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Russian Money Laundering In Britain: From Documentary To Hashtag...To Reform?

  • Robert Coalson

Russian anticorruption campaigner Roman Borisovich (left) and journalist Natalie Sedletska (center) exposed the grim underbelly of some London property dealings in the documentary From Russia With Cash.

Russian anticorruption campaigner Roman Borisovich (left) and journalist Natalie Sedletska (center) exposed the grim underbelly of some London property dealings in the documentary From Russia With Cash.

A documentary film aired on British television earlier this month has gotten the ball rolling on a campaign that just might make it more difficult to launder the wages of corruption in the United Kingdom.

Channel 4 television on July 8 aired the hour-long program, titled From Russia With Cash, in which three individuals posed as a corrupt Russian official and his entourage seeking to buy elite London real estate with money they admitted was stolen from the Health Ministry.

In the film, Russian anticorruption campaigner Roman Borisovich plays the corrupt minister, who tells a chuckling London real-estate agent that he profits from contracts to buy drugs for the ministry. "A contract here, a contract there -- a little bit comes to my pocket," he says with a laugh as the agent nods and says, "OK."

Now the organizers of the project are pushing to turn a case of compelling television into real political change. From Russia With Cash has become a social-media hashtag as activists and simply concerned and appalled citizens around the world push British parliamentarians to support a nonbinding resolution calling for foreign companies operating in the United Kingdom to be subject to the same transparency regulations as British companies already are.

"It is not a secret that Great Britain has a huge problem regarding the origin of the money flowing into its economy," says Natalie Sedletska, an investigative journalist with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service who posed as the corrupt minister's girlfriend in the Channel 4 film. "Its laws are set up in such a way that it is possible to buy things -- real estate, cars, etc. -- not in the name of an individual person, but in the name of offshore companies without indicating who the ultimate beneficiaries of those companies are."

WATCH: Natalie Sedletska On Russian 'Dirt Money' In Britain

"This problem means that there is a lot of dirty money in Great Britain that is really shaping its economy. A large part of that sum is money from the Russian Federation," she says.

Global Concern

And the problem is enormous. Germany's Deutsche Bank earlier this year reported that about $1.5 billion of unaccounted-for capital flows into the British economy each month -- about 40 percent of that amount coming from Russia. In all, about $140 billion has entered since 2006, with a significant increase in volume noted since 2010.

Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russians Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin and one of the engines behind the #fromRussiawithcash initiative, says this lacunae in British law is a global concern.

"This money is stolen," he tells RFE/RL. "This money is pilfered; it is pillaged. It comes from screwed-up and beneficial contracts to corrupt officials. And all over the world, this kind of pillaging of public services -- according to the UN -- is killing 3.6 million people a year. We wanted to use the film to drum up awareness of that."

In addition, Judah says, the flow of money is a major problem for Britons, driving up real-estate prices in London and other cities.

"What we worked out was happening was that because you can buy London property anonymously, dirty black cash was coming into London," he says. "It was being laundered through British homes, and clay, Victorian brick, had become the bitcoin or currency of global kleptocracy."

Judah stresses, however, that the film is not about Russians -- it is primarily about the British politicians, bankers, accountants, real-estate agents, and lawyers who turn a blind eye to this corruption and who benefit from the sale of what have come to be called "blood mansions" (by analogy with the "blood diamonds" that finance corrupt regimes and wars in Africa).

The day the documentary aired, an early day motion -- a nonbinding statement of concern -- was introduced in the British Parliament urging that "any foreign company intending to hold a property title in the U.K. [be] held to the same standards of transparency required of U.K. registered companies." Thirty-eight deputies signed the motion before Parliament left for its summer recess.

However, only eight of London's 73 members of parliament are among the signatories.

Navalny Turns Up The Heat

Meanwhile, a social-media campaign is under way. Russian anticorruption campaigner and opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has turned to Twitter to pressure British deputies by name to endorse the motion.

Navalny also turned up the heat on July 24 by alleging on his blog that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov secretly owns a luxury London flat worth nearly $12 million.

The anticorruption NGO Global Witness on July 22 reported that a former Kazakh security official is the "mystery owner" of London property worth $228 million.

"We expect the government of Great Britain will reconsider the laws that allow people to buy real estate in the name of offshore companies without indicating the ultimate beneficiaries of those companies," says Sedletska. "And in this way, we hope to make things more complicated for corrupt people from our countries and from anywhere in the world who want to just steal money, come to London, to Britain, and buy some real estate, and then live happily ever after."

Oliver Bullough, author of The Last Man In Russia And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation and a journalist who writes extensively on corruption in Ukraine and Russia, thinks a critical mass of attention to this matter is being created in Britain that might lead to real change there.

"We want the British elite to realize that in Russia, Ukraine, Qatar, Algeria, [and] Yemen, Britain's post-Cold War moral capital is being drained away because elites see the British elite as the handmaidens of the global looting machine," Bullough says.

Unfortunately, he adds, Britain is just part -- albeit a big part -- of the global money-laundering problem. Other tax havens and money-laundering destinations will have to join in before the "global looting machine" can be brought to a standstill.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and RFE/RL's Power Vertical Podcast
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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