Russian Money Streams Through Cyprus

A new parking scheme appeared late last year in some congested Moscow neighbourhoods. Street signs advised Muscovites either to buy a ticket at a nearby machine or text their licence plate details to a number: 7757.

A car drives past a billboard promoting a Russian bank on a main road in the southern Cypriot port of Limassol.
Patrick Baz | AFP | Getty Images
A car drives past a billboard promoting a Russian bank on a main road in the southern Cypriot port of Limassol.

Evgeny Schultz, a Moscow blogger, took a closer look. It turned out that the number 7757 had been bought by a company registered just six months previously, which itself had been founded by two Cyprus-registered companies whose ownership was unclear.

One of the names on the registration documents was the same as that of a senior adviser to the city's department of transport and communications, which oversees the parking program.

"This could just be a massive coincidence, of course," Mr Schulz said, with an unmistakable note of sarcasm.

The city has defended the scheme, saying "every kopek" goes into its budget. But the episode underlines the unique, pervasive and dubious role that Cyprus plays in Russia's economy.

In June, Cyprus became the fifth country in the euro zone to request an international bailout after lenders got caught up in the debt restructuring of Greece's banks. Seven months later, the island is still waiting for funding amid EU fears that the island is a haven for Russian dirty money. Such fears are particularly strong in Germany and will need to be assuaged if Berlin is to back a bailout.

Estimates of the size of Russia's deposits in Cyprus range from €8 billion, according to some experts, to up to €35bn, according to a German intelligence report cited in Der Spiegel magazine.

(Read More: Question of Aiding Cyprus Places Germany in a Bind)

In 2011, Cyprus was the number-one destination for Russian money being sent abroad and the number-one direct investor in Russia, with more than $13 billion in investments, according to Russia's Central Bank.

"From an economic perspective, Russia and Cyprus are so intertwined, Cyprus could almost be another region of the Russian Federation," said Steven Dashevsky, founder of Dashevsky & Partners, a Moscow investment company.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader who has made a reputation investigating corruption at Russia's biggest state companies, concurs. "If Cyprus ever decides to nationalize its banks, they will own the entire Russian Federation," he joked.

Most of the cash that transits Cyprus is not "black money". Russian accounting and law firms recommend the island as a legal tax haven thanks to its 10 per cent flat tax rate, while the Cypriot legal system, based on English law, is often more appealing to Russian groups than the local alternative.

"There are plenty of legitimate businesses that use Cyprus as part of holding structures because it is convenient and cheaper than western European jurisdictions," said Michael Pugh, a Moscow-based lawyer for Hogan Lovells.

A number of cases, however, have raised questions about the type of Russian money that Cyprus attracts and how well anti-money laundering regulation is enforced.

(Read More: Small Cyprus May Trigger Big Trouble in Europe)

One Cypriot economist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said while Cyprus has rolled out extensive new anti-money laundering laws since joining the EU the results are not always perfect. "I would be lying if I said Cyprus was 100 per cent in compliance with everything. It has a way to go."

The most-publicized allegation of money laundering in Cyprus is linked to the story of Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who accused Russian officials of a $230 million tax fraud before being thrown into prison, where he died in 2009.

According to detailed allegations by Mr Magnitsky's former employer Hermitage Capital, an estimated $30 million of illicit funds from the tax fraud went abroad through Cypriot banks. Cyprus's attorney-general is investigating the claims.

The Magnitsky case is one of the few instances where there have been detailed and explicit allegations of Russian money laundering in Cyprus. Yet there have been other cases where the activities of Russian corporations in Cyprus have attracted scrutiny.

VTB, Russia's second-largest state lender, for instance, was criticized by the Russian Central Bank after it transferred up to $5.1 billion in bad loans to its Cyprus subsidiary in 2009-10, swapping them for promissory notes in an accounting move that critics said allowed VTB artificially to increase its capital adequacy ratio.

(Read More: ECB's Draghi, Germany at Odds Over Cyprus)

Andrei Kostin, VTB's chairman, said the bad assets were not hidden from the regulator and all the loans were fully consolidated on to its international accounts. "We put assets wherever it is convenient for us and wherever it is advantageous," he told the Financial Times.

In a separate incident, VTB faced questions over why it paid a Cyprus-registered company $457 million for Chinese oil drilling equipment in 2007 – when the Cypriot company bought the equipment on the same day, for $160 million less. Contracts drawn up for both ends of the deal are nearly identical, the only difference being the purchase price, according to a research report on VTB's finances co-authored by Mr Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption, and the Henry Jackson Society think-tank.

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VTB has said the difference in price was largely because of transport and logistical costs, while noting that it had conducted its own investigation and fired the executives who oversaw the deal.

On the ground in Nicosia and Limassol, executives balk at claims of Russian skulduggery, which they say have been exaggerated by EU leaders as a political ploy.

"Which banks wouldn't welcome clients that bring hundreds of thousands of dollars of business and who pay taxes on this money in Cyprus?," said Ross Olovanov, a Cyprus-based adviser for independent consultancy ProBusCon.

The Cypriot economist said: "Most of the money laundering that takes place in Cyprus is the evasion of Russian, not Cypriot, taxes. The only person who should worry about that is Russia, not the European Union."

But the relationship between Russian and Cyprus is sometimes perplexing to Moscow.

Last year, the Russian government sold a controlling stake in Vanino, one of the country's biggest Pacific ports, to Mechel, a major Russian steel producer. A few weeks later Mechel announced it had sold the entire stake, minus 1.5 per cent, to three Cypriot companies whose ownership is unknown. One of the companies was registered in 2012, a second in 2011, while the third cannot be found in the Cyprus companies register.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has complained that a pervasive reliance on offshore financial centers is robbing Russia of tax revenues and capital. He demanded, in a speech last year, that Russia's economy "de-offshore". A net $56 billion of capital left Russia in 2012.

Yet this instruction appears not to apply to Cyprus. The Cypriot finance ministry announced last month that Russia had removed the island from a "blacklist" of countries to avoid investing in.

In fact, last year the Kremlin quietly removed Cyprus from its list of offshore jurisdictions altogether suggesting that Mr Putin's crusade will exclude the island.