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giant hide-and-seek game between the oligarchs and the European authorities

The images of the mega yachts immobilized in La Ciotat, in the ports of Hamburg or Barcelona and on the Italian coasts, are looping on social networks. Like so many symbols of the hunt for the assets of Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, launched by Europe and the United States, since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24. However, the work of the authorities to identify all the property (bank accounts, villas, yachts, private jets, etc.) held by the 877 businessmen and politicians targeted by the European Union (EU) sanctions, in order to to freeze them and drain the resources of their owners, is only in its infancy.

Above all, the task promises to be difficult, because many pitfalls stand in the way of the oligarchs: shell companies created in tax havens, opaque financial arrangements, fictitious beneficiaries listed in the commercial registers… Battalions of lawyers were recruited, to cut the link, or to blur it, between these billionaires, who owe their fortune to the privatization of whole sections of the economy during the dismantling of the USSR, and their goods. But the European states know it: the investments of the Russian oligarchs in Europe are colossal. They are counted in tens of billions of euros.

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It is in this context that a group of journalists led by the investigative consortium Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the British daily The Guardian, which have joined The world and 22 other international media, undertook to investigate the assets of these oligarchs, a very large part of which is held outside Russia. The result of this census is published in a search engine accessible to the public, called Russian Asset Tracker (Russian Asset Tracker). It is a question of knowing which countries in Europe, America or elsewhere are home to the wealth of those close to Vladimir Putin – those who have so far contributed to keeping him in power, politically or financially.

The project having been launched a few days before the invasion of Ukraine, the investigations have so far focused on a list of 35 relatives of the Kremlin drawn up in 2021 by the political opponent and Russian activist Alexei Navalny – some have, since been placed under Western sanctions; some don’t. This Russian Asset Tracker, which will be enriched over time by the OCCRP, offers a first, unprecedented audit of the fortune “offshore” of these billionaires.

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