The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

precriminals.jpegUnder legislation currently tabled in the Russian parliament, these up-and-coming Russian businesswomen could do hard time in a penal colony for the wholly fanciful crime of “complying” with western sanctions against target businesses and individuals. Image courtesy of Credit Bank of Moscow

Sanctions Victims Refuse the Russian State’s Protection
Big Business Categorically Rejects Adopting Law on Anti-Sanctions
Yelizaveta Bazanova, Anna Kholyavko and Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
May 16, 2018

“An absolute nightmare”: that was the phrase used by the majority of lawyers and executives of Russian and foreign companies whom we asked to comment on plans to imprison people who “implemented” foreign sanctions. On Monday, a law bill to this effect, tabled by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, and leaders of all four parliamentary factions was passed in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for Thursday.

Under the law bill, if a company refuses to sign a public contract with an entity on the sanctions list, the company and its executives would be threatened with a maximum fine of ₽600,000 [approx. €8,200] and a maximum prison term of four years.

The board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) has decided passage of the law would be completely unacceptable. Companies would find themselves between the frying pan and the fire: violations of sanctions would threaten them with secondary sanctions, while complying with sanctions would make them criminally prosecutable in Russia.

The RSPP’s resolution was supported even by board members who had themselves been sanctioned.

“We believe it would cause further damage to the Russian economy, including business with foreign and Russian companies, and both Comrade Vekselberg [Renova Group Chair Viktor Vekselberg] and I voted for the resolution,” Interfax has quoted VTB Bank president Andrei Kostin as saying.

A spokesperson for Vekselberg did not respond to our questions. We were also unable to contact a spokesperson for Oleg Deripaska, another target of western sanctions, yesterday evening.

If passed, the law would be unlikely to have a considerable impact on how businesses operate, but it could be a means of threatening and pressuring them, the entrepreneurs we surveyed said unanimously. The wording of the law bill is harsh. Nearly anyone could be prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretexts, complained an executive at a transnational food producer.

The key risk is the absence of clear criteria for defining what would constitute a violation of the proposed law, our sources all agreed. Even the Russian Finance Ministry could be prosecuted. In its Eurobonds prospectus, it pledged not to use the funds raised to support entities targeted by western sanctions. In January, Alfa Bank warned Russian defense companies it would not handle their accounts due to sanctions. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry and Alfa Bank did not respond to our inquiries.

The Kremlin has also been unhappy with the law bill, said a federal official close to the presidential administration.

The law bill, if passed, would also generate risks for those companies who refuse to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, said Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. These include the state banks Sberbank and VTB, as well as mobile telecom operators. Andrei Isayev, deputy head of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, claimed  companies who do not open branches in Crimea would not be affected by the law. What was at stake, he said, were the ordinary deals and transactions companies perform almost automatically. However, refusal to do business with counterparts in Crimea could be considered a criminal offense under the terms of the law, said an attorney at a major international law firm. The law could complicate public offerings, the issuing of loans, and contracts and transactions, he specified.

An employee at a major international firm explained it would be hard to determine whether a company refused a deal with a counterpart due to their bad reputation or the threat of sanctions. An auto dealer agreed the threat of criminal prosecution would be powerful leverage. To encourage its partners to agree to a deal, a business could threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies, argued Panich.

The proposed measures were excessive, agreed a spokesperson for an agricultural commodities trader. Some companies have in-house rules restricting such deals. Our source said the law bill appeared to be means of coercing such companies. Theoretically, it could be used as leverage. A company or person on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN) could show up and demand another company do business with them, agreed the head of major private bank. It was difficult to imagine how banks would solve such dilemmas, he said.

“There are many ambiguities in how the law would be interpreted, and what specific actions or inactions would be punishable,” he concluded.

Foreign businesses could interpret the law bill as a signal it was time to wrap up their operations in Russia, said the vice-president of a major foreign company that produces popular consumer products. No one has any intention of sacrificing their top executives to the Russian law enforcement and judicial system.

All issuers of bonds include in their covenants the refusal to do business with entities targeted by sanctions. Perhaps expatriates who do not want to take risks would leave the country, argued an employee at a large foreign company.

Passing the bill into law would be a mistake, said political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. The law would have to be seriously amended over time.

“Knowing how this could affect both Russian companies and foreign business operating in Russia, this is very risky decision in my opinion,” Minchenko told us.

Spokespeople for Sberbank and Credit Bank of Moscow declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Vladimir Shtanov, Darya Borisyak, Alexandra Astapenko, and Svetlana Bocharova

Translated by the Russian Reader

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