Russians in London: “Londongrad” – the capital of the oligarchy

As of: 22/02/2023 8:06 PM

The British sanctions list includes more than 1,500 Russian citizens – but for many oligarchs from Russia, life in London goes on almost undisturbed. One reason may be the governor’s generous donations.

Written by Christophe Brussel, ARD Studio London

There are many sightseeing tours in London. If you get tired of Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly and Big Ben, then you must try the Kleptocrates tour. This very special city tour takes you beyond the opulent palaces of Russian oligarchs in London.

Christophe Brussel
ARD-Studio London

Roman Borisovich has been organizing the tours for six years now, and a year after Russia attacked Ukraine, there is still plenty to see. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the British government placed several supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin on its sanctions list. But for many oligarchs, life in London goes on almost undisturbed.

Obscene wealth despite the penalties

First stop: Witanhurst Castle, a small castle in north London. “Behind the high walls you can see the beautiful building,” Borisovich says into the bus microphone. Wittenhorst is owned by Russian oligarch Andrei Georgiev, who was making billions in Russia in the 1990s when the Soviet Union was disintegrating.

It is the second largest building in the British capital – after Buckingham Palace. Borisovich adds that three floors have been excavated under the castle. A garage for 25 cars and a swimming pool with a 50-meter track have been created here.

The outrageous wealth of Russian oligarchs can be admired in many places in London, despite the sanctions. The sanctions list now includes more than 1,500 people, including several members of the Russian Parliament – but critics say very few people have parked their money in London.

“The government must go much further.”

The British government has tightened many laws. “A lot has been achieved,” says Oliver Polo, a journalist and writer who has worked in London for years on sanctions and the Russian oligarchy. But in his opinion the government should go much further.

An example of this is the commercial registry. Finally, there are new guidelines to create more transparency. In the past, anyone could set up a company in the name of Mickey Mouse – no one checked the data. The government has taken action against this. But there are still huge gaps where transparency rules do not apply, for example in the British Virgin Islands.

Government promises have not been fulfilled

Oliver Polooff also criticized that many of the sanctioned oligarchs are allowed to use the money for their basic needs. For Piotr Avene, for example, that should be £60,000 a month, says Oliver Bullough. He calls on the British government to treat the oligarchy more restrictively.

A year ago, Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister, promised more staff to the investigative powers and capped off his speech in the House of Commons with the sentence: “London’s oligarchs will have nowhere to hide.”

But it didn’t get that far. Investigative powers were increased, but there were not enough people working in the relevant departments, says Oliver Bullough. He demands that Putin’s friends be severely punished.

Prigozhin’s lawsuit against journalists

Critics also find it outrageous that sanctioned oligarchs can sue journalists in British courts. In one particularly high-profile case, Wagner’s mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin filed a libel suit against journalist Eliot Higgins.

He had published details about the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa and Prigozhin’s closeness to Putin. The think tank Open Democracy has just cited excerpts from documents that show the UK government helped make this lawsuit possible.

Despite the existing sanctions, Prigozhin was allowed to employ a law firm in London, and his lawyers had the opportunity to travel to Saint Petersburg. According to Open Democracy, Prigozhin paid the lawyers directly from Russia.

Ultimately, in March 2022, the court dismissed the lawsuit. However, many journalists are intimidated by these lawsuits, mainly because they are dealing with top law firms whose procedures are very expensive.

Russian donations to the governors

There are reasons for the reluctant and even friendly treatment of Russian oligarchs over the years: a whole host of industries have established themselves in London to support the very wealthy: real estate, financial advice, law firms and private schools, for example.

In recent years, Russian citizens have also frequently donated money to the Conservative Party. In February 2022, the Labor Party published information about these donations. Accordingly, the Conservative Party has received more than €2 million in donations from Russians or Russian sources since Boris Johnson took office.

Are sanctions against the Russian oligarchs working?

Christophe Brussel, ARD London, Feb. 22, 2023, 8:25 pm


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