Putin aims to soften Duma bill on preventing wealth going abroad

Reuters News

2/12/2013 10:55:48 AM - Reuters News

By Katya Golubkova and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin has submitted a bill to Russia's parliament aimed at preventing officials stashing illicit wealth abroad, seeking to make good on a pledge to crack down on corruption and stem capital flight.

But the text, published on Tuesday, is weaker than one already proposed by the State Duma, the lower house, which unlike Putin's bill would not allow apparatchiks to own property abroad or to open foreign bank accounts.

In his first annual address to the nation since returning to the Kremlin for a third presidential term, Putin called in December for "a whole system of measures to 'de-offshore' our economy".

The legislative initiative seeks to take the wind out of the sails of election protesters who rallied around slogans denouncing "swindlers and thieves" around Putin as he campaigned for the presidential election last March.

Russia has suffered annual net capital outflows of around $80 billion in recent years, much of which has been driven by officials shifting money abroad, say anti-corruption activists.

Russia ranks 133rd, alongside Honduras and Guyana, out of 174 states in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perception Index. It is under international scrutiny as it chairs the Group of 20 nations this year and has pledged to push forward the economic forum's anti-corruption agenda.

The bills are intended to apply to senior state and regional officials, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, executives at state-owned companies and members of the central bank board.

THE PRICE OF LOYALTY

But Putin's draft stops short of stringent measures that could alienate the loyalists whom he relies on to uphold the 'vertical' power structure he has built up since first rising to Russia's highest office in 2000.

By allowing officials to open foreign accounts only through Russian banks, Putin's bill could benefit the state banks VTB and Sberbank, which have subsidiaries in several European countries.

Sberbank's head German Gref has lobbied for easier rules.

"This is a kind of a loophole that would make it possible to finance real estate investments abroad but under tighter control with better transparency," said Oleg Vyugin, a former Russian financial market regulator who now advises Morgan Stanley.

Putin's ruling party holds a secure majority over the chamber, but the fact that he has submitted his own version reflects Kremlin concern that the Duma version is too harsh.

Deputy Speaker Sergey Zheleznyak was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Putin's proposal, while allowing ownership of property abroad, would require this to be properly declared.

That, say lawmakers and bankers, could lead to a compromise being passed that would put the onus on declaring personal wealth without unduly affecting officials who lead increasingly international lifestyles.

If an official, their spouse or children who are minors violate the law, that official would lose his or her job, according to Putin's draft.

After the law enters force, affected officials would have three months to close overseas accounts at foreign-owned banks and sell their investments in foreign stocks and bonds.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said trusts would also be covered by the ban. Offshore trusts often make it possible to conceal the identity of an investment's beneficial owner.

(Reporting by Katya Golubkova and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Liffey)