by: Will Wright
The new hard-hitting exposé From Russia With Cash shows how dirty money from Russia and elsewhere is being laundered through London’s high-end real estate market. Since debuting July 8 on Britain’s Channel 4, the documentary has already sparked an international campaign to reform U.K. property laws.
The exposé follows a team of undercover reporters shopping for multi-million dollar apartments in London. Russian anti-corruption campaigner Roman Borisovich plays “Boris,” who claims to be a senior official from Russia’s Health Ministry. Ukrainian investigative reporter Natalie Sedletska (of YanukovychLeaksfame) plays his mistress, “Nastya.”
In the course of viewing five apartments, ranging in price from approximately $4.5 to $23.5 million, the couple meets with a series of real estate agents from top London firms, and secretly records the encounters.
At each showing, “Nastya” first pretends to fall in love with the space. Next, “Boris” pulls the estate agent aside to say that he would like to purchase the property, but needs the deal to proceed anonymously. Boris explains that he will be buying the property with money pilfered from the state budget and doesn’t want anyone in Moscow connecting a hole in the budget with the purchase. “Every [Health Ministry] contract brings a little bit to my pocket,” Boris tells each estate agent, following the planned script. “Needless to say, the money for this flat comes out of the government budget. [Therefore] discretion is the absolute priority.”
In every instance filmed, the estate agents appear willing to continue with the sales, which could net them commissions ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. Some of the agents even recommend law firms that specialize in hiding a buyer’s identity and coach “Boris” on how to avoid potential legal problems. In the U.K., estate agents are required by law to submit “suspicious activity reports” to the National Crime Agency if they have concerns that the money being used to purchase properties might have been obtained through criminal means.
British journalist Ben Judah, one of the people behind the film, spoke to RuNet Echoabout the project. “I came up with the idea for [From Russia With Cash] on a London night bus with producer Tom Costello. We were sadly not surprised [to find not even one clean estate agent]: we’d been researching money laundering in London property for months. With at least £57 billion ($88.7 billion) worth of money laundering taking place in London and the U.K. a year—or 3.6% of GDP—dusty Victorian bricks have become the reserve currency of global corruption.”
Chido Dunn of the anticorruption group Global Witness explains the logic of money laundering through upmarket property. “Stolen billions don’t fit under mattresses—people only steal them if there is somewhere safe to put them and the U.K.’s property market is providing that safe haven,” says Dunn in the film. “London is, in effect, the money-laundering capital of the world.” Global Witness has previously called attention to this issue, such as in the report Blood Red Carpet. It highlights the case of a $5.5 million Surrey mansion believed to be owned by a former Kyrgyz President’s son, who was convicted of corruption and the attempted murder of a U.K. citizen after fleeing his homeland in 2010.
As intended by its creators, From Russia With Cash has generated a lot of discussion about how London is enabling corruption around the world, and has also helped launch a campaign to reform U.K. property laws. After the initial airing of the documentary, the hashtag #FromRussiaWithCash became a trending topic on Twitter. An Early Day Motion (EDM) inspired by the film has been introduced in Britain’s lower house of Parliament. An EDM is a formal motion that Parliament members can table to draw attention to a cause. 30 MPs have already signed on to EDM 275:
Early day motion 275: MONEY LAUNDERING THROUGH LONDON PROPERTY MARKET
That this House notes the recent screening of From Russia with Cash on Channel 4; expresses its concern that the proceeds of corruption are being laundered through the London property market via the use of anonymous offshore companies; and recommends that corporate transparency become a Land Registry requirement so that any foreign company intending to hold a property title in the UK is held to the same standards of transparency required of UK registered companies, so preventing London or other locations from becoming a safe haven for the corrupt.
Russians have also joined the campaign to clean up London’s property market, and, by doing so, address corruption in Russia itself. Opposition politician Alexey Navalny published an online appeal calling on Russians to tweet at British Parliament members, urging them to support EDM 275. In the post, Navalny’s anti-corruption team also highlights two anonymously owned, multi-million dollar London apartments, which they say belong to the sons of two powerful members of President Putin’s inner circle, Vladimir Yakunin and Boris Rotenberg.
“We were delighted that Navalny joined the campaign,” Ben Judah told RuNet Echo. “One of the most effective tools a campaigner has at his disposal is shaming—and having an icon of the Russian opposition tweeting at British MPs that there are ‘Blood Mansions’ in their constituencies is a super-effective tool. The MPs tweeted at by him are unlikely to forget it. We think it works as every little nudge like that cements the idea in the MPs’ heads this is a live issue. It’s a blunt way to illustrate to them money laundering is making many Russians angry at London’s role in the corruption ‘looting-machine.’”
Judah said the makers of the documentary were keen to “keep up the activism” and push a set of targeted policy recommendations that they developed in collaboration with Global Witness and Transparency International. “Our one key objective is to end the ability to anonymously buy UK property: a device that allows budget-plunderers in Krasnoyarsk and Donetsk to turn their dirty black cash into pretty white assets in London stucco,” Judah said. He added that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s aides have seen the policy proposal and are now considering it.