It’s said that the largest export from Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not oil but corruption. There is much truth in that. But export is not a one-sided proposition. For someone to be able to export corruption, someone else must be willing to import it.
Opportunities have not been in short supply. For years, Western countries and Western financial jurisdictions have been all too eager to welcome those who have made a habit of stealing at home and spending abroad. The people complicit in violating the most basic democratic norms in Russia found safe havens in democratic countries – parking their families, purchasing real estate, and, above all, storing their ill-gotten money. It was an enormous hypocrisy on their part – not that they ever cared. But from the side of the West, this was worse than realpolitik – it was enabling. How else can one describe the red-carpet treatment provided to perpetrators of human rights abuse and corruption?
For a long time, the United Kingdom – with its top-class education system, its attractive real estate market, and, above all, its strong legal protections – has been a favored destination for Kremlin officials and Kremlin-connected oligarchs such as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and metal magnate Alisher Usmanov, who have made London their second home. “Londongrad” has long ceased to be a joke and become an accepted term of modern political geography. According to a recent report by Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog NGO, British overseas territories alone hold some $46 billion in assets from Russian oligarchs, with billions more stowed on the UK mainland.
Even as Western countries, starting with the United States in 2012, began to close their doors to human rights abusers (from Russia and elsewhere) by adopting laws that prohibit them from receiving visas and holding assets, the United Kingdom held back. The entrenched interests were simply too powerful, the financial incentives too strong. One morning in the spring of 2016, I spoke at a breakfast meeting with British members of Parliament who were on an official visit to Moscow. The conversation soon turned to the Magnitsky Act, the path-breaking U.S. measure that targeted individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Russia. When I urged my interlocutors to pass the same law in Britain, one member of the delegation broke me off and launched into a diatribe: why on earth, he complained, should the City of London forego billions in profits because of some “human rights hearsay.”
Our meeting was taking place in the British ambassador’s residence, just a few hundred yards from the bridge where, months earlier, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down as he walked home after dinner. I was barely able to stand, using a cane, months after my own near-fatal poisoning. I had nothing to say to the honorable gentleman as he lamented the loss of profits.
As was made clear this week, that member did not speak for the majority of the British Parliament. On Tuesday, the House of Commons – by agreement between the Conservative and Labour parties – amended the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill to include personal sanctions that will “provide accountability for or be a deterrent to gross violations of human rights.” In a separate move, MPs compelled British overseas territories to publicly disclose company ownership registers by the end of 2020. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson greeted the votes of May 1 as an “[i]mportant moment in Parliament.”
If properly implemented, the new measures could be much more: a momentous step in turning the tide against money launderers and human rights abusers in a country many of them have been treating as a sanctuary. As in other countries before them, a coalition of committed parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle – including Dominic Raab, Richard Benyon, Andrew Mitchell, Ian Austin, Chris Bryant, and Stephen Kinnock – have shown that principles can triumph over profit.
“The Magnitsky Act is good for Russia,” Boris Nemtsov wrote in the summer of 2013 as British parliamentarians began their initial discussions on the measure. “All the infamies of this regime – the lies, the cruelty, the wrongful convictions, the stealing, the bigotry – come from impunity . . . . These scoundrels should know that they will have to answer for their infamies and for their crimes. The Magnitsky Act is the most pro-Russian action taken in the West in a long time.”
The Kremlin’s propaganda likes to portray Russian opposition leaders as “scavenging” for Western money and Western support. The reality is the opposite: all we want is for the West to stop supporting Vladimir Putin’s regime by providing its cronies and oligarchs with safe havens to park their ill-gotten money. With its vote on May 1, the British Parliament has done just that. It is to be hoped that other democracies will soon follow.