus. That is 30 per cent of the total, and it was not a one-off: the Mediterranean island provided more than 24 per cent of Russian investment in 2011, and 28 per cent in 2010.

When it comes to capital flows, the closest parallel to Cyprus is on the far side of the world, on another former British island that also dominates investment into a much larger neighbour. Cyprus is Russia’s Hong Kong. So, when Cyprus announced that it would freeze bank accounts and would tax deposits over €100,000 at 9.9 per cent, its government was trying to grab a chunk of the estimated £20bn that Russians had parked there.

The Russian account-holders have failed to win the sympathy offered to ordinary Cypriots who, before parliament rejected an international bailout deal, faced losing their savings, but the eventual consequences of freezing the Russian money may prove catastrophic. The tax on deposits was intended to protect the banking system from collapse, but if the Russian money takes fright the banks may be past saving anyway.

After communism collapsed, Russians could make money in their homeland but had no confidence that their homeland would let them keep it. Cyprus saw an opportunity and, because of the time zone, lax visa regulations and a favourable tax treaty – at first, there was no withholding tax on profits leaving Russia for Cyprus, and even now it is only 5 per cent – it became the cash conduit of choice.

Since 1994, according to research from Global Financial Integrity, £518bn has left Russia illegally. That may be overstated but still, as one lawyer recently told me, it has been “the largest outflow of money since money was invented”.

Unlike Russia, Cyprus has a reliable court system and most money is safe once it’s there. Or, at least, it was until the proposed tax on deposits. Jamison Firestone, an American lawyer who has specialised in Russian taxes for two decades, struggled for an analogy to describe the shock he felt. Eventually he settled for a scene from the apocalyptic film The Day After Tomorrow where American refugees are struggling to enter Mexico. “I’m sending letters out saying, ‘Please don’t pay us into our Cypriot bank account, pay us into our Russian bank accounts, where the money is safe,’” he said.

“Everybody has put in orders to transfer all their money out. As soon as they lift the freeze on bank transfers there won’t be enough money in the banks to make those transfers. So the system will collapse anyway, even after this surprise levy.”

Much of Russia’s capital outflow, once it had bought villas in the west, went straight back into Russia: now as legal, protected, dividend-paying investment. Cyprus was the staging post on the way in and out, and it is now home to thousands of Russians, who are servicing the money, its owners and each other. My friend Tanya, who moved there with her family five years ago, describes her neighbourhood like a sunnier version of Moscow: “There are Russians everywhere, Russian shops, doctors, hairdressers. There are a couple of Russian schools, too, and lots of after-school activities for the children.”

The financial services companies that employ these children’s parents swelled to seven times Cyprus’s economy but the money was only ever passing through.

“Cyprus was low-security, low-cost, high ease of use,” Firestone said. “So it was great if you were non-political, just an ordinary Russian businessman who wanted a safe, low-cost place to hold profits. Once profits were paid out of Russia there were no more taxes.

“They have just put a tax on a lot of people who did not have to be there and who could effectively do this out of the UK or other jurisdictions.”

Among the other countries rivalling Cyprus as conduits for foreign investment are the wealthy European tax havens of Luxembourg and the Netherlands. But Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network doubts they could mop up the business if Russian cash leaves Cyprus. Even the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man may now be too tightly regulated.

“For the bandits, it could be Panama or the British Virgin Islands, and for those looking for security, Singapore,” he said.

No one wants to have to get up in the middle of the night to deal with his banker, so perhaps the Russian oligarchs’ days of hassle-free, tax-free, risk-free banking are finally over – until another country taps in to the money to be made in banking for them.

The Cypriot port of Limassol. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.