Cyprus Crisis is a Tale of Two Putins

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The financial crisis in Cyprus has put Putin in a bind. On the one hand, sitting silent and allowing Russian depositors take up to a 10 percent haircut on its $31 billion in Cypriot banks jeopardizes Putin’s standing with the Russian elite. On the other, if Putin is serious about anti-corruption and de-offshorization, the crisis gives him opportunity to make some modest headway. Either way, the Russian government’s hesitance in striking a deal with Cyprus reflects the schizophrenia between Putin the populist patriot and Putin the guarantor of the class interests of the Russian bourgeoisie.

The European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund have inadvertently accomplished a remarkable feat: prompting the normally disharmonious Russian bourgeoisie to suddenly sing in tune. Note some of the reactions from Russia’s bourgeois quarters. Putin furiously denounced the Troika’s plan as “unfair, unprofessional and dangerous.” Medvedev took the defense of the Russian bourgeoisie even further by red-baiting the EU with comparisons to Bolshevik expropriations. Oligarch and faux-oppositionist Mikhail Prokhorov warned the tax on Cypriot depositors could open “Pandora’s box.” Similar to Medvedev, neoliberal champion and effervescent Putin hater, Yulia Latynina blasted the EU’s “confiscation” as indicative of socialism. The crisis even has the Moscow Times running uncharacteristic op-eds imploring Putin to stand up for Russian capital against EU “bullying.” Even Andreas Aslund, who is ever dour on Putin’s Russia, believes that in this instance Putin “is undoubtedly getting strong advice to act from wealthy, smart, and daring Russian businessmen.”

The great irony in all this is that we find the Russian elite, which normally has no problem cannibalizing each other’s assets at home, defending in Cyprus what they are unwilling or unable to institute in Russia: a working legal system that protects capital from predation. With Cyprus the Russian elite gets its cake and eats it too: capital extraction at home and a safe harbor for its storage in its safe Cypriot colony.

How did Cyprus become so important to Russian capital? As Business Insider explains, all roads lead back to the Cypriot-Russian 1998 Double Tax Treaty:

The treaty stipulates that citizens of either country will not be doubly taxed on income or capital gains. Russia has a 20% corporate tax rate (capital gains are the same), Cyprus’ is 10%.

Additionally, according to Bloomberg Russia billionaire reporter Rich Lesser, there is no penalty for moving money out of Cyprus, so if you want to move your money to another tax shelter, say, The British Virgin Islands, you’re free to do that.

So some oligarchs do.

How does this work? According to the Christian Science Monitor‘s Fred Weir:

“For quite a long time, Cyprus has been the major offshore zone where Russian corporate earnings are banked, and then re-invested in Russia,” says Grigory Birg, co-director of research at the independent Investcafe equity research provider in Moscow.

It works like this: Russian companies and wealthy oligarchs set up shell companies in Cyprus, which then invest in Russian operations and “repatriate” their profits to Cyprus, where they pay a flat corporate tax of 10 percent compared to more than 20 percent in Russia. Since Cyprus adopted EU banking rules in 2004, experts say, the scrutiny has become a little tougher, but not enough to discourage most rich Russians.

According to Russian central bank figures, little Cyprus invested almost $14-billion in Russia in 2011, compared with barely $2.3-billion invested by Russia’s biggest European trading partner, Germany.

“Cyprus is really convenient place for Russians, because it’s in the EU, has a low tax rate, and has adapted itself to Russian customers. It offers infrastructure, proximity, and Russian-speaking staff. It’s about capital protection … but now, no matter what happens with this tax plan, that’s bound to change,” says Mr. Birg.

Basically, Cyprus is for Russians as Caribbean tax shelters are for American oligarchs: a means to squirrel money away from the prying eyes of government auditors and tax collectors.

At the same time, Putin’s allegiance to the Russian elite puts him at odds with his de-offshorization efforts. Again Weir:

“Russian authorities have long pursued a campaign of “de-offshorization,” declaring that this practice of cycling money through other countries is bad for Russia,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

“In practice, it has usually meant that money just gets shunted from one offshore destination to another…

The crisis certainly presents Putin with an opportunity to fight corruption, as Stefan Wagstyl of the Financial Times notes. Indeed, Russia’s first intervention into the crisis suggests that anti-corruption and de-offshorization is on Putin’s mind. Ten days ago, Kommersant reported that the Ministry of Finance considered giving Cyprus aid in exchange of the names of its Russian depositors. The hope is that even modestly depriving Cyprus as a Russian tax haven will stave off the capital outflow from Russia. Capital flight from Russia is already around $14 to $16 billion so far this year, exceeding Central Bank estimates of $10 billion for the entire year. Medvedev even floated the idea of creating an offshore zone in the Far East. The money would still be under a tax haven but in Russia where the government would know who’s depositing, how much, and ostensibly where the money came from. This would undoubtedly give Putin some leverage in keeping the increasingly fractured elite in line. However, given that a main reason Russians park their money abroad is to avoid government raiderstvo, I seriously doubt a Sakhalin tax haven will be much of a draw.

The Cyprus crisis has pitted Putin against himself. It opposes Putin the patriot against Putin the guarantor of Russian elite; Russian national interests versus Russian class interests. I can only speculate how this internal struggle has played in the recent ebbing of Russian-Cypriot negotiations.