From Russia with love, to Cyprus with cash

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

The Cypriot port of Limassol. Photograph: Getty Images

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.