Londongrad: Putin’s Easy Access To The Tories

Photograph Source: – CC BY 4.0

As the media-saturated hubbub over Ukraine drags on, the avid but illegal party-goer–“Covid lockdown rules be damned”–Boris “BoJo” Johnson has been trying to save his job by sounding combative towards Russia (among other things).

Alas for the charlatan BoJo, Vladimir Putin must be taking this in with a cynical smile.

The UK has been running a “Golden Visa” scheme for wealthy foreign investors since 2008. The programme was launched by the Labour government to raise investment after the global financial crisis. A £2m/$2.7m investment in active and trading UK registered companies (and having a UK bank account) allowed an application within 5 years, decreasing to 3 years with £5m/$6.8m, or to 2 years with £10m/$13.6m.

Last week the Golden Visa route was shut down to all new applicants from all nationalities with “immediate effect” the Home Office/interior ministry said. The Home Office said the decision was made because some cases had “given rise to security concerns, including people acquiring their wealth illegitimately and being associated with wider corruption”.

The scheme had been under review because it is widely accepted that background checks on applicants aren’t rigorous enough.

The review was carried out into all visas granted between 2008 and April 5 2015, though its findings are yet to be published.

The PA news agency conducted an analysis of Home Office data and found that a total of 13,213 such visas were issued since the third quarter of 2008, with 564 issued between January and September 2021.

Since this period in 2008, 2,581 visas have been issued to Russians, with 55 in the same 9 months in 2021. In that time 4,247 were handed-out to Chinese nationals, 141 of which were issued last year.

The Golden Visa scheme will be replaced by the so-called the innovator visa, designed to be a part of the new points-based immigration system which the Home Office says will provide an “ambitious investment route which works more effectively in support of the UK’s economy”. The Home Office added: “Settlement will now be conditional on applicants executing an investment strategy that can show genuine job creation and other tangible economic impacts, passively holding UK investments will no longer be enough to obtain settlement”. We shall see– this kind of boilerplate lingo is to be expected from bureaucracies, but the proposed new visa will be just as open to abuse as its predecessor if scrutiny of innovator visa applicants is equally slipshod.

The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, which at that time included the current Home Secretary Priti Patel as a member, produced in 2018 a report titled “Moscow’s Gold” that accused ministers of risking national security by “turning a blind eye” to Kremlin oligarchs who were illegally laundering money through the UK and its overseas territories. It alleged that allies of Vladimir Putin were using London as a base for their “corrupt assets”.

The committee demanded the government show stronger political leadership and take action to close loopholes in the programme.

BoJo, who was foreign secretary at that time, fobbed off the committee’s concerns, by informing the committee during its evidence-gathering phase that “there was no real role for Government in this process”, according to the report.

The anti-corruption group Global Witness had previously accused the UK of turning away those most in need of asylum but rolling out the red carpet for oligarchs.

Figures just obtained by The Observer newspaper show nearly 30,000 properties in England and Wales, including mansions owned by the Russian elite, are registered to companies and individuals based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a recognized offshore money-laundering territory. Most of the owners are undisclosed after repeated postponements of a government pledge to end secret offshore ownership of property.

Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, estimates that 150 properties, mostly luxury mansions in Britain valued at an estimated £1.5bn, are owned by Kremlin-linked Russians.

Roman Borisovich, a dissident and anti-corruption campaigner, runs “kleptocracy tours” featuring Russian oligarch-owned properties in London. He told The Guardian he’ll restart his tours this spring, when pandemic restrictions are lifted. This time, he says: “I would like to extend an invitation to MPs from the Foreign Affairs Committee”.

The sudden Home Office announcement of the scrapping of the Golden Visa scheme may indeed have been precipitated by the Foreign Affairs Committee’s decision to reexamine the influence of Russian oligarchs’ money being laundered through the City of London — and why the government was doing almost nothing to address a problem that has existed for more than a decade.

The committee’s chair, the Tory Tom Tugendhat, announced last month that his committee would reconvene on this issue.

Tugendhat, from a well-known military and legal family, served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and can barely conceal his loathing for the ill-disciplined and sexually profligate BoJo. Tugendhat savaged BoJo in parliament over the recent botched withdrawal from Kabul, and said he would consider running for the prime ministership if BoJo stood down.

Tugendhat said that “turning a blind eye to London’s role in hiding the proceeds of Kremlin-connected corruption risks signaling that the UK is not serious about confronting the full spectrum of President Putin’s offensive measures. We have again to address the issue of the dirty money in the UK”, he told The Guardian. “We will be looking more at where this money is going. We will be highlighting the overseas territories”.

Unfortunately for Tugendhat and his committee, shutting the door on Putin’s cronies has come too late— a fair number have already walked through what was an open door, and more than that, are now big donors to the Tory party and have easy access to BoJo.

According to a Guardian report in November 2021, “donors who have made money from Russia or Russians have given £1.93m/$2.62m to either the Conservative party or individual constituency associations since Boris Johnson took power in July 2019, according to calculations made by Labour based on disclosures to the Electoral Commission.

Their ranks include the financier Lubov Chernukhin, the industrialist Alexander Temerko and an energy company he part-owns, Aquind, plus the businessman Mohamed Amersi.

They have donated £700,000, £357,000 and £258,000 respectively, either directly or through linked companies, since Johnson became prime minister, a total of £1.3m/$1.8m. Other donors with business interests in Russia take the total to £1.93m”.

It is no wonder that then foreign secretary “Sasha” was immensely relaxed about the loopholes in the Golden Visa scheme.

“Sasha” is the Russian diminutive of “Alexander”, BoJo’s first name which is used by those who know him fairly well— “Boris” is his second name, and is basically used for PR purposes.

Sasha has a known fondness for the lavish parties thrown by his Kremlin oligarch pals, and some critics wonder how he managed to get the top level of security clearance needed for the prime minister’s job. Not just for his close ties with Kremlin oligarchs, but also the possibility of blackmail posed by his long record of sexual incontinence, and his seeming willingness to accept “donations”, not just from well-to-do Russian individuals, but also from all and sundry willing to part with their cash.

Given BoJo’s willingness to accept largesse from wealthy and well-connected Kremlin figures, it can hardly be doubted that Putin is similarly relaxed about Sasha’s farcical theatrics over Ukraine (“Moscow plans biggest war since 1945” is his most recent pronouncement).

It should be stressed that the issues coming under the heading of “Londongrad” long predate the current western-orchestrated phoney war over Ukraine.

Probably less relaxed will be the Biden administration—a report last week by the American Center for Progress, a think tank with close links to the Biden administration, said the UK had become a “major hub for Russian oligarchs and their wealth, with London gaining the moniker ‘Londongrad’”.

In the meantime, Sasha’s problems over the Partygate Covid lockdown scandal will return in a matter of days.

On Friday, as part of its criminal investigation into Partygate, Sasha returned to the Metropolitan police his legally-binding questionnaire regarding the Downing Street parties.

In the anodyne terminology of police-speak: “This matter continues to be under investigation. The public will be informed of further developments”.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.