Oligarchs.ch – How 32 Russian billionaires are playing the Swiss card
Zürich, Lausanne, 9. May 2022
Since the 1990s, Switzerland has served as a favourite business base for the wealthiest Russians, with most of them brazenly displaying their closeness to the Kremlin. On www.oligarchs.ch, Public Eye presents 32 of these billionaires (including two women), whose fortunes were acquired under often dubious circumstances. Our investigation* reveals how they systematically use the ‘competitive advantages’ of the Swiss business hub – a cutting-edge offshore industry to set up shell companies; a very lucrative commodities trade sector that evades regulation; shortcomings in the fight against money laundering and the lack of financial transparency that enable lawyers to set up structures whose purpose is to hide funds and evade due diligence requirements. Most of these oligarchs own shares in companies (with a head office or a trading subsidiary) in Switzerland, maintain relations with Switzerland’s financial centre or own luxury properties in the country.
Most of them are also on international sanctions lists and feature on the Forbes ranking of the 40 largest fortunes of Russia. Some have a global reputation (e.g. the aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska or former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich). Others – like the very wealthy Duma MP Andrey Skoch – are barely known outside of Russia. Some oligarchs who Public Eye has shone a spotlight on, like steel baron Vladimir Lisin or the railway tycoons Iskander Makhmudov and Andrey Bokarev, are neither known in our country nor the target of sanctions. According to Forbes, in 2021 the wealth of these 32 Switzerland-loving oligarchs totalled USD 312 billion. The head of the Russian orthodox church Kirill of Moscow, better known by his nickname ‘Patriarch of Putin’, is also part of this exclusive club.
Public Eye transformed the 32 portraits also into a game of cards, with Vladimir Putin as the joker. We sent the game to all Swiss MPs just as the special sitting of the National Council was opening in Bern and a large military parade was being held in Moscow. Thereby, we called on parliament to play the right card in the face of Russia’s war of aggression and to call for an expansion of sanctions on the import and trade in Russian oil and gas as soon as possible. Swiss authorities should also set up a task force aimed at identifying the assets of oligarchs under sanctions and cooperating with international partners, such as the Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs Task Force. And finally, the reporting obligation as stipulated in the Swiss embargo law also has to be applied for lawyers who might have helped setting up offshore structures in Switzerland.
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* Methodology and demands
The data comes mainly from open-source material (publicly available sources, Russian and international media, investigative platforms), but includes also exclusive information. The Swiss business and land registries have been scoured, too, for traces of the oligarchs. But in the absence of a public register of beneficial owners of companies, it is nearly impossible to uncover an asset’s real owner. This is why Public Eye is calling for such a register to be set up, for the Swiss Anti-Money Laundering Act to be extended to cover lawyers when they set up or manage offshore companies and for authorities to actively implement sanctions, in cooperation with other states.