24th March 2022
By Brian Reyes and Francesco Guarascio, Reuters.
Authorities in Gibraltar have frozen the assets of six individuals and entities whose names appear on UK and EU sanctions lists following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Details of the move were revealed by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo during a Direct Democracy programme on Radio Gibraltar.
He said the individuals include businessmen Mikhail Fridman, Oleg Deripaska, Alexey Kuzmichev, Petr Aven and Guerman Khan. Assets linked to Russian energy company Rosneft have also been frozen, Mr Picardo said.
Mr Picardo gave no further details of the nature or value of the assets that had been frozen.
He also declined, on advice from the UK sanctions authority, to identify the names of any companies that provided services to the sanctioned entities or acted as intermediaries.
Mr Picardo said those service providers and intermediaries had been acting legitimately and had represented individuals that were “celebrated and feted” by the UK and other western countries until only recently.
The new sanctions regime, which is continuously updated, meant that situation had now changed and the necessary steps were being taken by both the government and financial professionals to identify and freeze any Russia-linked assets in Gibraltar.
“These are six individuals who are on the UK or EU sanctions list who we have been notified by service providers, or we have identified ourselves, who have assets in Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
“This [sanctions] regime which has been set up by the United Kingdom and the European Union is a self-policing one which requires individuals who are in control of those assets not to deal in them.”
“If they do, they are then breaking the law.”
“And if we determine that they are going to deal in those assets, we will seek to stop them from doing so and we will notify them that they will be acting in breach of the sanctions regime if they were to deal in those assets.”
“But all that the international regime is doing at the moment is freezing, it is not forfeiting.”
“So you hold the ring on that asset, but you don’t sell it, turn it into money and either forfeit the money to the Crown or forfeit the money for the benefit of any third party.”
“The international community needs to consider what it is going to with the frozen assets of these individuals, and that’s a discussion that will require very careful moral consideration at every level.”
News of the sanctions action comes days after a superyacht linked to Russian billionaire Dmitry Pumpyansky, the owner of Russia's largest steel pipe maker, was arrested over an admiralty claim filed in the Supreme Court by an international bank that has a mortgage on the superyacht.
The Gibraltar Government confirmed that the arresting bank is JP Morgan. Contacted by the Chronicle, the bank declined to comment.
Gibraltar has banned the entry into British waters of any vessel linked to Russia or Russian interests, but an exemption was made in this case because the vessel had been arrested by the bank.
The Gibraltar Government said the decision would protect the interests of creditors who had sought the assistance of the court to enforce their claim.
The Government said that, should the Axioma be sold by the court in order to meet the claims of legitimate creditors, any remaining proceeds would be seized under sanctions legislation.
Likewise the vessel itself would be seized under the sanctions regime should it be released by the court.
The context of the latest developments in Gibraltar is the wider move by western governments to freeze the assets of individuals and businesses linked to Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
But this is a slow and complex task.
Oligarchs' wealth remains largely untouched in the European Union, weeks after Brussels approved measures to freeze the assets of dozens of billionaires and top officials linked to Russia.
Every week since war broke out on February 24, the EU has introduced new sanctions on Russia, adding nearly 700 top politicians, businessmen and military staff to its blacklist - including 42 super rich "oligarchs" such as Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich and banking tycoon Mikhail Fridman.
Listed individuals are meant to have their bank accounts and assets frozen, but so far only a small fraction of their funds have been affected amid legal constraints and enforcement challenges, according to EU officials and government data from a dozen EU countries.
Germany, the EU's largest economy, has declined to give details of any assets frozen so far. It set up a taskforce last week to enforce sanctions, and the economy ministry told Reuters it expected to report progress in one to two weeks.
Austria and Ireland also declined to specify whether they had frozen any assets, as did Cyprus and Malta, which in recent years have both issued "golden passports" to wealthy individuals, including Russians.
Some countries that have reported freezing assets say they have only hit a small part of the wealth subject to sanctions.
The Dutch finance ministry, for example, said it had frozen about 390 million euros in transactions and financial deposits. That is only about 1% of the wealth of sanctioned individuals in bank accounts, trusts and other financial vehicles in the Netherlands and in offshore centres linked to the country, according to government estimates.
Italy, one of EU's most active countries in seizing physical assets, having taken yachts and villas worth about 800 million euros so far, has yet to hit oligarchs' liquid wealth because much of it is believed to be stored in the bank accounts of third parties or in trusts with no clear beneficial owner, said the head of the Italian tax police Giuseppe Zafarana.
Spain has also not frozen any bank accounts, authorities said, but it has detained at least three luxury yachts linked to blacklisted individuals.
Neighbouring Portugal has blocked only one account owned by a sanctioned individual, with just 242 euros in it, a banking source familiar with the matter said.
Belgium appears to have been the most successful EU country so far. It has frozen about 2.7 billion euros in bank accounts and 7.3 billion euros in transactions, but has not identified any property belonging directly or indirectly to a blacklisted person, the finance ministry said.
Mr Abramovich and Mr Fridman were not immediately available for comment when contacted by Reuters. Mr Fridman has previously described the sanctions against him over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, as "spurious and unfounded."
The United States, which has imposed similar sanctions on Russia, is also facing difficulties in freezing assets amid legal hurdles.
Oligarchs are believed to hold most of their assets outside the EU and United States, including in offshore jurisdictions, Britain, Switzerland and the Gulf.
Switzerland said on Thursday it had frozen $6.2 billion of sanctioned Russian assets. Its bank lobby estimates Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth.
The EU has struggled for years to implement sanctions because enforcement rests on member states, which often lack the legal tools, personnel and, in some cases, political will to target wealthy investors, a senior EU official said.
"Historically, enforcement throughout the EU has not been consistent. What is agreed to be implemented at an EU level is not necessarily implemented as required at the member state level," said David Savage, a sanctions expert at law firm Stewarts.
To address this, the European Commission set up a "freeze and seize" taskforce this month specifically to enforce sanctions against oligarchs.
So far, however, the task force has not identified any asset that needed to be frozen urgently because it could be sold or moved away from the EU, the senior EU official said on condition of anonymity.
A Commission spokesperson said EU members were obliged to report measures taken to implement sanctions, but declined to say whether they all did, and did not give a value for assets frozen so far.
Last year, the Commission proposed setting up a "Sanctions Information Exchange Repository" by the end of 2021 to facilitate the process. That repository "is currently in the development phase," the spokesperson said.
Even when there is political will to act, it is not easy to find oligarchs' wealth.
After four rounds of sanctions, the EU is still working to close loopholes that allow targeted individuals to shield money via third parties, trusts or crypto transactions, diplomats said.
FREEZE, PERHAPS, BUT NO SEIZE
Even when applied in full, EU sanctions can usually go no further than freezing assets.
In most countries, this means the assets cannot be sold, but can still be used. An oligarch could in theory live in a "frozen" villa.
Despite the Commission's "freeze and seize" taskforce, seizing - or the state taking control of an asset and even profiting from its sale - is usually a non-starter.
"In most member states, this is not possible and a criminal conviction is necessary to confiscate assets," the Commission said in a statement to Reuters.
In Poland, one of the staunchest supporters of sanctions, seizing assets would require a change to the constitution, government spokesperson Piotr Muller said.
France has frozen around 850 million euros of blacklisted individuals' assets, including properties and yachts, the finance ministry said. But physical assets can still be used by their owners.
Italy, which has some of strictest legislation among EU countries to recover criminals' assets, is also stopping short of appropriating yachts and villas.