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On Board the Russian Dissidents' 'Kleptocracy' Bus

VICE News was invited on the inaugural 'kleptocracy tour' of London — a drive around some of the properties owned by Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazakh businessmen and oligarchs.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 5 2016, 6:10pm

Foto di Sally Hayden/VICE News

It was the British version of a Hollywood celebrity homes tour.

A group of Russian activists, commentators, and dissidents rented a luxury bus in London on Thursday to hold the inaugural "kleptocracy tour" — a drive around some of the properties owned by Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazakh businessmen and oligarchs with what organizers claimed are questionable sources of income.

VICE News was invited on the excursion a month in advance, but the set-off point remained a secret until the day before — it was eventually revealed as Victoria Embankment, opposite the Ministry of Defense. Upon boarding, passengers were given a printout of a Monopoly-style board with pictures of the properties of men including Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich, former Kazakh secret police chief Rakhat Aliyev, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, and former Russian senator Andrey Guryev, who owns the £300 million ($435 million) colossal Witanhurst House, a London property second in size only to Buckingham Palace.

A map marking the luxury homes belonging to Russian government ministers and President Vladmir Putin's friends. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Then came the tour guides. Vladimir Ashurkov, prominent ally of Russian anti-Kremlin campaigner Alexei Navalny and CEO of the Anti-Corruption Foundation was the first to speak — he examined Igor Shuvalov, the fifth top-ranking government official in Russia who, he said, has been "pulling the economic levers of Russia for the last 20 years." 

Shuvalov has been a government employee for 18 years and has no other official source of income, according to Ashurkov, but his apartment in Whitehall is worth more than 80 times his annual income. His spouse is a multimillionaire who made profits by putting her money in ventures launched by Russian businessmen, who were getting contracts off the government, Ashurkov claimed.

Ashurkov — who was granted political asylum in the UK last year — finished by saying that any fight for democracy and national security should equate to fighting corruption. "To paraphrase David Cameron: London is not a place to stash your dodgy cash."

The "luxury bus" used for the "Kleptocracy Tour" which set off from Victoria Embankment by the river Thames. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Roman Borisovich — an anti-corruption activist who worked on Channel 4's From Russia With Cash, which exposed estate agents willing to sell property to apparent money-launderers — was one of the organizers of the tour, also acting as compere. He told VICE News that he wanted to create "more awareness — to shine a light on the issues of kleptocracy." He said he wanted to "ask about the morality of the gains derived from these countries and try to ask questions about the enablers. Why are we allowing them?"

Related: Putin 'Probably' Ordered Litvinenko's Death, Inquiry Finds

The bus made a stop at Belgrave Square, known to some as "Red Square" because of the number of prominent Russians known to populate it. The aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska reportedly paid £25 million ($36 million) for number 5 in 2003, while exiled oligarch and Putin critic Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013, had several flats at number 26. Chelsea FC owner Abramovich and Ukrainian-born businessman Len Blavatnik, named as Britain's richest man in the last Sunday Times Rich List, have £90 million ($130 million) and £200 million ($290 million) properties nearby, said the map handout.

Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Center at UK-based think tank the Henry Jackson Society. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Another host, journalist Ben Judah who has reported from Russia, said corruption was fundamental to understanding how the 21st century works.

"Every year it is estimated that a trillion dollars illicitly leaves poorer countries for richer countries," he said.

Judah noted that while corruption is "often viewed as a very abstract thing… when money is pilfered from the budgets of poorer countries people die" — because the missing money leads to the denial of public services.

In London, "your company can then be called crookedy crook crook crook" and you can still buy a property, he said, adding that it's not just the buyers that should be punished, but the lawyers, estate agents, and all others who enable the transactions.

"Property in London has turned into one of the premier money-laundering operations in the world," he alleged.

A £5 million ($7.27 million) mews house in Knightsbridge, west London, believed to be owned by Roman Rotenberg, son of Boris who is under US and EU sanctions following the annexation of Crimea. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

On the tour, it was repeatedly emphasized that buyers of many of the most expensive London properties remain anonymous by using offshore shell companies to purchase them. The mansions and upmarket apartments are often left empty, merely serving a function as a "holding place" to keep finances safe. 

Almost one in 10 properties in Westminster is owned by an anonymous corporation, the bus activists told passengers, compared to 7.3 percent of properties in the upmarket neighborhood of  Chelsea and Kensington and 4.5 percent of those in the City of London district, where many of the top banks and law firms are based.

Related: A Who's Who of Russian Dissidents Gathered in London to Protest Against Putin

"The property bubble in London is making us poorer and is also beginning to snap and fray," Judah said, with young people and hardworking families being pushed out because they can't buy properties in the capital. "That money trail matters hugely to every mortgage holder or aspiring mortgage holder in this country"

Renting in London is notoriously expensive, with the average one-bedroom flat or room in a houseshare becoming more and more expensive for those who earn an average wage. One campaigner who came as a sightseer on the tour told VICE News he had been house-hunting recently, and been shown a $1,000 a month room above a fried chicken shop. It was expensive "and I'd smell of chicken all the time," he joked.

One of the properties the tour stopped at was disused Brompton Road Tube station — owned by the Ministry of Defense before being sold on for £53.5 million ($77.47 million) in 2013 to Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash, who is currently fighting extradition to the US where he faces bribery charges. The property beside it is also owned by Firtash, and reportedly has a swimming pool in its basement. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia Studies Centre at UK-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society, spoke about another colorful Russian character: Boris Rotenberg, a former president of the Dynamo Moscow soccer club who once trained in judo alongside Vladimir Putin. Rotenberg has been on US and EU sanctions lists since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, so he's transferred assets into his son's name, said Foxall. His son owns a £3.3 million ($4.8 million) Knightsbridge house through a company based in Cyprus.

The organizers have another tour planned for New York in April. Borisovich said they'd like to extend it to Miami, Beverly Hills, the Cote d'Azur, and "everywhere else where the issue manifests itself." 

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He said they tried to keep the preparation for the event "under wraps" but have only used public sources of information and said they're happy to collaborate with anti-corruption organizations worldwide.

"There needs to be legislative change to stop anonymous ownership of properties. Not to stop it going forward but to require all the corporations that own any assets — including real estate in the UK — to go through the same procedure as anybody else does. Declare the directors, the shareholders, and the beneficial owners.

Chido Dunn, money-laundering investigator with Global Witness, who spoke about how the owner of a £9.3 million ($13.52 million) property in Hampstead is linked to former Kazakh secret police chief Rakhat Aliyev, who was discovered hanged in an Austrian prison in February 2015, where he was awaiting trial for the murder of two bankers. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

One passenger on the tour was Robert Barrington, executive director of NGO Transparency International UK. He told VICE News: "The so-called investment of corrupt capital into UK property is a scandal in plain view, and the kleptocracy tour is a great way to highlight what is staring us all in the face.

"It is an insult to any notion of a society based on the rule of law, an insult to the people of London who are priced out of the property market and above all an insult to the citizens of the countries from which this wealth has been stolen."

Research published by Transparency International last year showed that more than 36,000 London properties are owned by secret offshore companies.

A UK government-led anti-corruption summit is scheduled in London for later this year.

Roman Borisovich, the anti-corruption activist who acted as compere of the tour. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd